The Lost Baltic Sea Of German Literature

kirche_von_hoffIn the diaries of Oskar Loerke there is an entry for 1 December 1908 which records moments in an autumn trip to the Baltic Sea:

At the seashore I collected some two hundred small pieces of amber. Caught in the passion of collecting, one can forget the sea itself. Afterwards one forgets the collecting, but not it. Harsh wind, waves one, two, three, four meters high. Wish they would rise ever higher. One grows with them. I froze stiff on the pier and saw, saw. Such delight I could have cried out, when they came close like a forest and began to break up, one directed it in some way, one was in some way present in every wave like a sea-god for whom their rising and foaming were a joy. Marbled grey-green. Stick, stone, seaweed, jellyfish, frogs. I thought: Perhaps I am only here to throw this jellyfish, which would otherwise whither, into the water, to let it live. Bouncing red, yellow, white sails, they climbed across the blue tide. Seagulls sprawling, white, at play. Ever wilder in a gale. The mole pylons hung with light green tresses. The embossing of the sand. The wooded border – Rauschen. Warnicken. With the train to Neukuhren. /.../ Rauschen, for the Winter to flee the world with a beloved woman.1

This passage can be read as a key to Loerke’s poetry: the soul is at one with the things of the world in the panic-stricken celebration of the moment, while at the same time something mysterious, something demonic unfolds behind these things. The coincidence becomes a mythical figure. For the West Prussian peasant’s son, the deepest form of experience is found in nature, in the “revelations, captured in the word, to worldly things.” From this stems his judgement: “Many spoken and written sentences in themselves have no colour, no light and no play of light, and yet there is no thing that encounters us that is not touched by the sun.”2

Given the timeless validity of this statement, one can only agree. Yet at the same time the place names give rise to a feeling in me akin to nostalgia. How far away these places have become: it seems that the land of the Samis is now closer to us than Samland!

This part of the formerly German Baltic Sea coast appears to have been cut off forever from German culture. The Baltic Sea in the German cultural consciousness has been reduced to a landscape of leisure and to the same degree one of cultural loss, a loss above all of the carefree character of what was once a flourishing bathing resort area along the beaches between Heiligendamm and Nidden.

The radical hiatus in German history which took place in the middle of the last century left the Baltic Sea region unavoidably associated with the flight of millions of people, the sinking of entire ships’ cargoes, and the destruction of entire cultural landscapes of the ‘German East’.

The ‘German East’, the counterpart to the Polish ‘kresy’, has been lost since the end of the Second World War and has left a huge gap in the public consciousness, one largely associated with taboos and thus enclosed in an intellectual pax romana.

Arno Schmidt’s story Seascape with Pocahontas (Seelandschaft mit Pocahontas) from 1959 caricatures the mood of the East-West conflict in one of the commentaries on what in the post-war period was suddenly seen as "East German", or for the radio station NWDR as communist-occupied and thus as split off: “(Superior Western culture?? Just a second!!! Where did Goethe finally settle: in the Federal Republic or the GDR, eh?! From where to where did Schiller flee? And Kant liked it so much in Kaliningrad he never left!)”3. In this way, the viewpoint shaped by the Iron Curtain also retrospectively coloured the past and split it within consciousness in the West. (This also applied in reverse form in the Eastern Bloc: when, at a poetry festival in Belgrade in the 1970s, Lars Gustafsson wanted to read his poem The Bridges of Königsberg, the organisers insisted that he change the title to The Bridges of Kaliningrad. Finally, he declined to read altogether.)

My own post-war childhood in western Germany teemed with margarine package cards showing the series “Beautiful Germany,” a continuation of the “Blue Books,” which from 1915 until long after the Nazi period were produced in mass editions in which “The Beautiful Homeland. Pictures from Germany” was presented. As late as 1952, Marienburg was referred to in these books as the place where in 1230 the Teutonic Order began its struggle, “through which the Ordensland was won for German culture.”

As much as these collections represent a manifestation of the German mentality of the time, there is also a political dimension to the natural landscape. The pictures in the series “Beautiful Germany,” published by the Fritz Homann margarine factory in Dissen (Teutoburger Wald) subordinate the stylised photographs to the concept of “German landscapes”. But what is a “German landscape?” And since when has it been referred to as such? As in the case of the Forest of Fontainebleau, which from nothing, “un néant,” became a “terre français” (Théophile Gautier), this transformation probably owes much to the nationalism of the middle of the 19th century. Nationalism has been defined as the congruence between people, nation and state which is realised within the framework of a nation’s “own” specific territory. (In the Middle Ages there still existed “non-national” territory, which was subsequently absorbed into states, above all in the wake of colonial expansion to the east, e.g. the Brandenburg March and the Wilderness of East Prussia.)

For the German people this process was much more difficult than for other nations, for example when in 1848 the decision had to be made between a Great and a Small Germany. Irrespective of the outcome, many “German” regions, i.e. inhabited by ethnic Germans or Volksdeutsche, remained outside of Germany. In addition, there was the problem of the separation of regions with a German or German-assimilated population, for example the Curonians in Memelland, the Lithuanians in Prussian-Lithuania and the Masurians in southern East Prussia. However, homogeneity made it easier to exercise political control over one’s “own” territory. (Nevertheless, the gaze of the painter, the artist, sets the landscape free again, rendering the definition as state land invalid – as seen in the Expressionist paintings of Max Pechstein and Lyonel Feininger.)

In any case, picture 1 in series 1 of “German Landscapes” shows the Curonian Spit (Kurische Nehrung), which is introduced on the back side with the following words:

A characteristic of the landscape of the Baltic Sea coast is the formation of flat beaches, called haffs. The are almost completely separated from the open sea by a narrow ridge of land, the Nehrung or spit. The Kurische Nehrung is such a narrow ridge of land; it is completely made up of shifting dunes, the securing of which is a constant problem for the small population.

Concurrent with this effective maintenance of the feelings for “German Landscapes” even to the east of the Oder and Neisse rivers, there was a rapid distancing from sympathy for those driven from their homes, from any feelings of loss. In post-war Germany, saving one’s own skin meant drawing from defeat and complete humiliation the strength for a new beginning oriented wholly to the future; this explains in part why so many Germans later insist that they experienced defeat as liberation (only among refugees from the east is there an admission of the collapse of a world, the loss of which was long rejected – which in turn contributed to the electoral success of the BHE - the Alliance of Citizens Deprived of their Homes and their Rights - in the Federal Republic in the early 1950s). The refugees thus became representatives of all those who lost. Their integration was based on their having to disappear, just as the landscapes of the east from where they came were handed over to Russia and Poland and made intellectually taboo.

In this connection, W. G. Sebald postulates a “perfectly functioning mechanism of repression,” which enabled the society of the Federal Republic of Germany “to recognise the fact of its own emergence from absolute degradation but to completely shut it out of its emotional life, and even to see the fact that one has survived so much without showing any sign of inner weakness as yet another glorious chapter.”4

A form of segregation thus emerged. On the one hand there were those driven from their homes, who were marked by their loss as if by an incurable disease, and who cared for their plague spots at their meetings and in their compatriot organisations. On the other hand there were the “loss-free” Germans, who were oriented only to reconstruction.

In the Russian-occupied zone, both attitudes existed side by side until, following the founding of the GDR, the subject of expulsion was made taboo for the refugees – now declared resettlers – and the border to Poland was remodelled into a border of peace, on the western bank of which many of the east Germans clung without hope.

The Pomeranians, Silesians, and East and West Prussians had taken what they owned and what they could carry through the front lines – something which forty or more years later was to lead to abstruse and complex questions of cultural heritage, such as whether a church clock or museum exhibits actually belonged to the inhabitants or to the place they had left behind.

But are landscapes, including cultural landscapes, to be seen as independent of their national affiliation? Are they therefore not at all German, Polish, Russian, Lithuanian etc? As Herder put it in his Journal of My Voyage in the Year 1769: “It makes no difference whether it is now Curonian, Prussian, Pomeranian, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, English or French sea; for our shipping it is sea everywhere.”

As in the sense in which a Scot, Neal Ascherson, wrote of the Black Sea:

These lands belong to all their people, but also to none of them. Like the terminal moraine of a glacier, the Black Sea shore is a place where the detritus of human migrations and invasions has been deposited for more than four thousand years. The shore itself, worn and quiet, speaks of the patience of rock, sand and water which has received much human restlessness and will outlive it. This is the voice heard by many writers -5

In the case of literature, this notion is contradicted by the fact that within Baltic Sea literature, reciprocal knowledge of the contributions from countries other than one’s own is minimal, particularly after fifty years of being shut off from one another. In short, there is only German, Polish, Russian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Finnish, Swedish and Danish Baltic Sea literature and only a very few figures such as Immanuel Kant, Herder, Catherine the Great, Dostojewski, Sören Kierkegaard and Strindberg whose names have a cross-border currency.

Even in the case of figures of considerable significance for their national language such as the cosmopolitan Saint-Petersburg-born Swedish Finn, Edith Södergran, or the most important Baltic Sea poet of the German post-war period, Johannes Bobrowski, general familiarity with their work cannot be assumed.

However, if one goes further afield historically, the fragility of the nation-state concept is revealed. If one follows Thomas Mann, the Baltic Sea coast is divided into at least a Prussian and a non-Prussian part. The Buddenbrooks in their Hanseatic patrician splendour in Lübeck are definitively established in a non-Prussian milieu. By contrast, the nanny Ida Jungmann is a Prussian from Marienwerder, who had “proved herself competent in the household and in dealing with the children and, with her loyalty and her Prussian sense of rank, was eminently suited to her position in this house. She was a person of aristocratic principles, who made a fine distinction between first and second circles, between middle class and lower middle class, and she was proud as a devoted servant to belong to the first circle.”6

However, in post-war Germany regionalist attitudes to literature saw a rapid move back towards regional art, towards Heimatkunst – which Oskar Loerke described as having a “fertiliser perfume” – the movement dating back to around 1900 which opposed urbanisation, de-individualisation and “cultural Bolshevism” with the ideal rural values of a restorative Wilhelminism. Joseph Roth, for example, drew a distinction between urban Jewish and regional German literature.“ The majority of German writers of non-Jewish origin limited themselves to the description of the landscape of their home. Compared to other countries, Germany has a far greater body of Heimatliteratur relating to regions, landscapes and clans, one which is often of a high literary quality but necessarily inaccessible for the European.”7 It should be added here that Roth himself began as a thoroughly regionalist, Galician author. But in the outrage of the Wilhelminian world anti-Semitism and the provincial anti-modern attitude joined forces in the attack on the literature of the metropolis (for instance, in the “Berlin-Provinz” controversy around 1920, when the countryside, which still clung to the Biedermeier style, was seen as the stronghold of the pre-industrial idyll, and the city as the stronghold of industrialisation, urbanisation, Jewish finance capital, changes in morals and acceleration as lifestyle). The target was not only modernism in art, but modern civilisation as a whole.

In the case of German literary historian Josef Nadler we find even a mythical charging of the German tribes and landscapes, of blood as the moment of historiography. Certain cities, rivers and mountains become the bearers of constant spiritual forces, as personal entities so to speak, as acting persons, so that the individuality of the poetic process is annulled in favour of a nature-mythology of the national. In modernism, by contrast, the key figure is not the tribal member that is “interwoven” in his landscape, but the individual artist who searches for the strange or border landscape - as in the case of Max Pechstein setting out in 1909 and discovering Nidden.

What has changed since then? Is there today something that might be called a European Heimatliteratur? One could think here of Stefan Chwin’s regionalism concept, Lars Gustafsson’s Västmanland or the Västerbotten of Per Olov Enquist, Torgny Lindgren and Sara Lidman. A library series published by Nicolai Verlag Berlin and later by Langen Müller in Munich from 1988 to 1997 attempted to present exemplary texts from German literature from the regions beyond the Oder and Neisse – this ‘German Library of the East’ includes works by writers and philosophers from Königsberg and Prague, Breslau and Danzig, German-language literature from Kant to Kafka, while at the same time the concept of the east was already being overlaid by a new concept of east Germany, which ends at the Oder and Neisse.

The inside-cover text provides a retrospective view:

When in 1988 the first volumes of the German Library of the East were published, they were regarded by many as journeys into a supposed Terra incognita, which has disappeared from memory or is transfigured only by the glow of melancholic contemplation. In the meantime the political realities have changed. Within the borders which have in part moved again since the Second World War neighbourly relations have again become possible in the old cultural landscapes. The task of finding the past and preserving it can be seen more impartially, and the search for traces undertaken by the “German Library of the East” link itself to the time when, independently of state borders, German-language works in the east fundamentally influenced the cultural development of Germany and at the same time had a fertile influence on Germany’s neighbours in the east.

In those landscapes which nearly all Germans had to leave those few remaining can now more freely declare their adherence to their language. It has now become more urgent to bring the past to life again for these people and other German-speakers on both sides of the border in these greatly changed regions by way of images of times past, descriptions of great poetic intensity and works of literature. The “German Library of the East” would like to accompany travellers now able to move more easily through the region with its wanderings through the literary landscape and bring to light obscured lines of tradition in the diverse history of German culture in the east.”8

Today the landscapes of the Baltic Sea in German literature are seen in different ways: in terms of loss, of refuge (for instance the island of Hiddensee in the work of Christoph Hein as a retreat from the events of 1968 in Prague), or of backwardness (Mecklenburg as the poorhouse of the Federal Republic).

The definite break constituted by the expulsion of Germans from the east led to nostalgia with regard to the eastern landscapes (as seen for instance in the trips by homesick tourists to Kaliningrad and in the observations of Karl Schlögel in his Promenade in Yalta9): a nostalgia of spatial and temporal separation and mutilation, or of contemplation, of meditation. One experiences loss, for example, when looking at the ruins of the medieval castles of Balga or Ragnit as well as the church ruins of Eldena or a picture in a geography book from 1933: the church of Hoff west of Kolberg (painted by Lyonel Feininger), half torn down by the waves of the Baltic Sea and by foreign occupation. A dual loss: through nature and history. Natural history? And just as the mystic in his contemplation constructs the image of the lost god in the human being, so too the nostalgic individual constructs an image of the lost landscape and its treasures, or of a lost childhood. What does ‘to bring to life’ mean if not in part also the reconstruction of lost life-worlds (as in the case of Jewish literature too)?

The loss is embedded in the refugees in the tradition of oral narration. East Prussia survives as a national myth, for example, in stories such as those told by my mother about her school excursion to the Baltic Sea and to Samland in 1932 (and doesn’t art mémoire also mean to be left in the keeping of history?)

They had two young teachers, Bagusat from Stobrigkehlen and the other one from Broszaitschen, and they had colleagues, friends in Samland. They organised a truck for themselves and the pupils, which they loaded with chairs. And the children sat up in the open air; Waltraud was not yet ten. They set off with two classes, without adults, only with their older sister Elfriede and Lisa Kaschewski and Martha Poschwatta as supervisors, a whole lot of kids, and they drove hour after hour through the hilly country. They were overwhelmed. They drove through Königsberg. In the zoo they saw monkeys, bears, lions, giraffes, before that the Blutgericht with the large carved barrels, the wine tavern in the cellar of the castle, and the castle chapel. Exhilarated they looked down across the steep shore and for the first time saw the Sea, with whitecaps: it was very green. They went swimming in leotards. And didn’t come home that day. On the Galtgarben hill, a hundred and ten meters high, in Drugehnen they stayed overnight with the other teachers in the hayloft, slept in all the hay, it pricked and tickled their skin, their eyes, with everything they would still experience.

In German literature the past is also embedded in the theme of guilt, whether in case of Günther Grass or Siegfried Lenz. One could say with Kierkegaard “...if I cannot regret the past, then freedom is a dream.” Otherwise the poet stays half-awake in a restless dream, led astray “in the labyrinth of suffering and acts of providence,” where he “sees himself everywhere and yet cannot find himself.”10, as in my own nightmare poem:


The paper, white, as if we were not

able to die. I am erring through

a city called Königsberg

or Heilsberg. The blessed hail

of the Great Unblessed strikes you

from behind. With the ice-pick

of the thieves. Before you the ice hole

Even you cannot walk on water.


The relationship to the Baltic Sea can become an uninhibited one again, as in Gottfried Benn’s early poem “D-Zug”, but freeing the relationship to one’s neighbours of inhibitions requires the redemptive work of several generations.

The Baltic Sea, writes the ageing Benn’s friend Ursula Ziebarth, “was as familiar to Benn as to all Berliners, since one could travel there over the weekend and return ‘tanned all over by the sea’”11.

However, a more care-free approach to what is now the Polish Baltic Sea coast has recently become evident in new German prose, for example in Malin Schwerdtfeger's novel Café Saratoga, which is set on the Hel peninsula.

Her novel is also the expression of a new objectiveness, the fact that one can once again write about the Baltic Sea shores, although they are no longer German shores.

At the beginning the Baltic Sea is the subject; the perspective is Kashubian and focuses from a distance towards the new land. The novel begins as follows:

Every day in the Café Saratoga our father explained the two Germanys to us. He explained them as he explained death and whatever other dimension existed: one could only be achieved through the other, but the other was good. Its name was Federation.12

The fact that from the “Federal” point of view the Baltic Sea here is the end of the world is evident in the first introduction of the setting (and merely confirms the evaluation of the post-war Baltic Sea in German literature as a piece of cultural lack, the remains of the expulsion):

The Hel Peninsula juts into the Bay of Danzig like an emaciated finger. It divides the Great from the Small Seas and is therefore also called “between-the-seas.” After Tata had taken over the café we went there every summer by train from Gdingen, where the “between-the seas” is so narrow that it can break under the winter storms, as it had thirty years previously when the waves of the Great and Small Seas meshed like two combs at some places over Hel. /.../ The station was nothing more than an overgrown ramp by the rails, without lockers, without a clock. That was the station of Chalupy. There wasn’t even a toilet there.13

The name alone already signals that the West always has a different sound of freedom than the Polish East: thus the Café “Zatoka” (Bucht), as it was previously called, becomes the Western-sounding “Café Saratoga” – “the mumbled form of Zatoka after several of bottles of beer” (p. 45). The Polish world is the world of the beloved “Tata”, summer eroticism with the “dolphins”, the constantly changing waitresses in this reasonably innocent brothel, which the father runs. Everything sexual in this gentle tale of puberty is playfully rendered using Polish expressions: “Wszystkie rybki maja cipki”.

The emigrant girls lose their Hel, but one of the two notes unsentimentally: “Hel is a pile of sand, a land /.../ You can’t lose a land, it stays where it is, blockhead! I have lost my husband.” Later, in the Federal Republic, the memories often return: “I thought of Hel as it existed frozen in my memory” (p. 276) - life has become a parallel life and bears the trace of a lost life: “Majka, who had decided never to love again, because she had come off the rails like a train and now had to travel forever alongside life. Just as two parallel lines only met in infinity, there was no possibility in this life of finding one’s way back onto the tracks” (p. 223). For the voluntary emigrants, it was no different than it was for those expelled at the end of the Second World War.

Malin Schwerdtfeger’s novel is both a beautiful and relevant example of how the history of an emigrant poetically annuls the oppositions between the Polish and the German. The sense of yearning looks back to Hel, although the whole movement of the book is aimed in the direction of the Federal Republic. A voyage of discovery with a reversed perspective, from the edge of the world into the gleaming centre. The dismantling of national, provincial restrictions leads to an episodic web of Kashubian fairytales, the eroticism of a Polish summer, always slightly dirty, and German war reminiscences.

As the girls are leaving Hel, a small boy is seen in a village garden, playing “in entrails”. “We moved away, and the boy with his entrails, his underwear and his dirt remained behind; he remained behind with his filthy game on the edge of the world.” (p. 132). But in the memory brought to life, the “edge of the world” is again the “centre of the world” (p. 283).

In their discussion of the development of modernity in the Baltic Sea, Swedish historians Kristian Gerner and Klas-Göran Karlsson conclude: “Modern history consequently offers many examples of the fact that it has been difficult for supra-national communities such as the Baltic Sea region to assert themselves in competition with the nation-states. /.../ Historical consciousness in the countries of the Baltic Sea sphere was national in character and did not include the concept of a comprehensive regional historical community.”14 Thus each had their own Baltic Sea, and that of the Germans has become a much smaller one; it has left Hela – where the Second World War was initiated from the battleship “Schleswig-Holstein” – and not only Hela behind.


Lecture given at the Visby conference on "The Baltic in Literature and Art" in November 2002

1 Oskar Loerke, Tagebücher 1903-1939. Hg. Hermann Kasack. Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung. Heidelberg/Darmstadt 2. ed. 1956, p. 47

2  Quotation by Loerke from the year 1905, cited in Walter Muschg, Der Zerstörung der deutschen Literatur, Bern 3. ed. 1958, p. 59

3 Arno Schmidt, Seelandschaft mit Pocahontas. Stuttgart 1988 (1959), p. 12

4 W.G. Sebald, Luftkrieg und Literatur. Munich/Vienna 1999, p. 20

5 Neal Ascherson, Black Sea. London 1995, p. 10

6 Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks. Frankfurt/Main 1979 , p. 10

7 Michael Bienert, Joseph Roth in Berlin, Cologne 1996, p. 254f.

8 From the cover text of Adolph von Menzel, Reiseskizzen aus Preußen, Munich 1997

9 "For reasons known to everyone, the bow that once stretched over the Frische Haff and the Kurische Haff from Stettin to Memmel has been shattered." Schlögel, Promenade in Jalta. Munich/Vienna 2001, p. 231.

Cf. also Karin Johannisson, Nostalgi. En känslas historia. Stockholm 2001, p. 146: "Nostalgia, like our entirre relationship to the past, is a task of memory, a process in which the past obtains meaning in a subtile play between "once", our own experiences and the cultural codes of the present.

10 Sören Kierkegaard, Entweder – Oder II, Munich 2. ed. 1993, p. 802

11 Hernach, Gottfried Benns Briefe an Ursula Ziebarth, Göttingen 2. ed. 2001, p. 402

12 Malin Schwerdtfeger, Café Saratoga, Cologne 2001, p. 9

13 Malin Schwerdtfeger, Café Saratoga, Cologne 2001, p. 23

14 Gerner / Karlsson, Nordens medelhav, Stockholm 2002, p. 177, 310