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Forgotten Land

November 30, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I wrote last night about how much I’ll miss the daily book review in the Wall Street Journal when the paper’s delivery finally ceases. A month ago it led me to Robert Crease’s World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement, the subject of last night’s post. Two and a half weeks ago, I was introduced by Andrew Stuttaford to Max Egremont’s Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia. I’m now some 70 pages into Egremont’s book and thoroughly enjoying it.

Here is the opening of Stuttaford’s review:

In 1945, Stalin seized East Prussia, Germany’s venerable redoubt on the Baltic Sea, as a spoil of war. A portion went to the “People’s Republic” that the Soviets had just created in Poland. He kept the rest. The last surviving Germans were killed or deported. The cozy old Königsberg of the Teutonic Knights—the home, during the Enlightenment, of no less than Immanuel Kant—was transformed into Kaliningrad—a bleak Soviet place named after Mikhail Kalinin, the token peasant who was titular head of Stalin’s USSR.

Nearly 70 years later, the countries behind these borders have changed, but the frontiers have not, and will not. The Polish part is finally and truly Polish; the sliver of East Prussia given to the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic is now a part of independent Lithuania; the rest of the old Soviet slice is a seedy Russian exclave surrounded by the European Union. The only Germans there are tourists, in search of an elusive land that lingers on in family lore and in the dreams of the dispossessed for a vanished, fondly imagined, past.

Max Egremont’s idiosyncratic, disjointed and beautifully written volume makes an ideal guide to this shifting, shadowy realm. In part a piecemeal history of the final half-century of German East Prussia, in part a travelogue through what was left behind, “Forgotten Land” is gently elegiac. Shifting constantly between present and a variety of pasts, it is as wistful as a flick-through of an old photo album, as melancholy as a rain-spattered northern autumn afternoon.

Immanuel Kant may be the most famous genius associated to Königsberg, but the one whom Königsberg brings to my mind is Kant’s near contemporary Leonhard Euler, the greatest mathematician of the eighteenth century. Euler, a Swiss native, did not actually live in Königsberg. He spent much of his career in St. Petersburg and Berlin. But he knew Königsberg’s layout, and one of his early successes was his 1735 solution of the Königsberg bridge problem.*

I learned as a child about the problem and Euler’s solution, prompting me to wonder where Königsberg was. I was puzzled on finding that it lay in the Soviet Union and was called Kaliningrad. In due course, I read some of the relevant history, but new puzzles were introduced, such as why Prussia had an outpost so far east, embedded in modern-day Poland, Lithuania, and Russia. On reading Stuttaford’s review, I realized that Egremont’s book offered me the opportunity, at last, to put the pieces in their proper places. Plus, I could wallow in elegiac, wistful melancholy. I wasted no time downloading and starting Forgotten Land.

*Perhaps a few words on the Königsberg bridge problem would be in order. Below you see a drawing of the seven bridges that crossed the Pregel River in Königsberg in Euler’s time. (I have taken this drawing from Wikipedia, where it was the picture of the month on the Mathematics Portal for September 2011 and credited to Bogdan Giuşcă.)

The problem is to find a route through the city that crosses each bridge exactly once. Euler proved that there is no way to do this. In so doing, he laid the foundation for the modern-day mathematical field known as graph theory.

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