Gerard DeGroot is a professor of history at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest book is “Selling Ronald Reagan: The Emergence of a President.”
In an abandoned house near Berlin, Thomas Harding found hope. Located in the idyllic village of Gross Glienicke, the house was once the weekend retreat of Alfred Alexander, Harding’s great-grandfather. When he visited in 2013, Harding found floors piled with rubbish and walls daubed with graffiti. “It’s seen a lot, but it’s an eyesore now,” a neighbor said. Yet that house had once been a source of joy, a “soul place” for the Alexander family. Amid the detritus of many lives, that soul still lurked. “There was . . . something intangible, something compelling.”
The lake house had indeed seen a lot. Captivated by its derelict charm, Harding decided to tell its story through “the everyday moments that make a house a home.” By virtue of its location, however, this was no ordinary home. “The House by the Lake” tells “the story of Germany over a turbulent century . . . [and] the seismic changes that shook the world.”
“At the little house life is happy,” Elsie Alexander wrote in 1928. “Time passes pleasantly by.” For the Alexanders, that idyllic life lasted less than eight years. Hatred penetrated their bubble of contentment. Robert von Schultz, a Nazi enthusiast, drilled his private army of brown-shirted thugs just a few hundred yards from the lake house, in direct challenge to the Alexanders, who were Jewish. Alfred at first “clung on to the belief that his countrymen would see sense, that they would finally understand the madness of Hitler.” That’s an understandable reaction but a dangerous one nonetheless.
When realization dawned, the Alexanders shut up the lake house and fled to Britain. They planned on returning eventually to Gross Glienicke, but time often erodes hopeful intentions. A member of the family would not visit the lake again until 1993.
A new family soon scavenged the carcass of Alfred’s dreams. Will Meisel was a musical impresario with an eye for opportunity. Though his business relied heavily on Jewish talent, he realized that it would be prudent to become a Nazi. He wasn’t a fascist, just an opportunist.
Since the Nazis loved good tunes, Meisel flourished. In 1937, loaded with cash and short on scruples, he asked his lawyer to find him a holiday property abandoned by Jews. When he saw the lake house, he immediately fell victim to its charms. Since the Third Reich was supposed to last a thousand years, Meisel didn’t worry about the Alexanders returning.
A house is like a dog: As long as it is looked after, it doesn’t worry about the politics or prejudice of its owner. Thus, the lake house gave the Meisels the same pleasure it once gave the Alexanders. When Berlin became the target of increasingly heavy bombing raids, Meisel moved full time to the lake. He even wrote a popular song about his home “so far from world affairs.” In truth, however, politics lurked on his doorstep. Faced with being conscripted, he fled. That ersatz loyalty to fascism was easily discarded.
According to a neighbor, the war years were bad, but the period afterward was “like falling into hell.” The Russians liberated the village, then raped its women. Later, when 12 residents were murdered in four weeks, the Russians blocked an investigation. With the war over, Meisel tried to reclaim the house that had never technically been his. But he lived in West Berlin, and Gross Glienicke was in the East. The strictly utilitarian German Democratic Republic saw the lake house as much-needed accommodation at a time when housing was scarce. With autocratic efficiency, the Fuhrmann family was first assigned the house, then the Kühne family was ordered to join them. The house was divided, like Germany itself.
In 1961 came the Berlin Wall, or what the government called an Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier. Since the wall skirted the shore, the lake house was now short a lake. That was perhaps a good thing, given that the water was polluted and scattered with mines. As a child, Bernd Kühne would throw sticks over the wall, trying to trigger the alarms and cause soldiers to come running. The games boys play.
On the evening of Nov. 9, 1989, Wolfgang Kühne, the longest resident of the house, watched on television as crowds surged through the Brandenburg Gate from East to West. He grabbed a sledgehammer and, in just an hour, smashed his own hole in the wall. The next day, he watched in delight as his grandson swam in the lake. As had always been the case, Gross Glienicke was a perfect microcosm of world affairs.
“The House by the Lake” is an extraordinary book. The prose isn’t elegant, but it does not need to be since the story is so rich. That story made me think about how we each live history in our houses. I can recall my own home in San Diego in 1963, when a neighbor told my father that he mustn’t sell to a “n-----.” A few years later, we built a pool on the proceeds of the job boom that came from the Vietnam War. Our little boxes are shaped by big events.
History is too often detached from the people who live through it, producing a soulless account of the past. Not this book, however. Harding has extracted the past from the dust that collects between floorboards and from layers of peeling wallpaper.
After the wall came down, the German government couldn’t figure out who owned the lake house and so decided that no one did. A family of foxes took residence. The house officially became Parcel No. 101/7, scheduled for demolition. Then came Harding, who, warmed by its soul, fought to preserve it as a monument of micro-history. As a result of his crusade, he learned a great deal about Gross Glienicke, and much more besides. The house taught him that “while we humans can experience terrible suffering, in time we are . . . able to exercise our capacity for healing.” Let’s hope that’s true.
By Thomas Harding
Picador. 442 pp. $28