It was the day after my sixth birthday and I was at school, when the lesson was interrupted and we were all ushered into another classroom to watch television. I remember feeling quietly proud: I assumed it was probably thanks to my birthday that we’d been awarded this extraordinary treat. We were all squeezed into the room with several other classes, and I sat cross-legged on the floor, envious of the bigger girls who swung their legs from the tables above. The television was one of those school ones – grey, very big and raised up high on a trolley so it could be wheeled around.
We had been gathered to watch the fall of the Berlin Wall, on 9th November 1989. I remember thinking how colourful the wall was, with so many words brightly painted on it, and I was confused by the mixture of smiling and crying faces that loomed large on the screen. We were told that we were witnessing a really important moment of history. It was the first time anyone had told me that history was still happening, that what happened today – on my second day of being six – would be learned about in the future, just as we were busy learning about how Henry VIII got through so many wives.
Red Love by Maxim Leo is a family memoir about growing up behind the Wall. Published in paperback just last week, I noticed it as an uncanny sequel to Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past is Myself. Having spent a week in Bielenberg’s vivid conjuring of Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s, it seemed strangely perfect to pick up a book that picked up exactly where she left off. Red Love is every bit as powerful and thought-provoking as Bielenberg’s memoir. Maxim Leo’s true stories also seem like the stuff of fiction. And, like the best fiction, they raise more questions than they answer.
Leo traces his family’s connection with the GDR back to his grandparents. His mother’s father Gerhard fled Germany as a child in the thirties. Gerhard’s father was a Jewish lawyer, who had made an enemy of Goebbels in the 1920s, when he proved that Goebbels’ club foot had been present since birth and was not, as Goebbels claimed, a result of French military torture. Once the War caught up with France, Gerhard became a fighter for the resistance, bravely undertaking secret operations and fighting with communist partisans. There are several lucky escapes, and these passages are as tense and gripping as the best action-packed war films. Leo shows how Gerhard’s fierce fighting for freedom then translated itself into fervent belief in the GDR. When fourteen-year-old Leo challenges his grandfather about the Wall, he is told
He was glad there was a wall to keep criminals like that away from him.
Criminals like what? Criminals like the Nazis Gerhard fought against during the War. Nazis like Leo’s other grandfather, Werner.
When Werner was newly married and had found a first flat, he is determined to put a swastika flag in the window. He comes back with the biggest flag he can find, and wants to fly one from his parent-in-law’s apartment too, for which he buys flagpoles. And yet twenty years later, he was fervently flying red flags for the GDR.
My two grandfathers never met. I don’t know if they’d have had anything to say to each other if they had met. Still, they built the same state, they were in the same Party, perhaps they even believed in the same things at some point. And yet they would probably have remained strange to one another because their careers were so different, because fate had guided them in very different directions very early on.
How is it that two men who had such different stories could end up in the same place, both believing so strongly in the same thing?
I think that for both my grandfathers the GDR was a kind of dreamland, in which they could forget all the depressing things that had gone before. It was a new start, a chance to begin all over again … From now on all that mattered was the future. And trauma turned to dream.
Through his compelling and fascinating family memoir, Leo offers some answers, and asks many more questions. He explores how the GDR came into being, why its founding fathers – from such diverse backgrounds – believed so strongly in it, how the dream soured, and the intimate, complicated relationship everyone had with it. As his father Wolf says, ‘The GDR was always there in bed with us.’
Both Maxim Leo and his father have moments when they contemplate crossing the border, fleeing to the West, but both turn away from ‘alien freedom’ to return to ‘the prison that is my home’. Images of borders and barriers return again and again in the book, as though the Wall is reflected in each person’s psyche. Leo writes of how Wolf, an artist, liked to brush against the state, push them to see how far he could go in his work. The Stasi, however, saw that Wolf wasn’t really dangerous, saw that he was in fact a potential asset. There is an eerie passage in the book when they try to recruit him:
Plainly they had seen something in Wolf that he himself did not want to see … He had that need to do something, to commit himself, not always just to be against, but also to be for something.
This complicated push-pull relationship in which you are both for and against something which both supports and restrains you is echoed in a passage when Leo was in hospital as a child. He remembers being in a room with barred windows; his parents were only allowed to visit once a week:
Wolf came more often, he climbed up the bars and waved at me from outside …
The bars are a means of separation but they are also something to climb up, to cling on to. So the Wall and its echoes – the many barriers which populate the book – act as supports, holding up the GDR and its inhabitants, as well as fencing them in.
No wonder that when the Wall came down, and freedom flooded in, something was also lost. There was no longer something to define yourself for or against, no barrier and no support.
Red Love is a fascinating study of home and family, showing the strength of these bonds, and how they push as well as pull. While Leo keeps enough cool distance to yield a historian’s insight on the past, the pages remain astir with a nostalgic love for the communist state and what it set out to achieve. It’s a unique balance, leaving one aware of the many faults and travesties of the Stasi state, and yet feeling a sadness that the dream turned into such a nightmare. It can certainly see now why those faces I stared at on the television as a six-year-old were crying as well as smiling.