There’s a kind of literary alchemy that occurs in Thomas Harding’s remarkable new history, The House by the Lake. What started as a simple inquest into his family’s German heritage by examining the history of their historic home on the outskirts of Berlin was transformed into a revelatory political, economic, and social history of Germany in all its shame and glories.
“I can tell you exactly the moment everything changed,” says the author from his home in London. “It all started when I went back to the house with my grandmother in 1993. The moment that things shifted was when I was being given a tour of the village by a guy named Burkhard Radtke. Our mythology was always that we were lucky to get out before the Nazis started rounding up the Jews. But Burkhard said, ‘For us in the village, the trauma is in 1945 when the Russians arrived and they burnt houses down and rounded up men and boys and sent them off to camps and my mother was brutally savaged.’ It was fascinating. We were standing in exactly the same spot, talking about two totally different histories that transpired in the same location.”
The book follows the stories of five families: a wealthy landowner, a prosperous Jewish family, a renowned composer, a widow and her children, and even an enthusiastic if somewhat clumsy Stasi informant. Within the home’s walls are the stories of two wars, the division of a nation, the construction of the nearby Berlin Wall and later, the cautious first steps towards reunification. It was a journey full of lessons for Harding.
“I kept bumping up against my own misconceptions about Germany’s history,” he says. “I was so ignorant. I didn’t know about German reunification in 1871. I had no idea about the role of Jewish soldiers in the First World War.”
But for all the larger lessons about history Harding learned in writing the book, it was the small human moments that make The House by the Lake stand out.
“In our everyday lives, we’re always coming up with solutions to petty problems—this was just a more extreme example,” Harding explains. “It made me understand how people get used to things, even in really tough situations. They have to go to school. They have to make dinner. I wanted to know what the pattern was on the teapot from which they poured their tea in the morning. One of the brilliant things was being able to track how the garden changed over the years. What was it like to go for a swim? What was it like to sail over the lake in an ice boat? That’s what makes up the multidimensional reality I was trying to capture.”
It was a strange thing for Harding to return to the village where the house is located. The author’s families imagined themselves as refugees, shunning the German language, German products, and other ties to their homeland. But returning came with revelatory realizations for Harding.
“I called the neighbors, who put me in touch with their daughter,” he recalls. “When I went to have dinner with her, she told me that they always called the house next door the ‘Alexander House,’ and wondered where we had been all this time. While we had moved on and cut ties with Germany, in their minds, we were still the neighbors. We were still the occupants of this space, even though they hadn’t seen us in 18 years. It’s almost like a ghost trajectory.”
The home’s remarkable history has reached a turning point this year as it’s been designated a historical landmark. Even though the home was slated for demolition, the Alexander family and local residents have formed a cultural organization to celebrate the home’s past and mark it as a touchstone for their community.
“It’s become an extraordinary opportunity for reconciliation,” says Harding. “There’s an incredible pride in preserving the house. The village is bravely acknowledging the past and they’re really proud of what they’re doing. It’s easy to get caught up in this mythology about courage and standing up and surviving. But they’re using that to bring people together in today’s reality, especially in a country where 1,000,000 refugees have just arrived from Syria. The idea is to use the complex history of the house to bring people together.”
In a fitting coda to the story, the book was selected by the BBC for its “Book of the Week” segment, in which selections from the book are read each day. It’s a moment that Harding remembers well.
“I was in Paris, listening, with tears running down my face,” he says. “My grandmother, Elsie, would have been so amazed to hear her story on Her Majesty’s BBC radio. I’m really proud, because she loved Britain. She wanted to be more British than the British and her kids certainly went on to have funny accents and go to good schools and do really well. But for her, to be accepted, to have her story on national radio, well, I think that would have tickled her.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based near San Francisco, California and manages events at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, California.