Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo

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Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Life in a Socialist police state has never been as perceptively looked back on as here.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: September 2013
Publisher: Pushkin Press
ISBN: 9781908968517

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Chances are there have been major disagreements and splits in your family. One black sheep might have supported the wrong football team. Some of you will be strictly Strictly, the rest X Factor. But probably nothing compares to what went on in the Leo household over decades in Eastern Berlin. One of our author's grandfathers, Gerhard, was too Jewish and bourgeois to survive life in Germany, fled to France, and came back a Communist having fought against Nazism. His counterpart Werner ended the war with some semblance of PTSD, and more or less landed in Communist Berlin due to facts of administration, yet became a fully-fledged Party activist. Author's mother Anne worked as a journalist on the Communist mouthpiece newspaper, even if she managed to doubt things she was forced to write during the Prague Spring and more. Her husband Wolf – Werner's son – in a similar industry was involved in sort-of Photoshopping for propaganda, and often sabotaged his own output. He was violent, awkward, but very anti-establishment. And if you can't see how having a non-Communist in such a family in the heightened times of Cold War Berlin would be, you certainly will after reading this gripping collective biography.

The author himself was only nineteen at Die Wende, when the Wall fell. He knew of old there were stories to be told in the family – Gerhard's own brand of what he saw as patriotic activity, fighting to defeat the Wehrmacht; Werner imprisoned and belaboured after the War yet gifted a new sense of purpose in Communism – even if he might well have been a bright star of Nazism under any other sun. The way Maxim Leo was inspired to possibly make himself a black sheep and report the whole history, and the problems the major cleft in the family might have caused, is itself inspired, and while it comes many years after the Good Bye, Lenin! sense of Ostalgie (a love of the old East Germany), it serves as a brilliant socio-historical document.

Leo writes of finding archives inside and outside the family (I only need mention the Stasi once to let you know where some of the documents have been) in the past tense, and brings the lengthy reconstructions of history to us in vivid present tense. The fact the family is still moderately close, and has enough concerned observers, allows him to add relative's personal opinion to both grandfathers' individual memoirs. Initially there is a sense of closeness within the family – Leo has inherited this from one family member, that from another. But soon the book really opens out to provide much wider windows on much larger scenes. You will probably never have felt this sense of repercussions of the War as is here before – how one man had his world of posh furniture, being introduced to the opera years early due to the threat of Nazism and more diminished into a claustrophobic world of the Resistance, and the other being gifted a burgeoning life – the first in his family to ski, the first to see the sea. One had a wide world he might have explored redacted, the other given everything Socialism could offer.

There are no sides taken as such about Communism, there is just the fact that it was there, and it was a difference in the family, and young Maxim was only aware of a fraction of all the past differences before making the explorations that led to this book. But the final section covers his own experiences of life in Socialist schools, youth organisations, and yet again, that family, and what Communism meant for his parents. I had more of a non-relationship with the state he declares – politics are not what a young child is interested in, yet when he and friends notably pretend to be Western tourists it's the direct opposite of Good Bye, Lenin! and its plot.

The family have produced several books before now, so there is a sense this volume and its characters will be more familiar to the German audience it's gained over the last few years. Certainly everyone will become clear in the eye of the English reader, however, with writing and sterling content such as this, even if the editing isn't a hundred per cent there. Some details are Anglicised too well, some initials not given helpful definition. Someone enters spying to some extent and it's not clear who and how and what for. But that's pernickety. This is a brilliant book, and while it may well cover something you wouldn't expect to get too much out of, this is both excellent history and a first-rate personal family document. I found the British edition's wordy cover very dour-looking, but the contents are nothing like. It's very highly recommended.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

Guilt About the Past by Bernhard Schlink is similar in looking back on past German sins, this time mostly the Nazis. Springtime for Germany by Ben Donald will take you around the country in a very different way.

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Booklists.jpg Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo is in the Top Ten Autobiographies and Biographies of 2013.


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