The Vanished Kingdom: Travels Through the History of Prussia
James Charles Roy
Westview Books, 1999
There may, for all I know, be an entire literary genre that could be described as "traveling histories." This book is, however, this reviewer's first experience with it, and I found it delightful. James Charles Roy has travelled from place to place in what was once Prussia, often camping out in the countryside, and telling of the ghostlike bleakness there today after 55 years of socialist suffocation and cultural obliteration. His observations and interviews of old timers pass seamlessly into a recounting of the history of the particular place, a process through which he is able to tell coherently the various historical episodes in Prussian history. Midway through the book, it struck me that the transitions from present to past had hardly seemed like transitions at all, causing me to go back to look at how he had achieved the synthesis. The answer is that there are no transitions - just an easy flow into history-telling.
Roy's other books on European history have been Book-of-theMonth Club and History Book Club selections. With The Vanished Kingdom, he has chosen as his subject one of the more pivotal areas in Europe, which makes it an important book for most readers, who will have had only a passing awareness of Prussia's long history. It is surprising, and somewhat amusing, to learn that the Teutonic Knights began as the monkish `Order of St. Mary's Hospital' taking care of injured Crusaders in Jerusalem. From being just a minor appendage to the Crusades, they became the dominant power in north-central Europe, conducting incessant warfare with the neighboring (and also fiercely warlike) peoples. They reached the height of their power in the fourteenth century, but collapsed shortly after their disaster in the (first) Battle of Tannenberg in 1410.
Perhaps their most significant residual was the rise of the Junker class. The Junkers were small landowners, chronically poor, who had been given land in exchange for military service over a two century period and who continued as military men to provide themselves a needed source of income. The Junkers were reminiscent of the Old Romans of Cato the Elder's day: austere, disciplined, aristocratically contemptuous of the common man. The fact that they detested central authority meant that, contrary to the stereotype, they later weren't given to supporting Bismarck or Hitler. …