Maxim Leo has written a moving book about his family. It is full of characters that populate a family, some more engaging than others but all the more extraordinary in this case because the creation and downfall of the German Democratic Republic or DDR acts a both a backdrop to the family history and a motivating factor in the actions of many of its members.
In one family Leo tells the story of Germans persecuted by the Nazi regime who find solace in a communist state that offers security in the post war years. He also tells of their children and grandchildren who grew up in a state that restricted so many freedoms so that the people could be ‘free’, a contradiction not lost on the teenage Leo who finds himself on the streets in 1989 when demonstrations started.
Perhaps the most conflicted of all were his parents. His grandparents found a sanctuary in East Germany. They were the ones who had suffered the most from the fascists. To them this new country represented a new start. But to their children, the regime they were brought up to obey and honour showed its true colours the more they learned about its ways. The most sympathetic character to me was Maxim Leo’s mother, Anne, who grew up believing the propaganda only to see behind the veil when she became a journalist for state sponsored newspapers. This did not turn her against Communism even if she saw the faults in the party. Instead, she could see that reform was needed if state socialism was to survive. She did not get the chance to influence the demonstrations that she hoped would lead the party to reform itself. Before that could happen, the wall had fallen and the end of the DDR was in sight.
In one particularly stunning moment, Leo writes of the Stasi man who was pushed at a 1989 demonstration. This act of force against an agent of the state was so shocking to the man himself that he could not comprehend that it had happened. He ran off. In such human moments are great historical movements captured.
‘Red Love: The Story of an East German Family’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?