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Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia, by Max Egremont

New Yrok: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. Pp. xii, 366. Illus., map, notes, biblio., index. $28.00. ISBN: 0374158088.

Forgotten Land is a mélange of different strata. It provides a popularized history of East Prussia in the two world wars, an account of postwar partition and ethnic cleansing, a history of East Prussia in the old Germany, an account of the memory of the lost East Prussian region in postmodern Germany and a travel guide to that old vanished province.  A British biographer and novelist, Egremont’s most recent book is a life of the World War I soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon.  This is important mostly because he sometimes gets minor facts wrong, such as suggesting that the Ludendorff-Hindenburg team took control of Germany right after Tannenberg in 1914, but then, fact checking now seems to be a lost art in publishing. 

Forgotten Land is not an academic history of the East Prussian campaign of 1944-1945.  Instead it is a wonderful but occasionally frustrating attempt to contextualize East Prussia and the East Prussians in German and European modern history.  The organization is maddening, with frequent digressions and even more frequent loops back to previously discussed topics and characters.  It focuses on a few key figures, mostly aristocrats and cultural figures, but also some military personnel and ordinary folk.  The book is also in desperately need of proper maps.  Readers are advised to print out a good map of the province to have beside them while reading [the author helpfully gives most locations with their prewar German names followed by their postwar Russian or Polish ones]. 

With all of these caveats, the book is well worth reading for anyone interested in World War II or the early Cold War period.  The war moved Germany and Poland west, upending well over ten million people and wiping out the old provinces and cultures.  The author does an excellent job of giving the feel for what this chaos felt like at the individual level and how the memory of the lost lands played out to the relocated survivors in Germany.  Rediscovering that the “Good War” was far more of a mess at and after the end than sanitized Anglosphere memories have allowed for, gives prospective in evaluating Iraq, Afghanistan, and similar current and future cases where victory produces neither perfect peace nor perfect justice.


Our Reviewer: Scott Palter graduated from Stanford Law and Dartmouth.  A veteran war gamer, one of the old SPI playtesters, he is also a game developer and was founder and publisher of West End Games, and an occasional contributor to StrategyPage.

Reviewer: Scott Palter   

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