At the end of a world


All For Nothing, by the late Walter Kempowski, now revived by Granta (£14.99), is set in a run-down manor near a main thoroughfare in East Prussia in January 1945. Its protagonists are normal, civilised yet blinkered gentry. The fearful thing is the approach of a vengeful Red Army.

Life in the manless household is relatively easy. Visitors arrive: a painter of war scenes returning west, a Jewish bookbinder fleeing east. Each new arrival brings disaster closer for the German family, if (perhaps) liberation for Ukrainian servants. Suspense builds: the end seems nigh, but comes not yet.

Will it ever? Can't the Wehrmacht hold it back? Königsberg has been flattened but may not remoteness spare this rural enclave, with its rich mementos of happier days - fine porcelain, hallmarked silverware, antler chandeliers, ancestral portraits and a library so untouched by recent events as to contain titles by Heinrich Heine?

A Nazi apparatchik from a nearby housing estate casts a resentful eye over aristo privilege, threatens, requisitions space for favoured Baltic refugees. Delicacies are hidden, rumours pondered. Did those things really happen in the East? Will the Jews take revenge?

The family, extended, has a last supper - Beethoven on the piano, recitation of Goethe, cigarettes, chocolate, a precious bottle of Barolo. Meanwhile guns are rumbling in the east, skies glowing red, carts crowding the road west, bitter cold… Should we flee? Hesitation. The châtelaine is arrested for having harboured the bookbinder. The Baltic refugees are swept off in an official car, while Ukrainian servants pack a cart and coach for the others.

Did those things really happen in the East? Will the Jews take revenge?

Most set out; a few foreign workers stay; opportunists lurk to loot. On the road, chests go missing. The cart disappears. The coach is overturned by a bomb, its driver - an auntie just short of 60 - instantly dies. One arm is blown far from the body; rings on its fingers quickly vanish. Corpses lie frozen by the roadside. Horses fall through ice. Main roads are blocked - flight in the other direction. SS troops patrol, some keeping order, others intent on stringing up deserters and thieves, especially those from the east - ever untrustworthy Ukrainians, Czechs, Romanians, Poles.

A sole member of the family survives, a boy of 12, too young for the Hitler Youth. By luck more than cunning, he is taken on to a last dinghy out to a last ship to ferry surviving trekkers to Denmark or elsewhere west.

It is an epic of exodus, timely for our days, reminding Germans of what in their past has prepared them to be welcoming. East Prussia had a population of nearly three million in 1940. By 1950, fewer than 200,000 native Germans were left. No wonder this book has sold 100,000 copies in Germany. A bestselling novel there back in the day was Gone with the Wind.

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