I am currently working off a backlog of blog posts. I am beginning to settle into my new job role, but there are still lots of lectures to write and piles of student work to mark. Apologies for the enormous gaps between posts. The most immediately relevant post for me concerns my visit to the “East Prussian Regional Museum” (Ostpreußisches Landesmuseum) in my hometown of Lüneburg. Partly, I have been putting it off, because it is not easy to write about it. As we are taking students on an annual geopolitics-themed field trip to Berlin, I have to teach a general introduction to German history as well as theme material on German imperialism and colonialism. Over the Christmas holidays, I took the opportunity to visit the recently re-designed museum, which has had a controversial status amongst the town’s residents and beyond due to its essential celebration of life in what could be described as Germany’s East-European colonies. How does one even name the places without evoking German claims on them?
To understand the museum, one has to know that, after World War 2, Lüneburg almost doubled in size with refugees from Germany’s former ‘Eastern Territories‘ (Ostgebiete). In the wider district, two thirds of the population were refugees, giving the area the name ‘Little East Prussia on the Heath‘. Street names still give clues as to where these refugees came from: Königsberg/Kaliningrad, Gumbinnen/Gusev, Breslau/Wrocław, Memel/Klaipėdos Apskritis and so on. Usually these street names are clustered in particular districts where refugees, such as one of my uncles, settled. Undoubtedly, the experiences of these refugees were traumatic beyond the loss of their homes. This is the impulse out of which the museum came into existence: many of these refugees wanted their memories, culture and hardship documented. Still today, the museum receives 2-3 phone calls daily from people who would like to donate their personal objects or collections.
Image: population growth for entire district, county and town. Colour legend: percentage of established population (white), East Prussian refugees (light blue), refugees from Eastern territories (dark blue) and displaced persons, including former forced labourers and refugees from the bombed out cities (green). Source: East Prussian Regional Museum.
At the same time, the local refugees felt like there was a ‘taboo’ in post-war German society to speak about these experiences. Not only were the territories in which they had lived the product of imperialism, but Germans (or Prussians) had committed unspeakable atrocities in the East not just during the war, but for centuries. One of my grandfathers, who was from what was then called Pomerania, wrote in his last letter during the war about the ‘bad ways in which German men treat the Russian women’ with whom they were lodging, and he promised my grandmother to treat the women well. The letter was probably carefully phrased to make it through censorship, and there is ample evidence of the deeds that German soldiers committed abroad. One of the reasons so many people fled was that, like my grandmother, they exactly knew what their countrymen had been doing abroad, and they rightly feared revenge. East Prussia also played a role in the continued fund-raising for the war, in which postcards of bombed out East Prussian places were used as emotional blackmail.
The premise of the museum is a difficult one: to give voice to the German refugees while also acknowledging them as perpetrators. When the museum opened, many local residents, including my parents, dismissed it as a combination right-wing politics and imperial nostalgia. I have only vague memories of visiting it in primary school – I mostly remember a giant stuffed elk, East Prussia’s heraldic animal. The latest version of the museum has received more mixed reviews: the museum promised ‘no nostalgia‘, there was an exchange programme with curators from Eastern Europe, a connection to modern refugee experiences, documentation of the protests against the museum from the 1980s onwards – even noted peace activists were giving talks on its premises. At the same time, the museum and its contents keep being claimed by right wing leaders and organisations such as the AfD. The museum states that there is nothing they can do about this, as they are a publicly funded institution: anyone should be able to access it. With this information, I entered the museum this December, somewhat hesitantly handing over my money to the receptionist.
If my memory works correctly, the first exhibit that greeted me was on the Old Prussians (Prußen), a Western Baltic tribe. It explained how the Old Prussians were made up of several pagan peoples who were at war with both “German” (Germany as such didn’t exist in the Middle Ages) and Polish Christian crusaders. The exhibit detailed the brutal conquest of these peoples, and the adoption of their name by the victors – the Prussians. It also explained how some of the Old Prussians survived through integration, while many were killed as a consequence of refusing conversion. The next section explored the natural history: the aforementioned elk, organisms trapped in Baltic amber, bisons, lynx and Trakehner horses.
A sculpture of Napoleon and the Prussian Queen Louise flanked the way to the ‘East Prussian Life’ section. The story of Louise, and how she was sent to negotiate the reparations treaty after Prussia lost the war – a war that her husband and the all male cabinet had started – strongly reminded me of the post-Brexit referendum events. In a formidable moment of historical auto-satire, Louise had to do the job, “because her husband wouldn’t have been taken seriously as a negotiation partner”. Yet, apparently, her husband jealously interrupted the conversation with Napoleon before she could get the negotiations to a close. Despite the failure of the negotiations (and the royal family’s subsequent exile in the former capital of Prussia, Königsberg/Kaliningrad), she became a Prussian and later German icon, and was later appropriated by both by a women’s pro-monarchy league during the Weimar Republik and by Nazi propagandists.
The East Prussian Life section itself included a mixture of ordinary and famous people’s lives. It also featured a section on Jewish life. Famous ‘East Prussians’ are often claimed both by Germany and other nations as, for example, in the case of Nicolaus Copernicus, who is claimed by both Poland and Germany. Other ‘celebrities’ included Immanuel Kant, Hannah Arendt (born in Hanover, but raised in Königsberg, as the local Jewish community was more liberal), Käthe Kollwitz, E.T.A. Hoffmann, David Hilbert, and many other German writers, actors, musicians and scientists. At present, the museum is receiving further funds to expand this section, especially for Kant related objects acquired from a foundation in Duisburg. This section also emphasised the impact of Enlightenment thinking on political life in Prussia, including the abolition of serfdom, which was instated despite widespread protest among the nobility. A few side rooms showed paintings by East Prussian artists and even a collection of church bells from East Prussian Churches that visitors could play.
A similar section could be found further up, which illustrated the life of ‘Baltic Germans‘ (from Estonia and Latvia) more generally. The tour continued with the documentation of attempts to build a unified East Prussian culture through national dress, symbolism and music, especially under Nazi Germany. However, earlier nationalistic movements were mentioned in context, such as the role of controversial student associations (Burschenschaften) which had emerged from the struggle for German unification and gradually descended into nationalism, antisemitism and anti-republicanism.
The most difficult section was the one about refugee experiences. Here, you could listen to a number of testimonies – as podcasts, videos and even holograms. The holograms appeared next to a typical refugee cart (there was also a giant sledge in the exhibition) – many refugees had to flee over an only partially frozen lagoon that swallowed people, horses and possessions. The harrowing accounts were sometimes read by other people, as the refugees found it difficult to talk about rape, mutilation, abandonment, growing up feral, and other trauma (some of it detailed in this Guardian article). In one exhibit, these accounts were juxtaposed by the story of a local refugee from Sudan. This section most clearly illustrated the problematic narration of victimhood, especially as the stories were coming from one direction only. We learned about the atrocities committed against East Prussians, but not by East Prussians. Instead, a link was made to the present refugee crisis. While this sort of move might contribute to the acceptance of contemporary refugees – and indeed, despite widespread Islamophobia, you hear some of the old people say ‘they can’t tell us we can’t deal with 2 million refugees – we were so many more!’ – it also feels like it merely serves to stress the Germans’ victim status.
The exhibition continued with Lüneburg’s connection with East Prussia through its many refugees. A mixture of war and post-war facts and figures, documentation of life in refugee camps and outside of them (foraging manuals!) and attempts to memorialise East Prussian culture brought the exhibition to a close. How problematic this memorialisation is became especially evident in the gift shop, which featured many items that could be considered politically problematic. Many of the items reflected East Prussian/Imperial nostalgia in the form of East Prussian branded alcohol (Bärenfang, Danziger Goldwasser, Trakehner Blut, Alter Weißer: Der Redliche Preuße und Deutsche, Lorbass etc – now produced near Lüneburg) key rings, maps bearing the German names of now Polish or Russian places, and Prussian army music. The distillery in particular has connections with the relaunched East Prussian/Prussian newspaper, formerly for former East Prussians, now a platform for many right-wing authors. The question is: who are these items aimed at? People wishing to commemorate the visit? Who have family connections to East Prussia? Who might find the tackiness of these products entertaining? Given the right-wing connotations of this sort of merchandise, why is it for sale? Has it become acceptable? Also: what sort of merchandise would be an alternative – is any merchandise even appropriate?
Looking back, the museum still feels me with unease. Throughout the exhibition, visitors seemed to look at each other seemingly embarrassed, as if either asking ‘why are you here?’ or wishing to explain their presence. At the same time, from overheard conversations – there were not that many people around on a dark rainy evening after Christmas – I gained a bit of a sense as to why other people were here: they explained family history to their children. My reason, too, was not just finding out about the curation of this topic, but trying to understand parts of my family, my neighbourhoods in Lüneburg and London (where many Polish people live and work), and odd connections between my hometown and places like Estonia. Especially at the moment, were many German celebrities and politicians basically support a reclaiming of Prussia, both in architecture and as a ‘flourishing’ German culture, it is important to not just recognise and display these desires, but to remain critical of them. After all, they are not just tied to personal and generational trauma, but to on-going territorial claims. The fact that the East of Germany in particular is being re-populated with neo-Prussian buildings is worrying, and if we should take anything away from the German refugee experience, it is how several attempts to construct “Germany” ended in toxic imperialism and colonialism, and that the current ‘refugee wave’ is an continued consequence of this and other European imperialisms.