I’ve spent two Christmases in Berlin – one in the old East in the shadow of the TV tower, the other just inside the old West close to Checkpoint Charlie, now a tourist attraction complete with sentry box. You can’t get away from history in this city, although it’s very much more about the Wall than the Second World War, unsurprisingly I suppose. We had a great trip to the brilliant DDR museum, including a DDR lunch which wasn’t at all bad, and H dragged me down Karl-Marx-Allee on our second rather damp trip. He was hoping for the Soviet War Memorial but I put my foot down – I know he’s an historian but we were on holiday.
I’ve read Stasiland, Anna Funder’s clear-eyed, empathetic testament to the dreadful consequences of totalitarianism, in which people tell their stories of life in the GDR, the most spied upon society of its time, and the opening of the Stasi’s files. Having lived all my life in a country that no matter what I think of its government I’m free to say what I like about it, don’t have to watch my ps and qs in front of friends and acquaintances in case they’ve been inveigled into spying on me, and am free to go wherever I want, I’m fascinated by what it was like not to have this freedom in a European country. Maxim Leo’s Red Love offered another glimpse into the paranoid world of the GDR, where truth really is often stranger than fiction.
Leo explores his family history through written memoirs, letters and interviews. Surprisingly, his maternal grandfather, Gerhard, was a French Resistance hero, having fled Germany with his Jewish family who set up a bookshop in Paris. Gerhard later became a Communist, well-respected within the GDR upper echelons. Leo’s paternal grandfather was a Nazi, something of a pragmatist who also embraced the GDR’s politics, damaged and appalled by all that he had seen in combat. Anne, Leo’s mother, was a conflicted rather naive socialist, an idealist upset by the censorship of her journalism while defending the principles of the State. Wolf, Leo’s father, was an artist who took the occasional stand, seen by the State – as his Stasi file later revealed – as ‘critical but not hostile’.
These four, in themselves, are fascinating subjects but Leo is at his best when chronicling the last years of the GDR, the strangeness of wild parties during what he calls the ‘end-times of Prenzlauer Berg’, the bohemian quarter now a yuppie enclave. Gerhard takes him to France in 1987, hoping to show him some of his own history but the seventeen-year-old Leo is distracted by all that the West has to offer, seeing life in colour rather than drab GDR grey for the first time. After the fall of the Wall a little disenchantment sets in – he becomes fed up with the way in which West Berliners treat the old East as if it’s a ‘cholera zone’. It’s a fascinating portrait but this is a privileged family, well-connected within the GDR establishment. I’d love to read a biography of an ordinary GDR family.
I can’t let you go without introducing you to Shiny New Books, an excellent new magazine put together by four lovely bloggers – Annabel, Victoria, Simon and Harriet. It’s stuffed full of reviews (including my own of Louise Levine’s The Following Girls), interviews and book news. Well worth a visit and you can subscribe to it, too.