At the end of World War II, it seemed important to remove Prussia from the larger German nation. Prussia had for some time had the reputation of fueling Germany’s bloodthirstiness, from its aristocratic Junkers to its slightly scary looking soldiers.
Read the last Bookslut on Barbara Almond's take on motherhood in 'The Monster Within.'
The land was divided up between the Soviet Union and Poland, and thousands of Germans, some of whom had roots going back centuries and others who were settled during the rise of the Third Reich, found themselves displaced and homeless.
But East Prussia had always been a place of shifting boundaries and cycles of the conquerors and the conquered. The Balts living on the land in the 13th century were taken over by the Teutonic Knights (“snobbish and aristocratic virgins almost to a man” as described by Hywel Williams in his review of Max Egremont’s book in the Spectator), and then came the German dominance, and through the centuries various ethnic groups and leaders wandered in and out of the territory.
Now East Prussia has once again seen its definitions change, as the USSR crumbled and post-war communist Poland turned democratic. What was once a vibrant land—maybe a little too vibrant, in its early embrace of Adolf Hitler—is now mostly forgotten for the good it has contributed to the world.
Novelist and historian Egremont marries personal travel writing and historical research in his Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia. He takes us from a modern Poland and former communist cities trying to regain their status back through centuries of migration and domination. He does so with an ease with the mountains of information and a playfulness that makes him a charming tour guide. Egremont answered a few questions about his travels through what was once East Prussia.
There are many lands in Europe that used to be part of one nation that have been shifted over to another. What made you zero in on East Prussia as your subject?
I think East Prussia, and particularly its capital city Königsberg, had special significance as Germany’s most eastern outpost, conquered for Christianity and “civilisation” by the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century, and a semi-colonial territory, with a mixed population of Poles, Lithuanians and Germans. What intrigued me was the contrast between this notion of civilization—of being on the boundaries of Europe—and the terrible 20th-century events there, particularly during the last war: how these rocked East Prussian ideas of themselves and the way they coped with this then and later in memories of their old homeland.
I also wanted to look at the pressures on often decent people of defeat and humiliation, after 1918 and after 1945. The transfer after 1945 of western East Prussia from Germany to Poland was not such a great change because Poles had lived there for centuries, alongside the Prussians and Germans. But what happened in Königsberg/Kaliningrad was unique. It was the Soviet Union’s only outright gain from defeated Germany in 1945 and, as such, had immense symbolic importance.
How real was the fear that it was a Prussian bloodthirstiness or warmongering nature that caused WWI and WWII? You mention that this was part of the consideration in splitting Prussia from Germany, but was it a widely held belief?
Prussia was seen as the cradle of German militarism, as in caricatures of spiked-helmeted, goose-stepping soldiers. It did owe its rise and its eventual domination of the new Germany Empire [created in 1871] to the victories over the Austrians and the French under Bismarck and, earlier, to Frederick the Great—although Frederick’s opportunistic aggression was no worse than that of Louis XIV or Napoleon. The Prussian army certainly was very large in proportion to Prussia’s population. In pre-1914 Imperial Germany, the army had obvious presence and influence. Foreign visitors to Berlin noticed how the streets were full of men in uniform.
I wanted to talk a little about what happened to the Germans living in these lands after WWII... Some were killed, many were relocated back to a Germany that was very short on housing and food. How would you characterize the attitude current residents of Germany and of Poland have to what happened during that time right after the war?
Many Germans are interested in their former eastern provinces and are proud of the cultural and intellectual history of these [Kant and Herder]. Poles seem certain of their position there, however, especially now that they are in the EU. Putin’s Russia attaches great importance to Kaliningrad as its most western enclave; Mrs Putin grew up there. There is little or no sign of German wishes to get these lands back beyond comments made late at night under the influence of beer or Schnapps.
Forgotten Land is wonderfully populated: Kant, Kollwitz, Thomas Mann in a bathing suit and sock garters...For such an illustrious cast of characters who felt strongly about the place, as your title states, East Prussia is rather overlooked and forgotten. Do you think it's a land capable of recovering from its tumultuous past?
Helped by EU grants for farming and infrastructure, the Polish part is doing well although it is still one of the poorest regions of Poland. The Russians are determined to make Kaliningrad a success and they give tax advantages to people and businesses who settle there. Certainly Kaliningrad is much better and much richer now than when I first went there in 1991, after the collapse of the old Soviet Union.
You quote Lorenz Grimoni in a section about Germany's monstrousness. "Terrible things happen to countries—yet most of them can be proud of much of their past; here such pride skulks in secret, as if within a forbidden sect." This is too large a question to ask in a short Q&A, but do you agree that Germany's penance has perhaps been overpaid, particularly when looking at countries—::coughAUSTRIAcough::—that largely ignore what happened during WWII?
I think the monstrousness of the German murder of the Jews and the terrible cruelty in occupied central and eastern Europe can’t be emphasized too much. But Germany today is a well-governed, prosperous, liberal, decent place—very much following what the victorious Allies set up for it after 1945.
Austria managed to get an image of itself as a victim of German aggression—but anyone who knows anything about what actually happened cannot possibly accept this. So Austrians have to live with the guilt as well, even if it’s not so obvious.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.