Forgotten Land is about East Prussia, once the powerhouse of Imperial Germany, now a run-down Russian exclave, as well as parts of Eastern Poland and Western Lithuania. Historian Max Egremont expertly switches between portraits of former residents and historical events, focusing heavily on the Junkers, the Prussian nobility, and their role in Nazism.
It was the leading Junker Elard von Oldenberg-Januschau who in 1933 convinced Germany’s President Paul Hindenberg to appoint Hitler as chancellor; and later, when Germany was losing the war, it was East Prussians who were behind the July, 1944 failed plot to assassinate Hitler.
Democracy, and Weimar Germany’s failures at it, are only a small part of the book, but it started me on the path of solidifying my thoughts on how democracy is a fragile and imperfect thing — and certainly can’t be taken for granted. If the example of Germany is anything to go by, too much game-playing and horse-trading endangers rather than strengthens democracy.
Back to Forgotten Land. What is not widely known is that the largest forced migration in human history was the expulsion of Germans from Central and Eastern Europe, including East Prussia. I’ve always been torn on this topic. Yes, it was a traumatic event that forcibly uprooted millions. But it’s hard to muster sympathy for displaced Germans in the face of the Holocaust.
And Egremont shows that not only did the Holocaust take place in East Prussia, but many local Germans went along with it. I’d never heard of the Palmnicken massacre before reading this book.
Egremont delicately retraces the forgotten, conveying the pain of a disappeared culture, but ultimately, whether intentionally or not, he makes a compelling argument that perhaps it’s best, after all, that this region, as a German entity, no longer exists.
Shana Goldberg may be reached at email@example.com
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