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Knights & Commissars The Glass Wall: Lives on the Baltic Frontier

By Max Egremont

(Picador 306pp £25)

I once had the honour of appearing on Estonian breakfast television. I had written a history of postwar violence in Europe and was in Tallinn on a book tour. My hosts had kept me up until at least 2am the night before, plying me with endless glasses of liquid hospitality. Sitting in that studio under a blaze of lights, I desperately tried to mask my hangover by placing a fixed grin on my face. It turned out to be a mistake, because the presenter picked up on it immediately. My book was about violence and atrocity, she reminded me. Was that really something to smile about? Estonia had suffered terribly under both the Nazis and the Soviets. Wasn’t it irresponsible of me to stir up these difficult memories? In this part of the world, she implied, history was something best forgotten.

to another in a callous game of imperial pass-the-parcel.

The most enduring presence, as Egremont makes clear, was that of the German barons who first arrived as Teutonic Knights in the 13th century. They brought Christianity but they took the land, setting themselves up as a ruling elite who would control these regions for the following six hundred years. Several foreign probably the barons who saved the Baltic States from being swallowed forever into greater Russia.

The face of Estonia and Latvia changed completely in the 20th century. The First World War and its aftermath may have brought independence, but it also brought chaos and destruction: half of all Latvians lost their homes during the war and a quarter of them lost their lives. In the land reforms that followed independence, many German estates were broken up, leaving the old aristocracy lost and confused.

The Second World War brought even worse devastation. What was left of the ancient German population finally left when Stalin annexed the countries in 1940 and Hitler called them ‘home’ to

This experience came to mind while reading Max Egremont’s extraordinary book about his own travels through Estonia and Latvia. Part travelogue and part history book, it is a brilliant exploration of how the past infuses the landscape, buildings, art, literature, traditions, food, conversations and lived experience of the Baltic people. As he travels from the Gulf of Finland to the Russian border, he tells the stories of the many ghosts he finds along the way. His book is a perfect demonstration of the answer I seem to remember mumbling to that television presenter: there is no escape from history here, so the only realistic way of dealing with Estonia’s troubled past is to look it straight in the face.

It is easy to see why some Estonians and Latvians might want to avoid it: their history has been a particularly dark one. Neither country existed until after the First World War, when the Western powers carved up the great empires of eastern Europe into brand-new nationstates. In the centuries before that, these lands had always been in the hands of outsiders, shifting from one foreign ruler

Barricades put up in Riga, January 1991, to stop the Soviets retaking the city by force powers came here during that time – the Poles and the Lithuanians, the Danes and the Swedes, and finally the Russians – but for the most part they ruled from a distance. It was the German barons who were really in control. On the one hand, they kept the local population in a state of permanent subservience – in the words of the Estonian History Museum in Tallinn, ‘nothing but peasants and servants … one of the most unhappy people in Europe’. On the other, they provided a buffer between the people and their absentee rulers. According to Estonian historians – and the ordinary people Egremont meets on his journey – it was the Reich. The Nazi invasion the following year brought yet more destruction and the almost total annihilation of the region’s 250,000 Jews. Stalin’s reconquest in 1944 saw the murder or deportation of entire communities. Then came the Russification of countless towns and villages, a process that left tens of thousands of Russian speakers stranded and outcast when these countries finally regained independence in the 1990s. As the author admits, when considering such a past, ‘it ’s hard not to feel overwhelmed’.

Egremont does not recount this history linearly. His book’s greatest strength – as well as its greatest weakness – is the july 2021 | Literary Review 11

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