The history of modern Germany — within four walls

Thomas Harding’s A House by the Lake chronicles the rise of Nazism through the story of one small summer retreat on the outskirts of Berlin

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

The House by the Lake: A Story of Germany Thomas Harding

Heinemann, pp.482, £20, ISBN: 9780434023226

This is a book about boundaries — and relationships. At its heart is the eponymous house by the lake, which in 1927 was the first of many small wooden summer houses to be built in the village of Gross Glienicke. Both its situation, just outside Berlin in the lakeside area that would later abut Gatow airport, and its many occupants, from well-established German Jews to partying neo-Nazis, would expose the property to the more tidal waters of modern German history. But the house has not just provided a stage for human drama; arguably it has been integral to the action itself, helping to shape lives, just as it was itself transformed by Germany’s changing politics. A house is also a very personal space, and this is a history that is often poignant, sometimes heartening, and never other than intimate.

Five very different families fell in love with and lived in the house by the lake, and all were eventually dispossessed. The first were the Alexanders. Alfred, a distinguished doctor, built the place as a summer retreat and opened it with a Jewish prayer. The family wisely left in 1936, settling in England where Alfred’s daughter, Elsie, eventually inspired her grandson, Thomas Harding, to research this book.

In 1937, the composer and music publisher Will Meisel and his young family moved into the house as tenants. Meisel was an opportunist of the first order. Having built his fortune promoting mainly Jewish talent, he joined the Nazi party in 1933 to safeguard his business. While several of his composers were transported to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Meisel quietly employed a brilliant creative director, Hans Hartmann, who could not find work elsewhere, having refused to divorce his Jewish wife. Four years later Meisel pressed the expatriated Alexanders to sell the house at a knock-down price. They rejected his offers. Meisel’s later willingness to buy the seized property from the Nazi German state was sufficient for him to face serious questions during his 1948 denazification tribunal. Although he had lived at the house when his boss fled Berlin, Hans Hartmann chose not to testify in his favour. ‘With hindsight,’ Meisel conceded rather pathetically, joining the Nazi party had not been ‘the right thing to do’.

When the Soviets blockaded post-war Berlin in an attempt to secure control of the city, the airlift supply planes organised by the western allies rattled the windows of the house as they flew into Gatow airport, just around the lake. Ironically perhaps, it was one of Meisel’s songs that became the anthem of Berlin’s blockaded citizens. When the blockade failed and Berlin divided, the ‘house by the lake’ became the ‘house by the wall’, within East Berlin. At first the border was permeable, a rickety fence between house and lake which children like Bernd Kühne, the young son of a later tenant, would crawl under to go swimming. Later the mischievous Bernd would throw sticks over the more fortified fence to trigger alarm wires, and as a young man he managed to climb the wall and swim the lake again for a taste of freedom, enjoying beer and sausages on the far shore before returning, he told the astonished restaurant-owner, as ‘my wife will be mad if I don’t go back’.

After a series of tenants and squatters in reunified Germany, the house was finally abandoned and fell into disrepair. But its mildewed walls still stood testament to one more man-made barrier, one that the property itself held the key to unlocking. When Thomas Harding first saw a photograph of Will Meisel casually leaning against the door of the house, he felt disconcerted, as though his own family’s history were being undermined. In a meta-text that runs through the book, Harding shows how his campaign to save the house from demolition won the support not just of his own family, who were initially hostile to the project, but of the many families connected with the property.

The house by the lake received ‘monument’ status last year. For Harding, it, like his book, is a place of commemoration and reconciliation. Even when you stand still, it seems, over time you will find yourself on one side of history or another, and yet shared stories can help to heal. To make sense of lives caught up in such turbulence, one must, Harding says, ‘be willing to listen to these often quiet voices’. This is a gentle but rewarding book, carefully tuned into the marginal voices recorded in the history of one small house by a lake.

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  • Hamburger

    I am trying to work out which mountains are near Berlin.