The house by the lake
Thomas Harding, Randomhouse, 2015, ISBN 978-0-434-02322-6, 442pp
I had picked this book up while browsing in Moruya Books many moons ago. I buy lots of books (you cannot buy too many, only more than you meant to buy) and I was attracted to this one because it proclaimed on the front cover that it was “history at its most alive”. And so it proved. I should have read it before but it got put on one the heaps of books I have at home. I organise my unread books into piles. These piles are not arranged in any logical manner; it’s just that at some point a pile of books will fall over and that is inconvenient. “The house by the lake” was put on a heap and it got covered up by subsequent books. Every now and then I reorganise the heaps and that’s how I found this book.
It’s a wonderful book. It is a story of a house. It is also the story of Germany from the late nineteenth century to today. You do not have to think about this for very long to realise that Germany has had a fair bit of stuff happen to it over the last 140 years or so. This book starts in 1890, which is the year that the 29-year-old Kaiser Wilhelm II manoeuvred Otto von Bismarck into retirement. Bismarck was the man who had united Germany into the “German Reich”. Wilhelm II was the eldest grandchild of Queen Victoria. He was a bombastic and not particularly competent man whose left arm had been damaged while he was being born. He set Germany on the course that led to the First World War and was forced to abdicate after that war which left Germany in an economic mess.
That mess was not helped by the Treaty of Versailles, which demanded reparations for the Allies that Germany could not meet in practice without serious repercussions. The Weimar Republic came into being in 1919; it was not long before Germany defaulted on its reparation payments, which led French and British troops to occupy the Ruhr district (where the heavy industry was concentrated). During this period inflation soared: by November 1923, the US dollar was worth 4,210,500,000,000 German marks. The economy was eventually stabilised but the crash of 1929 dealt another blow. That led inexorably to the rise of the Nazis and to Hitler’s election as Chancellor in 1933. The Nazis persecuted the Jews and other minorities and inflicted yet more damage in Germany. When the Allies reached Berlin in 1945 the German economy was again in ruins and the country split into two: East Germany (called, laughingly, the German Democratic Republic) and the west. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 and the Berlin Wall came down the country was reunited through the efforts of the recently deceased Helmut Kohl.
This history is the backdrop to the story of the house on the lake. It's a story of a house that was built in 1927 as a retreat for a Jewish family, the Alexanders. Alfred Alexander was a doctor in nearby Berlin whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Dietrich. Thomas Harding, the author, is a descendant of the Alexanders. The house was a modest wooden affair with a block that ran down to a lake called Groß Glienicke after the local village. Thomas Harding creates his story of the house through interviews with people who were there or who knew people who were there. The result is a book that is a patchwork quilt of individual stories. The thread that ties these stories together is the house.
When the Nazis came to power the Alexanders managed to escape to England. The property passed to a slightly shady individual called Will Miesel: he bought it from the Nazi administration at a knock-down price. Miesel was a songwriter and music publisher and the company he founded, Edition Miesel, still exists. But when the Russians came, Miesel had the house taken from him as property was nationalised by the Soviets. Things were not any easier under the Soviets. Housing was in short supply and two families lived in the house.
Harding’s story is built on talking to people who were there: he tells a compelling story of life in East Germany between the end of the war and 1989. Because the lake was technically in West Germany, a section of the wall ran along the bottom of the block. That meant the residents of the house lived in a restricted area, being so close to the Wall, and they needed special passes to move around.
Harding set out in 2013 to find the house that had meant so much to his family. What he found was a mess. The house had been used by squatters for years. He says “Climbing through … I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house was scheduled for demolition.
Harding’s purpose was not to claim or purchase the house and restore it. Rather he wants to create a memorial to the social history that is its story. And in this he succeeds. The Alexander Haus is today “a place of commemoration of German-Jewish history, the reconciliation and meetings.” Importantly, too, the house is now a protected building in the state of Brandenburg.
This book lived up to the blurb on the cover. It is indeed “history at its most alive”. Its characters come alive; you can feel their lives through Harding’s writing. My eyes were opened to the social consequences of the amazing political changes that have swept Germany in the last century or so. These were all ordinary people going about their ordinary lives that were swept up by events over which they had no influence. They had no choice. “The house by the lake” tells their story. Read this book and you will realise how bloody lucky you are.