Thomas Harding, The House by the Lake (2016)
Though it focuses on a single location — a simple lakeside house built by a prosperous Berlin doctor as a family retreat — this book takes us on a tour of an astonishingly volatile period in German history. As if in a time-lapse film, we watch what was once an aristocratic estate become parceled into bourgeois country houses (some, like this one, owned by Jews). Then the house and its surroundings are seized by the Nazis, bought up by opportunists, taken over again by East Germany, cut off from the lake by the Berlin Wall, and returned to the Western world again when the Wall comes down. We watch the house itself, once proud in its simple elegance, erode into utilitarian socialist housing, become a squatter’s den, and finally be scheduled for demolition. And we meet the people who called it home, for a few years or many, as holiday retreat or permanent residence or temporary shelter, and enter into their many ways of living and being human in a fractured world.
Harding did not choose this house at random; it was built by his great-grandfather, and his grandmother, having escaped with her parents to England in the 1930s, still called it her “soul place.” He got to visit it once with her, twenty years ago, after the reunification of Germany, and meet the couple then in residence (reassuring them that the family was not trying to get it back). When he learned it was going to be torn down, he wondered whether it could be saved, and started to piece together the remarkable history of this place so that it might be seen as a focus for remembrance, education, and reconciliation.
In reconstructing the biography of the house, he intersperses scenes from his own journey of research and family negotiation, which was not always easy or straightforward. Forget the house, some said. It’s too painful, too difficult, too obscure to remember or bring back to life, even in writing. But Harding persisted, and has given us a record of an ordinary place in an extraordinary time, going beyond the borders of the usual kind of history book to help us understand what history really means.
Harding’s style is understated, some would say to the point of dryness, but I found that the events he portrayed spoke for themselves. The image of the Berlin Wall suddenly running through the bottom of the garden is about as concrete as you can get. Don’t skip the footnotes, as they include additional anecdotes that add even more fascinating details to the story.
Though Alexander Haus, as it is now called, has been saved from destruction, there is much to be done to make it a viable educational center. You can visit the website to learn more, and also to see fascinating videos taken at the house during different points in its history. What will be in store next for the house and its visitors? Only the future will tell.