The Vanished Kingdom: Travels through the History of Prussia

The Vanished Kingdom: Travels through the History of Prussia

The Vanished Kingdom: Travels through the History of Prussia

The Vanished Kingdom: Travels through the History of Prussia

Synopsis

Twice in this century, Germany initiated wars of unimagined terror and destruction. In both cases, defense of the "Prussian" realm, the German homeland, was the perceived and vilified perpetrator. Few today understand with any precision what "Prussia" means, either geographically or nationalistically, but neither would they deny the psychic resonance of the single word. To most, it means unbridled aggression, the image of the goose-stepping Junker. But what was once Prussia is now a significant portion of Eastern Europe, a contested homeland first won by Christian knights of the Teutonic Order. For centuries thereafter its terrain has been crisscrossed by war and partitioned by barbed wire. In its final catastrophe of 1945, nearly two million German refugees fled the region as Russian armies broke the eastern front, perhaps the greatest dislocation of a civilian population at any time during World War II. With the Berlin Wall now a memory and the Soviet Union in a state of collapse, this remains a geography in shambles. Modern travelers can now, for the first time in decades, see and ponder for themselves what Prussia really was and now is. James Charles Roy and Amos Elon, two writers noted for their inquisitive natures, have gone to search through the rubble themselves. They intermingle present-day observations with moving vignettes from the German and Prussian past, sketching a portrait of the Europe we know today. The story is spiced with interviews and reminiscences, unforgettable in their sadness, of people looking back at a life now gone, a life full of turmoil and heartache, memories both fond and tragic. The final result: a far deeper understanding of the tattered lands of today's Eastern Europe.

Excerpt


The Nowhere City

IN DAYTIME THE MAIN AVENUES of Kaliningrad -- wide enough to allow ten tanks abreast to pass a reviewing stand -- are half deserted. Traffic is sparse. Before the Russians took it over in 1945, this ice-free Baltic seaport was the ancient German city of Königsberg, the historic capital of East Prussia and one of the more attractive towns of the German empire. Recently there has even been talk of Germany's taking the city back. But now the barren monotony and inhuman scale of Communist urban planning make Kaliningrad -- the phantom of a city without any visible center -- possibly one of the ugliest places in the world. Four hundred thousand inhabitants -- 70 percent transient sailors, fishermen, and members of the Russian armed forces -- live here in squalid apartment blocks, crumbling mountain ranges of tar and cement and peeling plaster, gray on gray.

The public squares, as in most cities built by the Soviets after the war, are vast, each large enough to accommodate almost the entire population. Loudspeakers left over from the old Communist publicaddress system still dangle from their poles. There are no mass rallies nowadays, and the loudspeakers are rarely if ever used. But the statue of M. L. Kalinin, a former president of the Soviet Union (he is said to have sent his own wife to the gulag), is still standing in a huge square outside the railroad station. The city was named for him in 1945 after its capture by the Red Army in fierce street fighting with the Wehrmacht and its annexation by the Soviet Union. A giant statue of Lenin is . . .

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