The inhabitants of a summer house reveal Germany’s political, economic, and social history.
In 2013, journalist and biographer Harding (Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz, 2013) traveled to the lakeside vacation home outside Berlin where his grandmother had spent a bucolic childhood. He was shocked by its condition: abandoned, in disrepair, its roof cracked, its chimneys crumbling, the once-beloved refuge was in possession of the city of Potsdam, scheduled for demolition. The only way to save it, he learned, was to “prove that it was culturally and historically significant.” Harding’s efforts to amass that proof have resulted in a well-researched, intermittently interesting overview of 20th-century German history, focused on five families who lived in the house. In the 1890s, Otto Wollank, a wealthy businessman, bought the property, adding to his already large holdings in Berlin. In 1927, his son-in-law, an early Nazi supporter, leased part of the land to Harding’s great-grandfather Alfred Alexander, a prominent Jewish physician. After the Nazis took power, the Alexanders—including their daughter, who became Harding’s grandmother—reluctantly fled to London. Although the author claims that “virulent nationalism and anti-Semitism…[were] a rarity in the Germany of 1929,” he concedes that Jews could not serve in the army, secure a university professorship, or hold other state positions without converting to Christianity. The story he tells of Nazi persecution of Jews is, sadly, familiar. After the war, the house’s residents included a working-class family whose access to the lake was cut off by the Berlin Wall. Surprisingly, Hardings’ relatives responded with hostility to his pleas to claim and restore the house, eventually giving in and participating in a cleanup day. The house was saved, and Harding asks readers to contribute to its restoration.
A personal and imaginative yet overlong perspective on German history.