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‘The House by the Lake’ review: Thomas Harding’s story of 20th century Germany through one summer house

The Alexander family lake house outside Berlin, photographed

The Alexander family lake house outside Berlin, photographed in 1928. The history of the house is told in Thomas Harding's "The House By the Lake." Photo Credit: Alexander Family Archive

THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History, by Thomas Harding. Picador, 442 pp., $28.

When British journalist and author Thomas Harding arrived at the lakeside property just outside of Berlin a few years ago, he found an overgrown plot and a litter-strewn house with a cracked roof, slated for demolition. But there was more there than just ruins. The house once belonged to Harding’s German Jewish forbearers, who built the rustic dwelling on Gross Glienicke Lake in 1927 as a summer house and retreat.

After Harding’s relatives were forced to leave Nazi Germany, other families lived in the lake house over the decades. In his absorbing personal history, “The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History,” Harding recounts, with a measured pathos, the experiences of a succession of tenants. It is a story of aspiration, fleeting joy, escape and the small-scale dramas of domestic life.

Harding’s great-grandfather, Alfred Alexander, was a prosperous Berlin doctor who built the house on land he leased from the well-to-do Otto Wollank, an aspiring aristocrat and gentleman farmer. The five-bedroom, one-story pinewood structure was comfortable but not fancy. Heating was a minimal; still, some luxuries, like a tennis court, were allowed.

The Alexander family swam, relaxed and enjoyed the company of Berlin friends there during the early 1930s. But the idyll was not to last: there was no refuge from the political menace of Nazism. The Alexander children decamped to London, followed by their parents.

In 1937, the house, under the care of the family’s lawyer, was leased to composer and music publisher August Meisel, one of the most intriguing characters in these pages. Meisel was a member of the Nazi Party but no true believer — he joined to protect his business interests and continued to work with many Jewish composers. Still, he benefited from the Alexanders’ loss and bought the house outright when the Reich seized the property from its Jewish owners. Their connection to Germany lost, the Alexanders turned their backs all things German.

After World War II, different occupants lived year round in a house designed for summer use. In the early 1950s, Meisel let the property to a neighbor, Ella Fuhrman, on the condition she only occupy one half of the house. She was to be merely a caretaker, not an official tenant.

With the onset of the Cold War, Germany was changing. Communism now dictated the rhythms of life at Gross Glienicke. Housing was at a premium, and in 1958 a people’s council brought a new tenant to share the house: Wolfgang Kühne, an alcoholic who drove a truck for a military regiment. (For a short time, he served as in informant for the Stasi, the East German secret police, but he was so unreliable that his contract was terminated). Kühne would prove the lake house’s longest-term occupant — he died in 1999, still a resident.

The backdrop to Harding’s story is the very drama of 20th century history as it played out in modern Germany. “[In] its own quiet and forgotten way, the house was on the front line of history,” the author writes, “the lives of inhabitants ripped up and remade again and again, simply because of where they lived.”

During World War II, the lake was surrounded by Nazi military encampments. British bombers on runs to Berlin roared overhead. After the defeat of Germany, Soviet soldiers prowled nearby. Gross Glienicke sat on the dividing line between West Berlin and East Germany; part of the Berlin Wall was constructed along the lake’s western edge, cutting the house off from the shore and deforming a once beautiful landscape.

For all the political and personal upheaval detailed here, Harding writes with a restraint that’s all the more impressive given his personal connection to the material. (Even a dodgy character like Meisel gets a fair hearing.) Harding makes excellent use of eyewitness testimony, interviews with Gross Glienicke villagers, family papers, government archives and other documents, as he moves across a century of time.

Harding’s extended family wanted nothing to do with the house after their flight from Germany, but his grandmother told him stories of life at Gross Glienicke that in turn fueled his quest, which he details in chapters set in the present. He has put a remarkable amount of legwork into his reconstruction of life at the lake house. His persistence saved the house from demolition — Harding lobbied local authorities, and, with the help of family, cleaned up the property. The occupants of the lake house were not big historical players. But their story, however modest, even at times banal, is well worth the telling.

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