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

Ian Critchley Published: 4 October 2015 in Sunday Times

Thomas Harding’s first book, Hanns and Rudolf, told the story of his great-uncle, a German-born soldier in the British Army during the Second World War, and the pursuit of Rudolf Höss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz. His latest also mines his family’s history, this time focusing on a lake house built in 1927 by his great-grandfather on the outskirts of Berlin. But this is far more than a family memoir: by tracing the lives of the different families who lived there, Hardingsheds fresh light on the German 20th century, a tale of war, spies, murder and political, racial and social division.

Being Jewish, Harding’s great-grandfather and his family were forced to flee when the Nazis came to power. Subsequent occupiers of the house included a Nazi party member and a Stasi spy. With the postwar redrawing of boundaries, the house found itself in East Germany, and in the 1960s a section of the Berlin Wall was erected just metres from the back door, blocking the view of the lake. In the chaos following reunification the house became a haven for squatters and, left derelict, was earmarked for demolition until Harding, along with his family and the house’s neighbours, stepped in to save it. His account of the house is a superb work of social history, told with tremendous narrative verve.

Heinemann £20/ebook £11.99 pp464