Tag Archives: Life in East Germany

The House by the Lake: Thomas Harding

In 2013, Thomas Harding traveled from London to Berlin in order to visit the weekend house in Groβ Glienicke built by his great-grandfather, Dr Alfred Alexander, a house which, by necessity was abandoned by Harding’s Jewish family in the harsh year of 1936.  The house “was on the front lines of history–the lives of its inhabitants ripped up and remade again and again, simply because of where they lived.” That statement is true for many of the holiday home’s inhabitants. Harding’s relatives were lucky enough to escape to London after his great-grandfather, who had long held the opinion that “his countrymen would see sense, that they would finally understand the madness of Hitler and his cronies,” finally agreed that the family must flee.

The Alexanders’ lake house was an idyllic holiday home for the well-to-do Jewish family. In the 1890s, a wealthy businessman, Otto Wollank with an eye for a bargain, bought a large estate near the Groβ Glienicke lake, fifteen kilometres outside of the city of Berlin.  Under Wollank, a former member of the Danzig Death’s Head Hussars, initially the estate prospered, but by the mid 20s it faced ruin. Wollank decided to lease out lakeside land which could tempt wealthy city dwellers to establish second homes in the country. Consequently, in 1927 Dr Alexander leased the land for 15 years and built a modest lakeside home for his children.

The location of the lakeside home turned out to have an impressive historic significance. Post WWII, the Berlin wall ran (inconveniently) between the lake and the land, so it’s easy to imagine the difficulties residents faced. But even before that, extreme political views arrived in Groβ Glienicke, marking the village out as an early area of turmoil.

The house by the lake

Wollank’s son-in-law, Robert von Schultz, was a rabid anti-Semite, “a product of the street battles of the 1920s, believing in the violent overthrow of the government, the supremacy of the German people and the importance of race.” Von Schultz was the regional leader of a right-wing paramilitary organization, and with the company von Schultz kept at the Wollank estate, soon there were “rumours of abductions, midnight interrogations and even torture.” Yet in spite of this, many of the leasehold tenants who had holiday homes on the Wollank land were Jewish.

The Night of the Long Knives saw von Schultz imprisoned, questioned, and placed on trial. In the meantime, his wife was approached by a representative of Herman Göring who asked her to sell a large part of the estate–a section which was later to used as an airfield– the airfield Hitler used “for his personal journeys, including to his mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden, providing a degree of privacy that he could not find at Berlin’s other airfields.

Once the Alexanders fled to England, the occupancy of the lakeside house fell into freefall. Residents lived there as they fell in and out of political favour, and during the Soviet occupation post WWII, the village became the site of a series of horrendous unsolved murders. Later, the house, under communal living, was at one time occupied by a somewhat lackadaisical Stasi informant known as “Ignition Key.”

When the author arrived to inspect the home (for the second time) in 2013 he found a wreck of a house that was “now owned by the city of Potsdam,” scheduled for demolition, and the author was told that in order to save the building, he would need to prove “it was culturally and historically significant.” That’s where all the research comes in.

It’s impossible to write the history of this house without writing a mini history of Germany–such was the impact of politics on the residents of this house. Readers may find themselves familiar with some of the historic information included here, but nonetheless, this is a remarkable story.

Review copy.

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The Weissensee Saga (German miniseries)

German Literature Month 2017

Back to German Literature Month and another excellent German miniseries. This time it’s The Weissensee Saga (Weissensee)–the chronicle of two families who live in East Berlin in the 80s. The Kupfers, whose lives are spearheaded by senior Stasi officer,  Hans Kupfer (Uwe Kockisch) and his wife Marlene (Ruth Reinecke), live in a gorgeous home in the prestigious Weisensee neighbourhood nestled on the banks of a lake. They have two sons, the very nasty, ambitious Falk (Jörg Hartmann), and divorced Martin (Florian Lukas) who has a mind of his own. Falk, who is also a Stasi officer, is (unhappily) married to Vera (Anita Loos) and they have one child together. Both sons live with their parents, and while Vera, thanks to life with Falk, is literally falling to pieces under the eyes of the Kupfers, it’s interpreted as ‘her problem’–something she needs to fix.

Enter the Hausmanns: singer and songwriter Dunja Hausmann and her daughter Julia Hausmann (Hannah Herzsprung) who live in a tiny Berlin apartment. Dunja, who is vocal about her criticisms of East Germany, is a known dissident and is under Stasi surveillance. Her performances are monitored and controlled; she isn’t allowed to perform outside of East Germany.  Julia and her German/American boyfriend are stopped by the Stasi one night, and Hans Kupfer reluctantly puts them under surveillance. Hans is seen as a more reasoned Stasi officer, whereas Falk, who is looking for promotion and wants to impress his father, is utterly heartless. Falk appeals far more to the current political climate, so at one point, Hans is moved off to become a lecturer at the Stasi Academy while Falk is promoted (and unleashed) to his father’s job.

Problems erupt when police officer Martin falls in love with Julia. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that all hell breaks loose. These are two people who love each other and want to be together, but we see what happens when Falk, who doesn’t want the taint of being involved with a dissident family, moves to make sure the two lovers are separated. There are scenes at the Kupfer family home which indicate that being involved with the Hausmanns isn’t just  a matter of not wanting to be involved with dissidents. Martin’s attachment to Julia is seen as extremely threatening to the Kupfers, and potentially fatal to Falk’s career. Marriages between politically powerful families cement society. Over time, layers of the Kupfers’ marriage are peeled back and we see a pragmatic relationship built with the bricks of ambition. Interestingly, Martin’s wife divorced him because he wasn’t ambitious enough.

As the series continues, the plot takes us down the dark, twisted rabbit hole of life in East Germany as the Stasi become involved in the lives of the Hausmanns.  Dunja sings a banned song at a concert, and Vera, who can no longer morally turn a blind eye to her husband’s actions, goes off the rails. The machinations of the Stasi (Falk) are incredibly evil, and what happens is mind-blowing. We see how people are manipulated into being Stasi informers: at one point it’s estimated that the ratio of informers when weighed against the total population was 1:6.5.

Watching this is an education in totalitarianism. Forget the benign incompetence of state government. What happens here is so vicious, so heartless, it takes your breath away as it becomes evident how the poisonous tendrils of the Stasi infiltrate every corner of life in East Germany. The series is being lauded as showing what life in East Germany was really like, so forget The Lives of Others.

There are three seasons of The Weissensee Saga so far with a fourth on the way. Do yourself a favour and watch this.

 

Once again, yes I know this isn’t a book, but German Literature Month is about celebrating German culture, and… as I said before you can read the subtitles. You can watch The Weissensee Saga on MHz which is available through Amazon or  Roku. Since MHz is also a distributor, it’s also available on DVD.

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