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Forgotten Land and Bloodlands

January 16, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Europe in 1933

[Map credit: Mike King, in New York Review of Books]

I finished Max Egremont’s Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia two Saturdays ago and have intended to write about it since, but I’m struggling with what to say. I first wrote about it at the end of November, having been inspired to order it earlier in the month because of Andrew Stuttaford’s Wall Street Journal review, in which he wrote:

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.

I commented at the time that I was “some 70 pages into Egremont’s book and thoroughly enjoying it.” But I then became distracted by a sequence of other books, returning to it intermittently but not making further progress until late December, at which point I wrote:

I’ve been slowly working my way through Egremont’s Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia in recent days, reaching not quite the halfway point yesterday. And what do you know? It’s reviewed by Richard Eder today in the NYT, not entirely flatteringly. I’ve been convincing myself that I enjoy Egremont’s meandering approach. A little World War I history here, a little World War II history there. A few words about one historical figure, then another. It’s not entirely clear why we spend so many pages in Ypres reading about British World War I war dead. Belgium’s a long way from East Prussia. But that’s the journey we sign up for when we read the book. Eder clearly has less patience for it than I do.

Will I make it to the end?

That Eder review almost stopped me in my tracks, given my eagerness to get to the books I had lined up to read next. Fortunately, I kept going — fortunately because of the astonishing tales that awaited me. In the latter stages of the book, the focus is on the lives of selected residents of East Prussia in the buildup to World War II, during the war itself, and in its immediate aftermath. We’re talking about land that passed back and forth in complicated ways between Germany, Poland, Lithuania, and the Soviet Union.

A chapter is devoted to the historic German city of Memel, now the Lithuanian city of Klaipėda. A recurring character in several chapters is Walter Frevert, an East Prussian forester who becomes the head forest master for Hermann Göring. Göring, of course, would become the head of the German Air Force, but when the Nazis initially came to power in 1933, he was put in charge of Prussia, coming often to East Prussia to hunt. As we learn, Frevert’s responsibilities grew as Göring expanded the forest holdings in Germany’s eastern lands. Expansion might mean, for instance, forcibly moving Poles from their villages to be re-settled farther east and then razing the villages, an operation Frevert oversaw. Frevert would take on forest duties in West Germany after the war and become a popular figure, through radio and TV programs and his memoir Rominten, about the hunting preserve in East Prussia that he once ran.

Egremont tells these stories in an understated manner that allows the details to speak for themselves, which they do quite powerfully. Another example is the story of the last Jews left in Königsberg in January 1945, whom the Germans decide to move westward before the inevitable arrival of the Red Army. They are forcibly marched to the Baltic town of Palmnicken. Two thousand die or are killed along the way. The survivors were driven down to the beach, into the frozen sea, and shot. The details of the march are described from the perspective of some of the East Prussian natives, some of whom would go through their own hell when the Russians arrived.

The closing chapters of the book reminded me that last year I had thought of reading Timothy Snyder’s 2010 book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, which was widely and well reviewed. Anne Applebaum’s review in the New York Review of Books (from which the map at the top is taken) had especially gotten my attention. As Applebaum explains,

Snyder’s ambition is to persuade the West—and the rest of the world—to see the war in a broader perspective. He does so by disputing popular assumptions about victims, death tolls, and killing methods—of which more in a moment—but above all about dates and geography. The title of this book, Bloodlands, is not a metaphor. Snyder’s “bloodlands,” which others have called “borderlands,” run from Poznan in the West to Smolensk in the East, encompassing modern Poland, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Belarus, and the edge of western Russia (see map [above]). This is the region that experienced not one but two—and sometimes three—wartime occupations. This is also the region that suffered the most casualties and endured the worst physical destruction.

More to the point, this is the region that experienced the worst of both Stalin’s and Hitler’s ideological madness. During the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s, the lethal armies and vicious secret policemen of two totalitarian states marched back and forth across these territories, each time bringing about profound ethnic and political changes. In this period, the city of Lwów was occupied twice by the Red Army and once by the Wehrmacht. After the war ended it was called L’viv, not Lwów, it was no longer in eastern Poland but in western Ukraine, and its Polish and Jewish pre-war population had been murdered or deported and replaced by ethnic Ukrainians from the surrounding countryside. In this same period, the Ukrainian city of Odessa was occupied first by the Romanian army and then by the Wehrmacht before being reoccupied by the Soviet Union. Each time power changed hands there were battles and sieges, and each time an army retreated from the city it blew up the harbor or massacred Jews. Similar stories can be told about almost any place in the region.

This region was also the site of most of the politically motivated killing in Europe—killing that began not in 1939 with the invasion of Poland, but in 1933, with the famine in Ukraine. Between 1933 and 1945, fourteen million people died there, not in combat but because someone made a deliberate decision to murder them. These deaths took place in the bloodlands, and not accidentally so: “Hitler and Stalin rose to power in Berlin and Moscow,” writes Snyder, “but their visions of transformation concerned above all the lands between.”

Egremont, of course, is not writing a comprehensive history. He is examining a handful of people who are victims, collaborators, or perpetrators in one region, East Prussia, that forms part of Snyder’s larger bloodlands story. When I set Egremont’s haunting book aside, I was tempted to turn directly to Bloodlands to better understand that larger story. I haven’t yet, for fear that it will keep me from other books and other projects. But yesterday I downloaded the opening portion that Amazon makes available as a Kindle sample. It won’t be long before I buy and download the entire book. Perhaps I’ll have more to say after reading it.

Categories: Books, History
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