A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II, and the Heart of the Century
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Part history, part memoir, this unconventional account of the fate of the Baltic nations is also an important reassessment of WWII and its outcome.

Acclaimed for his study of WWI (Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, 1989), Eksteins, a professor of history at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, here combines his role of historian with that of autobiographer, rapidly shifting among events before, during, and after WWII. First he provides the drama of his family history (clearly presented, with a literary sensibility, though at times overwritten); the pivotal character is Eksteins’s maternal great-grandmother Grieta. The tale of this Latvian chambermaid, made pregnant and then rejected by her Baltic-German baron, serves as a mirror of Latvian-German relations over the centuries. In addition, the family history opens up the subject of displacement, with a heavy focus on the fate of DPs in the postwar years and the struggle and hope of the immigrant experience. A history of the Baltic nations is squeezed in as well, with special emphasis on these nations” vulnerable position between Germany and Russia, with an eye to WWII. Finally, at the book’s core is a serious questioning of our culture’s attitudes about the outcome of the war. Eksteins argues that, in a postmodern age, we must write history that doesn't dictate but provokes us with “layers of suggestion.” In the post—Cold War era, he contends, we must face the realities of the war and the fact that 1945 “is not our victory, as we often like to think; 1945 is our problem.” Given this statement, Eksteins’s treatment of the Holocaust will be closely scrutinized. The author goes about things in his own way: while the Jews are noticeably absent from his examination of the Baltic communities, he gives the Baltic Jewish situation separate and bold attention; Eksteins discusses the “willing executioners” among Hitler’s conquered subjects.

A multifaceted study of the Baltics and WWII, provocative and ambitious, that evokes the enormity of the loss and destruction caused by the war.

Pub Date: June 10th, 1999
ISBN: 0-395-93747-7
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1999


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