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Book Review

A View of History Filtered Through a Personal Prism

WALKING SINCE DAYBREAK, A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II, and the Heart

of Our Century; by Modris Eksteins; Houghton Mifflin $27.50, 258 pages

July 16, 1999|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Walking Since Daybreak" is a deeply moving and intellectually challenging view of modern history and its meaning for modern man. Modris Eksteins, the Canadian historian whose prize-winning "Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age" received wide praise, was born in Latvia in 1943. A history of the little Baltic community, and sometime state, of Latvia, this book is also a moving family and personal history, and a meditation on the nature of history itself.

Eksteins and his family were buffeted by the titanic struggles of the German and the Russian armies that tore through the borderlands of Eastern Europe toward the end of World War II. In the vast migrations of millions of Europeans at the end of the war, the Eksteins, walking and walking, managed to make it to a camp for displaced persons--the "D.P.s"--in Germany, and from there to Canada.

Eksteins' father was a Baptist minister. He settled eventually with a congregation in Toronto. Before long the young Eksteins was granted admission to Upper Canada College, "the school of the Canadian establishment," Eksteins calls it, "a school of tradition, a crucible of values, like loyalty and service, that would pervade and rule the land."

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The Cold War tensions of the time--the Soviet invasion of Hungary and repeated crises over Berlin--"suggested that these values might be needed on a battlefield soon enough," he says.

"My world at UCC," Eksteins writes of his secondary school, "was shaped by a powerful tradition, a British imperial tradition that saw connectedness and continuity in the human drama.

"My experience contradicted this tradition fundamentally," he observes, "but who was I to argue at that stage of life?"

This is the central and provocative point of "Walking Since Daybreak," the contradiction between the notion of history as the tale of human progress and the ferocious barbarity of human conduct as displayed in World War II.

Eksteins excuses no one in this war. Certainly not the Germans. Centuries of despotic rule by the Baltic Germanic nobles over their indigenous serfs was likened by Johann Gottfried Herder, the Enlightenment man of letters, (as approvingly cited by Eksteins) to the assault on the Incas by the Spanish conquistadors. Certainly not the Russians, whose combination of political revenge and personal retaliation led them to cut a swath of murder and rape across Eastern Europe. Nor does Eksteins excuse Europe's "liberators," Great Britain and the United States, whose decimation of Dresden in February 1945 was a symbol of the huge destructive power they let loose on Europe.

"Before we move forward," Eksteins writes, "we must come to some kind of terms with 1945, with what it represents.

"A good start," he continues, "would be the recognition that 1945, with its devastation, displacement and horror, was the result not just of a few madmen and their befuddled followers, not just of 'others,' but of humanity as a whole and of our culture as a whole.

"Nineteen forty-five is not our victory, as we like to think; 1945 is our problem."

Eksteins argues that the concept of history as moral agent, as a record of human betterment, has been badly damaged, perhaps destroyed, by the terrible events of this century. The history lessons that Eksteins learned in Upper Canada College can no longer be plausibly taught.

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Our current notions of history, he writes, come from two contradictory impulses, the pre-1945 notions of agency and cause in human affairs, and "the confusions of our own end-of-century, end-of-millennium present, with its immediacy and contradiction."

Eksteins' account of his family's life and extraordinary travails in Latvia open the reader's imagination to a Baltic world for which few outsiders have much appreciation. His account of the immediate postwar turmoil is personal and vivid.

His view of the fragmentation of the meaning of history is shared by many modern historians. But is it, in fact, true? Is the 19th century concept of history as progress extinct? By inference his book raises, but does not come to grips with, some important questions: Do not the 54 years since the end of World War II show a growth in the sense of responsibility by mankind and by nations? Isn't NATO's intervention in Kosovo a sign of a new and unprecedented international maturity? Yet in its fresh look at the legacy of World War II, Eksteins' fine book builds a frame in which the crucial questions of modern history and its meaning are, insistently, to be asked.

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