Author uses his family's story as a chronicle of East Germany's rise and fall

The New York TimesApril 24, 2014 


    'Red Love: The Story of an East German Family'

    By Maxim Leo. Translated by Shaun Whiteside.

    Pushkin Press. 264 pp. $25.

A quarter-century has passed since the Berlin Wall came down and the German Democratic Republic disappeared. That's more than half the life span of the East German state, a smoke-and-mirrors contraption conjured from the rubble of World War II that has become, for those who lived there, an increasingly distant and improbable memory.

That memory haunts Maxim Leo, a journalist who grew up in East Berlin and watched the world of his parents and grandparents, and of his own youth, vanish overnight. It lies at the heart of Red Love: The Story of an East German Family, his searching and sensitive chronicle of three generations making the journey from euphoric hope to disillusionment to despair.

It begins with the war-scarred Germans who placed their faith in a socialist future and continues with their children, who, Leo writes, "were hurled into their fathers' dreamlands, and had to dream along whether they wanted to or not." It ends with the collective sigh of relief uttered by Leo's generation, for which East Germany's collapse comes not a moment too soon. "They were glad when it was all over," he writes. "They didn't even have a guilty conscience at kicking the state."

He doles out the grand pronouncements and sweeping historical judgments sparingly. For the most part, he tells his tale through personal histories, in a terse, often elliptical style, well served by translator Shaun Whiteside, that imparts an appropriately fablelike, once-upon-a-time quality to the narrative.

Fate dealt Leo some very good cards for his under taking. His maternal grandfather, the son of a wealthy Jewish lawyer, fled to Paris with his family in the early 1930s and, after the fall of France, joined the Resistance and carried out highly risky espionage missions around Toulouse. After being captured and tortured by the SS, just days before the Normandy invasion, he was freed by Communist partisans in a daring raid on the train transporting him to prison and almost certain execution in Paris.

A true believer in the socialist cause, he became a journalist, initially in West Germany for the Communist Party newspaper, and eventually a spy, based in East Berlin. His adventures, before and after the war, provide Leo with absolutely enthralling material.

Leo's paternal grand father, by contrast, was an East German Everyman, one of the untold number who, bruised and battered by history, kept their heads down and plowed their furrow for whoever was in charge. Until the tail end of the war, when he was uprooted from a weapons factory and thrown into combat in Alsace, he had no particular problem with National Socialism, which gave him work and some of the happiest days of his life. "Nazism is posh Communism," he liked to say. By merest chance, after the war, he took a teaching job in what would become East Berlin, studied Marx and Engels, and joined the party, which he served enthusiastically.

The rifts and fault lines appear with Leo's parents, Wolf and Anne, attractive bohemians who, in the West, would have jumped feet first into the counterculture. In East Germany, that was not possible. Wolf, a photo retoucher and artist, chafed and groused at the heavy hand of the state, indulged in small provocations and quarreled about politics with his wife, a journalist who maintained a certain degree of faith in the system. Wolf said East Germany "was a dictatorship of civil servants who had betrayed socialism," Leo writes. "Anne said there were definitely big problems, but they could be overcome." Leo sums up his own position as "numb indifference."

Through his parents, Leo vividly evokes the second-rate nightmare of repression, intolerance and low-level menace dramatized in the film The Lives of Others. Anne begins to sour on journalism after attending one too many "argumentation assemblies," meetings in which the editor-in-chief goes over all the subjects that cannot be written about and words that cannot be used.

Today, Leo lives two houses away from the shop where he was born in the district of Prenzlauer Berg. His street, once gray and forlorn, is "a dream in pastel colors," radiant with new money. It has shed its desiccated skin, a little like Leo, who admits, somewhat ruefully, that he fits in rather well.

But not too well. He is acutely aware of straddling two epochs, awkwardly, as the past recedes at alarming speed. "It's as if I'm reporting from a distant time that has hardly anything to do with me," he writes. "I've become an eyewitness, a man who experienced something a long time ago."

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