Monday, 18 June 2012

A Book I'd Like to Read

Here are the opening paragraphs of Neal Ascherson's review (in the 24 May 2012 issue of London Review of Books) of Forgotten Land: Journeys among the Ghosts of East Prussia by Max Egremont. I think it sounds fascinating and  moving:

'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 Donhoff, 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.'

Donhoff 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?'"


  1. So sad and moving - I'd like to read that. However much the Germans brought these terrible events on themselves, there is still a sense of tragic loss in the many lands in the eastern half of Europe - Prussia, the Sudetenland, Slovenia - where they were once dominant or formed a substantial minority.

    1. I was considering a 26 July presentation???