Hywel Williams

Ghosts of the Teutonic Knights

Do the trees of East Prussia still whisper in German when the wind blows in from the Baltic and across the featureless plain? The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky thought so when he visited in the 1960s.

Ghosts of the Teutonic Knights
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Forgotten Land

Max Egremont

Picador, pp. 356, £

Do the trees of East Prussia still whisper in German when the wind blows in from the Baltic and across the featureless plain? The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky thought so when he visited in the 1960s. But keen ears, and a very long historical reach, are surely now needed in order to detect that particular susurration. A little over two million Germans lived here in 1940. Now there are just 10,000 ‘of German descent’.

Eight centuries ago members of the Order of the Teutonic Knights, snobbish and aristocratic virgins almost to a man, arrived here from Acre to start that great Crusade of the North which was the counterpart to the adventure in Palestine. It took them some two generations to conquer the native Prusi, a Baltic and pagan people. But by the late 13th century one of Europe’s strangest political entities had been created: a monastic territorial state administered by the Knights from the massive red brick fortresses they raised in emblematic domination over a population which had become Christian in religion and German in culture. Secularised during the Protestant Reformation which got rid of the Knights, the Duchy of Prussia was inherited in 1618 by the House of Hohenzollern who ruled Brandenburg. ‘Prussian’ soon became the adjective describing both these domains, and by the 1720s the Hohenzollerns were calling themselves, tout court, ‘Kings of Prussia’.

East Prussia’s rich acreage supported the Junker class who grew fat behind late 19th-century walls of protective agricultural tariffs. But it also produced the defining voices of a great civilisation. The regional capital of Konigsberg was the city of Immanuel Kant, and it was two other east Prussian writers, J. G. von Herder and J. G. Hamann, who led the rhapsodic reaction against the philosopher’s rationalism. East Prussia’s distinctively frontier mentalité — its sense of being cosily encircled while also living on the edge — has now vanished, and its territories were parcelled out after 1945 between Poland and Russia. Konigsberg was renamed after one of Stalin’s henchmen and the new Kaliningrad became the centre of the surviving Russian enclave.

Lithuania too made a land grab. The Memel territory extends along the coast to the north of Konigsberg: its sandy dunes and holidaying youths attracted Thomas Mann, who built a summer house there in 1930. Memelland was seized by the neighbouring Lithuanians (who call it Klaipeda) in 1923 during their post-Versailles independence and then retaken by Germany in 1939. On Soviet say-so (and after a Russian takeover in 1946) Klaipeda was again absorbed by its Baltic neighbour and is now part of the independent Lithuanian state.

East Prussia’s story is that of continental Europe in a microcosm: shifting borders dissolve allegiances as great slabs of warrior culture collide leaving corpses in their wake. Its successful evocation demands both the mind of a poet who can delineate the scale of human loss and the imagination of an historian who knows how to count the cost. Forgotten Land, a work of consummate artistry, blends both capacities to rare effect.

Max Egremont dovetails the stories of individual East Prussians with the wider narrative’s tangled skein. His approach is broadly chronological, but time’s arrow frequently deviates from its forward path as the author draws us within his enfolding pattern. What may seem at first sight discursive is in fact the result of a deftly controlling intelligence which draws the reader in before resuming the main thread. The result is continuously satisfying both as a work of art and as a professional work of history.

Details from interviews conducted by the author humanise the book’s great themes. Here, for example, is Marion Donhoff, one of the founders of Die Zeit, travelling from Berlin to Kaliningrad in 1989 with a copy of a statue of Kant in her car. Her mission is to replace the lost original which was removed from the city to Friedrichstein, her family’s estate, in 1944 to secure its protection from British bombers. Donhoff’s public role in West Germany was continuous with that of the East Prussian intelligentsia whose principled liberalism looked back to Kant. But East Prussia was also where the Nazi party gained its biggest majorities in 1932, and the virtuous belief in serving the state acquired a perverted expression in a region so easily frightened by threats from the east.

Although this is a book which concentrates on the 20th century it is intelligently alert to the way older continuities shaped and wrecked East Prussia’s history. At the end of August 1914 the German Eighth Army in the east first defeated the Russians’ Second Army and then inflicted knock out blows on most of their First one as well. The German High Command named their victory the Battle of Tannenberg although that east Prussian village lay some 20 miles to the west. But the name resonated in histories both Slavic and Germanic, for it was there that the Polish-Lithuanian army had crushed the Teutonic Knights in 1410. Nearby lies Marienburg (now the Polish Malbork), the site of the Knights’ greatest surviving fortress, in whose shadow Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff established their headquarters that August while preparing to avenge a 504-year-old sense of shame. The Knights lived on and in 1940 their distinctive emblem of the black cross was painted on the German tanks that invaded Poland. History can be a real killer sometimes.