Part history, part autobiography, WALKING SINCE DAYBREAK tells the tragic story of the Baltic nations before, during, and after World War II. Personal stories of the survival or destruction of Modris Eksteins's family members lend an intimate dimension to this vast narrative of those millions who have surged back and forth across the lowlands bordering the Baltic Sea. The immense cataclysm of World War II devastated the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, sending many of their inhabitants to the ends of the earth. WALKING SINCE DAYBREAK belongs in the great tradition of books that redefine our understanding of history, like J. R. Huizinga's THE WANING OF THE MIDDLE AGES and Jacob Burckhardt's THE RENAISSANCE IN ITALY. Eksteins's two-pronged narrative is a haunting portrait of national loss and the struggle of a displaced family caught in the maw of history.
Groundbreaking historian Eksteins adds this very personal exercise in historical thinking to his impressive body of work (The Limits of Reason; Rites of Spring; etc.). His subject is life, including his own and his family's, in the Baltic republics from the Great War through WWII. His theme, once again, is how, in the 20th century, the rational categories with which people have always tried to comprehend history no longer suffice. The Baltic nations--Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania--were occupied by Germany during WWII and by the Soviet Union after it. When Soviet troops invaded Latvia at the end of the war, much of the population was driven from the country into German cities, where they lived in camps for displaced persons. Eksteins himself, born in 1943, spent his early childhood in the camps. Because of his minister father's extensive foreign connections, the family was eventually able to emigrate to Canada. Eksteins's portrait of the Baltics, as well as of his family, is not one of victimhood: while many Baltic people later claimed they worked with the Nazis out of a desire to combat Bolshevism, the author is very clear that many willingly abetted the Holocaust. He convincingly argues that the refugee-ridden and rubble-strewn aftermath of WWII marks the end of the Enlightenment tradition of rationality. "The story, as a result, becomes a pastiche of styles, an assemblage of fragments, appropriate to an age. It becomes a m lange of memory, reflection, narrative." Despite such postmodern disclaimers, however, the book evolves organically into a beautiful meditation, written with both intellectual and moral urgency, on the nature of guilt, collaboration and European consciousness in the middle of the 20th century.