After Seven Hundred Years

Neal Ascherson

  • 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!’

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