Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia
Picador, 368pp, £20
A few years ago, I spent a week with a friend travelling through parts of north-eastern Poland that had once been Germany. Near Ketrzyn (formerly Rastenburg), we visited the ruins of Hitler's eastern stronghold - the so-called Wolf's Lair. A guide was pointing out to a party of German tourists the site of the situation room where Claus von Stauffenberg had made his failed assassination attempt in July 1944.
I was surprised to see that the commemorative plaque had not been erected until 1992, after the fall of Poland's communist government. We met more Germans on a boat journey across the Masurian lakes, elderly couples, nostalgic perhaps for the homes from which they had fled in 1945 or been expelled soon afterwards.
Memory, its suppression and manipulation, is a recurrent theme in this original book. Max Egremont devotes several pages to the gigantic but short-lived monument to Field Marshal von Hindenburg's victory over the Russians at Tannenberg in 1914. He makes a telling comparison with the memorial celebrating the Polish-Lithuanian defeat of the Teutonic Knights at nearby Grunwald some 500 years earlier. The Tannenberg memorial was unveiled in 1927 by Hindenburg himself, then president of Germany; it quickly became a focus and symbol of resurgent German nationalism - strong in East Prussia - after the "humiliation" of Versailles. The Nazis exploited it further, most spectacularly at Hindenburg's own funeral inside the walls of the fortress-like structure in 1934. Choreographed by Albert Speer, the ceremony reached a climax with a eulogy from Hitler ending in the words, "Go hence to Valhalla." Ten years later, the Tannenberg memorial was used for the last time for the funerals of two generals killed by Stauffenberg's bomb. Today it is a ruin, its stone and granite having been stripped and reused to help build the new Communist Party headquarters in Warsaw.
The Grunwald monument was erected in 1960 by the communists. It is visited now mostly by Polish school groups learning about their country's history. However, a German historian tells Egremont that "you can't think of [Grunwald] as a national victory or defeat. There were knights on both sides from all over Europe."
Similarly, the great Junker families of Dohna, Lehndorff and Dönhoff, the author tells us, had "served not only the dukes and kings of Prussia and the emperors of Germany but the kings of Poland as well". The fate of these interrelated aristocratic families, with their grand houses, art treasures and hunting estates, makes for colourful and sometimes tragic reading. In the 1930s, Alexander von Dohna joined the Nazis as a protection against what he perceived to be the Bolshevik threat from the east. In contrast, Heinrich von Lehndorff was hanged for his role in the July plot against Hitler; Marion von Dönhoff escaped from the Red Army and joined the launch staff of the liberal weekly Die Zeit after the war, becoming one of the most respected political journalists in West Germany.
Egremont is moved by the experiences of non-aristocratic Germans, too, but is careful not to overplay their suffering. Nothing can equal his account of one of the last Nazi atrocities of the war, in January 1945, when 7,000 starving Jewish prisoners on a death march from Königsberg - the capital of East Prussia - were driven into the frozen Baltic and shot or drowned by SS guards. For years afterwards, whenever corpses were washed up, they were said to be of Russian soldiers killed by the Germans. A memorial to these "Soviet heroes" was erected. It wasn't until 2000 that the distortions of the past were corrected and a memorial stone to the real victims of the massacre replaced the Soviet one on the seashore.
Egremont has written a book that tries to make sense of this history - not as a single, chronological narrative, but as a sequence of short, interconnected essays in which measured reflections, portraits of the leading political and cultural figures, and conversations with exiles from this "forgotten land" are interwoven. Egremont's allusive prose style seems to echo these multiple perspectives: changing frontiers, blurred racial identities, shifting allegiances and the mass movement of peoples - a story for our time. l
Richard Calvocoressi is director of the Henry Moore Foundation