Things that outlive humans


British writer Thomas Harding takes a slightly different approach to biography in his recent The House by the Lake: A Story of Germany. Traditionally, biography has people at its centre, but Harding recounts the hundred-year old history of a holiday house outside Berlin (by a lake, unsurprisingly) that was owned by his Jewish family who fled Nazi Germany. The house had various occupants over the years, and Harding is able to tell not only their stories, but the story of the vast changes in twentieth century Germany via this one location. In doing so, he does what many general histories fail to do – relate the details of how ordinary people coped with societal changes. In this particular location, we have the boom of Weimar Germany, the decline into Nazism and war, the ravages of the incoming Russians, the perils of the Cold War – the Berlin Wall ran right through the garden of the lake house – and the astonishing (even to locals) collapse of East Germany and the reunion of families. It also touches on how things outlive human lives, how buildings have times of health and illness, how both good and bad times inevitably pass, and issues of inheritance and rightful ownership.


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