German history of the 20th century is an ugly and twisted story to tell . Thomas Harding’s narrative of The House by the Lake takes a personal yet critical approach to this subject. He tells the story of a weekend house at Lake Glienecke, built and once owned by Harding’s Jewish ancestors at the edge of Berlin and how their personal life was affected and turned around by the political developments of the World Wars, National Socialism, Stalinism and democratisation. The House by the Lake interlaces the extremely well researched personal biographies with general political developments, enlightening us not only about the causes of displacement and expulsion, but also the rise and fall of a residential area and the house itself.
The book’s prologue explains how Harding’s interest in the subject grew through the childhood stories of his grandmother Elsie, a German Jew whose entire family, the Alexanders, was exiled under Hitler to England. Following a first visit in 1993 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this interest grew, culminating in a neatly researched history of the inhabiting families of the house by the lake.
Harding starts his story in Imperial Germany, before the house’s existence, and gives us an idea of the famous “Gründerjahre”, when clever and able businessmen from lower classes could climb the social ladder to become stately estate owners. The Wollanks, the first family presented, owned a castle and surrounding estates in the Groß Glienicke area and accumulated a great deal of wealth before World War 1. The chapters on the Wollank family also illustrate the consequences of Germany’s defeat in the Great War; weakened by the Great German recession of 1923, the family couldn’t maintain its economic success and this led to the selling off of land parcels by the Wollank family to well-established Berlin families looking for weekend retreats. One of these parcels was bought by Harding’s great-grandfather, Alfred Alexander, a wealthy Berlin physician, who built a seven-room weekend cabin for his family in the 1920s. But such lucky days were numbered: the Nazis gain power over Germany in 1933 and the Jewish Alexander family was put under increasingly pressure resulting finally in their finding refuge in the UK.
The book’s structure strictly adheres to the history of the owner or inhabitant of the lake house, offering us a complex and unjust history inflicted on its residents during Nazi Germany, the Soviet occupation, the DDR (GDR) and united Germany after 1990. It thereby gives us a kaleidoscope of personalities balancing accounts of their personal survival with the authoritarian contexts that circumstanced their lives until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Moreover, with the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the house by the lake was cut off from the West, situated at the edge of the Eastern German border, a double wall with autonomous shooting machines and guarded by a border police. It was a place that was on the one hand extremely marginal and on the other in the focus of any non-socialist or non-conformist and flight activities.
The author gives us a vivid picture of how the public and private politics in German history dramatically changed people’s lives. The book is also about rightful ownership. Demonstrating the changing circumstances of owning the parcel and the house, it gives an idea about Harding’s efforts to reclaim and finally save his grandmother’s beloved childhood place from being torn down by having it successfully acknowledged as a class listed monument, the “Alexander Haus”.
Harding’s book is extremely well-researched and offers the reader a rich base of historical sources and details, including historical picture material, maps and ground plans. More importantly, it is very well written and illustrated, and succeeds in keeping the reader fascinated by other periods and political systems in Germany without ever having an overly teacherly attitude. It is an enlightening book about German politics that is entertaining and telling at the same time, and highly recommendable for anyone who is keen to learn about Germany’s social history.