Sitting astride his horse, Otto Wollank made his way slowly through a narrow avenue of ripening vines, towards a lake, shimmering in the early-morning light. The way was sandy and treacherous, he had to be careful that his mare did not slip on one of the many stones, or brush up against the gnarly, twisted branches that marked his path. But there was no rush, for Otto was in a contemplative mood, considering whether he should acquire the estate through which he rode.
Of average height, and with a round chin and unimposing physique, the twenty-seven-year-old would have made scant impression, were it not for the enormous moustache which he sported below a white fedora, tilted gamely to one side.
From a bluff at the vineyard’s edge, he looked out at the land around him. At the estate’s centre lay the beautiful Gross Glienicke Lake. Two and a half kilometres long and ﬁve hundred metres wide, the lake was large enough to sail a dinghy, but smaller than most of the other waterways which dotted the Brandenburg countryside. There was good ﬁshing here, Otto had been told: one could catch carp and eel, or — with some skill — a pike, up to one and a half metres in length, which swam through the lake’s deepest sections.
To the east and west of the lake a thick forest hugged the shore: a mixture of black alder, towering trees, with thin dark trunks, whose green triangular crowns blotted out the sky, and willows, whose branches reached out over the lake’s edge. Below, growing in the sandy soil, spread a sweet-smelling blanket of ground elder, lilac and irises. In the lake’s shallows, tall grasses swayed, alternating with a patchwork of lilies from whose pads pink, white and yellow ﬂowers erupted.
To the north of the lake lay marsh, and then an ancient woodland ﬁlled with oak and Scots pine. These woods contained a rich variety of wildlife — deer, wild boar and red fox — each an attractive target to a hunter. Beyond these woods, to the west, stretched out the Döberitzer Heide, a wide-open heath that had been used by Prussian soldiers as a training ground for over a hundred years.
The lake’s margins went undeveloped, without a single house, jetty or dock along its shore. Unsurprisingly, the area was a haven for birds: giant white cranes, who passed through from Siberia and Scandinavia on their way to Spain; bitterns with their loud calls booming out from the dense reeds; swans swimming in pairs on the water; and woodpeckers, drilling the trees nearby.
Advertised as one of the largest parcels in the state of Brandenburg, the estate contained some of its prettiest and most productive land. And while decidedly rural in nature, it was only a morning’s ride to two major cities, Berlin and Potsdam. The property itself had many names. To some, it was known as the “Ribbeck Estate” after the renowned Ribbeck family who had owned it from 1572 to 1788. But the Ribbecks had not lived at the property for more than a century and, it having changed hands so many times since, most of the locals now called it the “Gross Glienicke Nobleman’s Estate,” or more simply the “estate.” For the past sixty years the land had been owned by the Landefeldts, a local family with farming in their blood. But after years of mismanagement and falling proﬁts they had been forced to sell.
On offer was four thousand Morgen of land, a Morgen being equal to that area which one man and one ox might till in a morning, roughly equivalent to two-thirds of an acre. In all, the estate was two and a half kilometres long and four kilometres wide. In addition, the sale included an array of farm buildings, plus the cattle, pigs, goats, geese and horses that populated the ﬁelds and barns, the farm machinery, and that year’s harvest.
Otto turned his horse round and retraced his steps back towards the village of Gross Glienicke, on the northern end of the western shore. It was an ancient settlement, one of the oldest in the region, dating back to 1267, and an insular place, populated by families who had lived here for generations, who knew each other’s business, who feared strangers. With the exception of one Catholic couple, all of Glienicke’s three hundred or so villagers were Protestant. The little stone houses were built along the Dorfstrasse, or village street, a road that ran along the lake’s western side, constructed a hundred metres from the water’s edge. There was a grocery and a baker’s, a small stone-faced school, and a windmill. At the village’s centre was the Drei Linden Gasthof, a two-storey inn that for centuries had served as a local watering hole, and which was fronted by three lime trees. In Germany, as in other European countries, the lime was a sacred tree, whose presence protected against ill luck.
At the lake’s northern tip, two hundred metres from the lake shore, stood the schloss, or manor house. Three storeys high, the schloss was built of white brick, with a shallow-pitched roof and tower, and contained more than twenty bedrooms and sixteen ﬁreplaces. Inside, the living and dining rooms had ﬂoors of wide oak planks, the stairs rose in steps of polished marble and the walls were covered with the ﬁnest plaster. Its front hallway ceilings were adorned with colourful frescos: one showed a scantily clothed man ﬁring an arrow at a ﬂock of ﬂying cranes; another depicted a bare-breasted woman looking coyly aside, as angels showered her with petals and serenaded her with a golden harp. As he continued on around the estate, Otto saw the workers busy with their labours. White-scarfed women, in clogs and long grey dresses, pulled large square-shaped tins from the oven, providing endless loaves of bread for the village. A line of labourers knelt in a wide muddy ﬁeld next to round-bottomed wooden baskets, placing small potatoes in long rutted rows. Grey-capped men, in shirts and vests, walked behind horses, encouraging their charges with long whips, as they ploughed one of the many ﬁelds. Meanwhile, others bound giant bushels of wheat with twine, the windmill behind them, its four sails beating the air. Each of their faces appeared old, weather-beaten, unsmiling.
This land appealed to Otto. It was a gentle place, full of potential, yet uncrowded, unhurried and steeped in tradition.
Excerpted from “The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History” by Thomas Harding. Copyright © 2015 by Thomas Harding. Published by Picador. All rights reserved.