REVIEW: The House by the Lake by Thomas Harding

When I looked through the list of what I had read last year there was a distinct lack of anything other than novels and so this year I am trying to include more poetry, plays and non-fiction in my reading matter.

This comes into the last of those three categories and is just fascinating.

Thomas Hardy’s family (the Alexanders) were German and Jewish, living in Berlin and building a summer house next to a lake just outside Berlin in a place called Gross Glienicke.

His great grandfather and his family enjoyed idyllic summers by the lake, entertaining friends and family. But then Hitler took power in Germany and suddenly the country became dangerous for Jews so the Alexander family boarded up the lake house and left for England.

When the author Thomas Harding first saw the house in person, he was with his cousins and his grandmother who had spent many happy days there as a child.

Then he returned again on his own years later and found a derelict, boarded up property set in overgrown grounds with a demolition order on it from the city of Potsdam.

He discovered that the only way to prevent the demolition of the building was to have it recognised as a building of historic importance and set about, against the will of remaining family members, trying to do just that.

This book is the result of the research he did into the property and it is a terrific account of Germany from the 1930s to present day.

The house did not stay in the ownership of the Alexander family when they fled to Britain. It was taken from them under laws that stole property in Jewish ownership, transferring it to the Aryan population.

Four families lived in the house after the Alexanders were forced to leave. One was a musician, composer and businessman who bought the property under the ‘Aryan rule’. Some of the others lived under Communist rule as Germany was split after the Second World War.

When the Berlin Wall was put up in 1961 it blocked the end of the garden from the lake as Communists desperately tried to prevent the East German exodus to West Germany.

This book is a biography of a house, of five families for the duration of the time they lived there and of a country pre-war, at war, in post-war division and finally in reunification.

It is a potted history of almost 100 years of Germany through one of its most tumultuous times and it is absolutely fascinating, well written and a enlightening and enjoyable read.

I thoroughly recommend it for anyone interested in history, politics or the Second World War and its aftermath.

And reading it is the only way for you to discover whether or not Thomas Harding managed to save the house, because I am not going to tell you.

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