After Seven Hundred Years
- Forgotten Land: Journeys among the Ghosts of East Prussia by Max Egremont
Picador, 356 pp, £9.99, April 2012, ISBN 978 0 330 45660 9
As the Soviet tanks drew closer, the East Prussian aristocracy took charge of ‘their people’ for the last time. In the bitter winter of 1945, ignoring Nazi orders to stand firm, they mustered their tenantry, farmhands and servants, and in long columns of horse-drawn wagons set off for the west. Many didn’t get there. The country roads were jammed with retreating soldiers, wounded stragglers and thousands of civilian families, as eastern Germany melted, crumbled and took flight. Marion Dönhoff, mistress of the great country house of Friedrichstein and the estate of Quittainen, mounted her white horse at the head of the procession of carts and led them towards the Vistula river. But long before they reached the crossing, the column slowed to a halt, the wagons slithering on ice, the road ahead blocked by hordes of other refugees and by German tanks thrusting vehicles into the ditches. In two hours, they did not move an inch forward. The estate people begged her to go on alone. The Russians would certainly kill her, as a landowner. But they would need farm labourers to milk the cows and muck out the byres. They would be safer if they returned home.
They were terribly wrong about that. But the young countess believed them, and rode on alone until she reached the railway bridge over the river Nogat, the old East Prussian border. It was three in the morning, in fierce frost. In front of her, three wounded German soldiers supported each other as they hobbled across the bridge. ‘For me,’ she wrote,
this was the end of East Prussia. Three mortally sick soldiers dragging themselves across the Nogat river into West Prussia. And one woman on horseback, whose ancestors had crossed this river from west to east seven hundred years before into the great wilderness on the other side, and who was now retreating to the west again. Seven hundred years of history extinguished.
Dönhoff crossed the bridge and rode on, through a country disintegrating in flame and slaughter, and two months later reached cousins in Westphalia. She had set off in deep winter; when she finally dismounted, it was spring. ‘The birds were singing. Dust rose behind the seed drills as they worked over the dry fields. Everything was preparing for a new beginning. Could life really go on, as if nothing had happened?’
This book is, in large part, about people who at different times pretended that nothing had happened. About the men and women who had persuaded themselves that Hitler’s Germany was a place where the Prussian virtues of fairness and self-restraint could still flourish, and who discovered their mistake too late. About the exiles for whom the East Prussia they lost but still see in dreams continues to exist on a plane beyond reality. But it is also about what did happen in this beautiful, brutally contested and colonised corner of Europe. Max Egremont, a graceful and practised writer, has taken pains to learn its complicated history; he has driven and tramped back and forth across the territory, now divided between three independent nation-states, and he has listened sympathetically to those who live there now and those – growing older and fewer – who lived there when Ostpreussen was German. He’s modest, aware that a modern Brit cannot easily grasp what it means to live among changeable frontiers, but open about his own feelings. On the trams in Kaliningrad, ‘over-burdened people make you feel ashamed to be rich and happy.’
As Germans like to complain, Prussia was the only state abolished by the victors after the Second World War. Brandenburg was dissolved into the German Democratic Republic; West Prussia became Polish; East Prussia was partitioned between Poland and the Soviet Union, which annexed the coastal region around the capital, Königsberg (renamed Kaliningrad). Churchill, whose ideas about Germany were at best late Victorian, was convinced that Hitler’s Third Reich was merely a resurgence of Prussian martial imperialism, blamed by his generation for every European conflict since 1860. His loyal fan Bob Boothby went a bit further: East Prussia, he claimed, was ‘the focal point of the infection of Prussian militarism’. He added that the forcible expulsion of the whole German population was ‘rough but, by God they deserve it!’
That was Churchill’s opinion too. Some 12 million ethnic Germans fled or were driven out of east and central Europe at the end of the Second World War, with Churchill’s enthusiastic approval and British participation (Operation Swallow). This gigantic act of ethnic cleansing, as we would now call it, was euphemised as ‘population transfer’, on the model of the huge expulsions of Greeks from Turkey and vice versa in 1922. For nationalist politicians of Churchill’s vintage, ethnic minorities were a threat to the stability of a state. He had a bad conscience about abandoning Poland to Soviet control at Yalta. Now, by helping Stalin to create a ‘racially homogeneous’ Poland with no Germans, Ukrainians or Belorussians (the Jews having already been eliminated by the Nazis), he thought he was doing the Poles a historic favour.
Prussia, as it existed up to 1945, had come into being as a colonial territory: in the wide perspective, it was one item in the gradual German colonisation of east and central Europe which began in the Middle Ages. East Prussia was inhabited by the pagan Prusy, who spoke a Baltic language, until the Teutonic Knights invaded and crushed them in the 13th century. But the colonists who followed the Knights were not just Germans: in the 16th century, Prussia formed part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and when the German-ruled Kingdom of Prussia emerged in 1701, many of its subjects were Slavs. Fused with Brandenburg to the west, Prussia became the core of the new, assertive Germany which proclaimed itself a unified empire in 1871.
It was in this period, Egremont writes, that East Prussian society, and especially its ruling class, began to deteriorate. In previous centuries, it had shared some of the religious and ethnic tolerance of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Poor as it was, and remote from the centres of German wealth and culture, Königsberg had produced Immanuel Kant, while Herder was born at Mohrungen and Copernicus had worked in his tower at Frauenburg. But in the 19th century the open, largely Protestant culture was infected by paranoia. As Egremont puts it, in the newly united Germany, East Prussia ‘became increasingly fearful and reactionary – against threats real and imagined, in the form of the Poles, the Bolsheviks or economic decay on the edge of the new Reich’.
By the time of the First World War, Prussian landowners – the Junker squirearchy and the great magnate dynasties of East Prussia – had become the butt of jokes and liberal mockery in the rest of Germany. Their arrogance, their obsession with soldiering and hunting, their ceaseless clamour for agricultural subsidies, were proverbial. Some of this was quite fair. Egremont’s sketch of Elard von Oldenburg-Januschau, the loudest voice of feudal East Prussia until the 1930s, describes a large, bluff figure who ‘loathed democracy’. It was Januschau, himself a Reichstag deputy, who said that the kaiser should be able to disband the Reichstag with a lieutenant and ten soldiers, and who called for preventive war against France. He thought that the British were far too soft with the Irish, whose impertinent claims should be smashed with the ruthlessness Prussia showed its Polish minority. Other grandees, like Carol Lehndorff at Steinort, fell into eccentricity: he neglected his estate and spent much time in bed fiddling with his coin collection.
The East Prussians were unmistakeably an ‘outpost people’, one of those martial societies on the fringes of a nation who regard themselves as the last upholders of its ancient virtues – all too aware that those virtues are being abandoned by those they are defending. Humanity has suffered a lot from the delusions of outpost people, whether Russian Cossacks, Ulster Unionists, Algérie française extremists or white settlers in Rhodesia. The myth that the Grenzdeutscher, the outpost Germans, incarnated true Germanity as no degenerate Berliner or Rhinelander could, still grips the imagination of elderly East Prussian exiles.
But in between the anti-Junker satire and the uncritical cult of the outpost German, there is a third opinion on that East Prussian class. This was largely created by Marion Dönhoff herself. As a journalist and editor in postwar West Germany, she used her moral authority to stand up against the expellee lobby, numbering many millions, and repeat that the lost lands – Silesia, Pomerania, Sudetenland, West and East Prussia – were gone for ever and that their loss, however agonising for the exiles, had to be accepted with humility and dignity in the cause of peace. At the same time the countess held an almost sanctifying view of the East Prussian aristocracy of her time. The three senior magnate clans, all inter-related across several centuries, were the Dohnas, the Lehndorffs and the Dönhoffs. In her many books, especially the bestselling Namen die keiner mehr nennt (Names Uttered No More), she portrayed an austere, paternalist but just society, semi-feudal and yet contented. Its great families were virtuous in the old Prussian way: they lived thriftily in their magnificent country palaces, patriotic and often pious, loyal above all to their own high standards of decency and humanity.
Many of Dönhoff’s friends and relations were involved in the July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler, and several were executed for it. Others fought on the Eastern Front and witnessed terrible atrocities. But was the sacrificial decision to resist the Nazi regime really only a matter of moral uprightness and ‘Prussian conscience’? Egremont got to know the countess, who died in 2002, and in this book he examines the lives of several members of her class, including Alexander Dohna and Hans von Lehndorff. The prewar East Prussian elite found Hitler unimpressive: jolly Hermann Goering, who loved hunting and stag-shooting on his enormous estate at Rominten, was much more to their taste. But many were drawn to the Nazi regime by its appeal to anti-Russian patriotism, by its promise to overthrow the Versailles frontiers and, not least, by its generous support for farming. When some of the great families turned against it, they did so as much out of fear of their country’s imminent destruction as out of respect for Kantian moral law.
I also knew Marion Dönhoff, who took me under her wing as a young journalist trying to understand Germany. I liked and respected her, but Egremont is not wrong to see her as an authoritarian liberal or to find her version of Prussian history at times unconvincing. She admired the founders of Prussia, who created what she claimed to be a state responsive to its citizens. But was she justified in linking Stein and Hardenberg, those Prussian reformers of the Enlightenment, to the July plotters? Egremont quotes her with an edge of scepticism. ‘Weren’t many of them descended from the great Prussians of the past? In a Shakespearean lament, she lists the names: Moltke, Schwerin, Schulenburg, Lehndorff, Yorck.’ I don’t think she would ever have accepted that two Prussian values – respect for order and loyal obedience – turned out to be the undoing of her people when faced with a regime that so skilfully perverted every tradition to serve its purpose.
Egremont’s book has a clever, plaited structure, much of it consisting of fragments of significant East Prussian lives, each story resumed and taken a little further in successive sections of the book. Some of these characters were interviewed by Egremont; other lives have been reconstructed from memoirs or diaries. All passed through the experience of war and loss, but not always in East Prussia itself. He was right to bring in Käthe Kollwitz, the sculptor and graphic artist, who was born and brought up in Königsberg but was already living in Berlin when her son was killed in the first weeks of the First World War. The rest of her life was dominated by her attempt to make images showing the grief of a mother for her child, images which only gained in power over the century of mourning that followed. Egremont went to Flanders to see Grieving Parents, her sculpture at her son’s grave, and contrasts the leafy darkness of German war cemeteries to ‘the open, bright feel and planted blooms of the British ones’. He is particularly good on memorials and commemorations, giving long sections to the monstrous Tannenberg monument in East Prussia, dedicated by Hindenburg to the memory of the German victory over the Russians in 1914. Exalted and exploited by Hitler, the neo-pagan enclosure with its eight sixty-foot towers was partly blown up by the retreating Germans in 1945. The Red Army tried to set fire to it, but the ruins were then gradually stone-robbed and demolished by the Poles until almost nothing remains.
The fate of the mighty estates was not so different. Friedrichstein, the home of the Dönhoffs, was set on fire and then looted for building material over the years. Its exact site is now uncertain. Schlobitten, the Dohnas’ house, is a gutted skeleton; the Lehndorff manor at Steinort, patched and boarded up, still stands. The landscape too has become hard to recognise. In Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast, the neat German dairy farms have vanished under a beautiful wilderness of young trees and waist-high grass; the meadows of the huge estates in the Polish sector of East Prussia became state farms in the Communist years and have since been broken up into erratic peasant smallholdings. The place-names changed a half-century ago. Friedrichstein became Kamenka, Cranz turned into Zelenogradsk, Ortelsburg is Szczytno – ‘names uttered no more’.
In 1920, Alexander Dohna took a gun and manned a roadblock near Schlobitten, waiting for a mythical mob of Bolshevik peasants. A year or so later, he led a local delegation to Munich to find out what this chap Adolf Hitler was worth. They decided he was rubbish. But Dohna and his wife changed their minds and voted for the Nazis in 1932. The party leadership visited East Prussia in 1933; although he still found Hitler impenetrable, Dohna allowed his schoolfriend Karl Wolff, Himmler’s adjutant, to recruit him into the SS. War – what he witnessed at Stalingrad and in Italy – shattered him. He knew of the July plot, and was very lucky to escape arrest. In January 1945, as the Russians approached, he successfully took a convoy of 330 Schlobitten people with loaded carts and horses out of East Prussia and led them nine hundred miles to the west, a trek which lasted nine weeks. He ended up as the owner of a dry-cleaning business near the Swiss border.
Dohna’s people were luckier than Marion Dönhoff’s. When they returned to Quittainen, hoping to be treated as harmless proletarians, the Russians shot many of them, raped the women and deported the survivors into slave labour. Heinrich von Lehndorff inherited Steinort when his eccentric cousin Carol died; he joined the July plot after seeing for himself what the SS were doing to Jews and other civilians on the Russian front, and was hanged with his friends on the meathooks of Plötzensee prison. Seniority in the Lehndorff clan then passed to his gentle, even saintly cousin Hans, whose memoirs are one of Egremont’s best sources. Hans trained as a doctor, after a childhood haunted by prophetic nightmares (a house in flames, his mother murdered by savage crowds). For all his loathing of Hitler, his Christian beliefs told him that violence was always wrong, even against the satanic Führer, and that the failure and martyrdom of the July plotters was somehow for the best. He moved to Königsberg in 1944, where he worked as a doctor after two murderous RAF raids destroyed the city centre; he experienced the siege and the fall of the city in April 1945, and witnessed the hellish months of massacre, rape and starvation that followed. His mother and brother had set out on a westward trek with ‘their people’ that January, but Soviet tanks overtook them before they reached the river crossing. Both Lehndorffs were shot as soon as the Russians realised who they were.
Hans did not reach Germany until 1947. In Egremont’s words, he said that ‘he was happy to have lost everything … in the upheaval that had been, in spite of its horror, “one of God’s blessings” and the start of a better life.’ But not all Egremont’s subjects are sympathetic. It’s difficult to like Agnes Miegel, the poet of East Prussian nostalgia who wrote a hymn to Hitler, or the cocksure, sneeringly anti-semitic Alfred Knox, a British spy and diplomat on the East Prussian front during the First World War who ended up as a knight and a Tory MP. The most telling portrait describes Walter Frevert, Goering’s head forester and gamekeeper on the Rominten estate. Obsessed with hunting trophies and record antlers, he was one of those self-important, tunnel-visioned Germans who managed not to see the political forest for the trees. After the war, he became an Oberforstmeister in the Black Forest, wrote a nostalgic bestseller about Rominten and turned into a respected media figure. But then evidence began to emerge about his wartime operations in occupied Poland. Ordered to clear human beings out of the vast Bialowieza forest to create a German national park, Frevert’s men had burned 35 villages and murdered nine hundred Jews, partisans and local farmers. In 1962 he went out alone with dog and rifle and was found shot through the heart.
Most of Egremont’s sources describe ‘the fall’: the collapse of East Prussia in blood and flame in 1945; the martyrdom of women, especially at the hands of Soviet soldiers; the arrival of Polish families expelled from their own lost provinces who took over and renamed German farms and villages. But nothing is more shocking than his account of the Palmnicken massacre in the final weeks of the war: the death-march in the January night of seven thousand Jews from Königsberg to an execution site on the coast. Many died on the road. The survivors were herded into an amber mine to be killed the next day. But then a different type of East Prussian intervened. Old Hans Feyerabend, the local home guard commander, ordered the prisoners to be fed, warmed and protected. He roared at the SS officer that he was besmirching the German flag and betraying the army’s honour. For a time, the SS man seemed to agree. Satisfied, Feyerabend obeyed an order to march to the front but, when he got there, discovered that the order had been faked to get him out of the way. He shot himself. The next day the Jews were driven into the half-frozen sea and machine-gunned. For many years, amber-seekers kept finding bones under the sand. They preferred to believe that they belonged to German soldiers murdered by the Russians, while the new authorities said they were those of Soviet prisoners murdered by the Nazis. It was not until 2000 that a stone inscribed in Hebrew and Russian was erected on the beach to mourn the true victims.
Hans Feyerabend stood for ancient Prussian virtues: justice with honour. Exiles like Marion Dönhoff hoped that her lost land would be remembered for those virtues and its harmonious order, as well as for its beauty. Today it is easier to see how those traditions were abused and distorted, in times when credulity decayed into blind arrogance. Nothing now remains of German East Prussia, which burned away in an apocalypse not seen in Europe since the Thirty Years War. A poet who lived through that older war, Andreas Gryphius, also saw his solid, self-confident world erased to a memory:
Each healing breath in lost thin air must end;
Those who replace us follow us to the grave.
What can I say? We fade like smoke in a hard wind.