Red Love: The Story of an East German Family, by Maxim Leo
NOTA DE LEITURA
Acho muito interessantes os livros sobre a RDA. Têm muito piada a contar as peripécias da vida naquele país de anedota. Assim, adorei Stasiland, da Australiana Anna Funder e, ainda mais, The Berlin Wall. My part in its downfall de Peter Millar.
Aqui está mais um livro apreciado e premiado sobre o mesmo assunto. O autor, ainda relativamente novo (n. 1970), é jornalista e editor do Berliner Zeitung. A matéria é vasta, porque ele vai até aos avós e bisavós. Há de tudo na família, judeus, nazis, comunistas, gente da Stasi; ele conta a história de todos com bastante pormenor. Deu mais atenção aos homens que às mulheres, mas terá sido por lhe ser mais fácil encontrar documentos. De facto, o avô materno publicou mesmo as suas memórias e conseguiu encontrar dois extensos diários manuscritos do avô paterno.
O contraste entre a mãe, académica e professora e o pai, artista e boémio, não podia ser maior.
O livro lê-se muito bem, apesar do grande número de personagens. Foi premiado com o European Book Prize, da União Europeia. Como era costume (ou obrigação) na RDA, não usa pai e mãe para falar dos pais, mas sim os nomes Wolf e Anne (nome abreviado).
Não se alarga muito a falar do irmão mais novo, Moritz (n. 1975), advogado, administrador de insolvências. Há também duas tias, irmãs da mãe, que não são identificadas.
Para facilitar, deixo aqui algumas referências, especialmente de datas:
PAIS - separaram-se em 2003:
- Wolf Schwieger, artista, que depois adoptou o sobrenome da mulher, Leo – n. 1942
- Annette Leo, doutorou-se em 1982 – n. 25-2-1947
- Gehrard Leo (1923-2009)- Publicou em 1988, o livro de memórias “Frühzug nach Toulouse”
- Nora Lubinski, filha de Dagobert Lubinski (n. 1893), perseguido pelos seus camaradas comunistas e depois pelos nazis que o prenderam e executaram como judeu em Auschwitz em 22-2-1943.
- Werner Schwieger (n. 29-11-1913 - † 30-12-2008). Em Novembro de 1951, divorciou-se e casou de novo
– Sigrid, mais nova 5 anos
19 Sep 2013
Red Love by Maxim Leo, review
The Wall may have fallen but life in East Germany is hard to forget, finds Keith Lowe.
It is difficult to imagine now, almost 25 years on, that a place like the German Democratic Republic ever really existed. And yet when author and journalist Maxim Leo was growing up in East Berlin in the Seventies and Eighties the GDR was not only real, it was omnipresent. As a totalitarian state it governed how Leo was schooled and what job he was allowed to apply for, and what he was allowed to think and say. Like an overbearing parent it was stifling and terrifying, but also strangely reassuring.
In this beautiful and supremely touching memoir, Leo tells the story of how his own family coped, or failed to cope, with this bizarre historical anomaly. Each member of the family had a different relationship with the East German state. There were those who defended it with every breath, those who resisted it, and those, like Leo’s mother, who struggled to understand how they felt at all. The only impossible thing was to ignore it altogether. In the words of Leo’s father, Wolf, “The GDR was always there in bed with us.”
The story begins with Leo’s grandparents who, in their own ways, were both ardent supporters of the East German regime. The two sides of Leo’s family could not have been more different. Gerhard, his maternal grandfather, was a Jew who had been forced to flee Germany before the war to escape the Nazis. Leo’s paternal grandfather, Werner, by contrast, had originally supported the Nazis so enthusiastically that he not only hung his own windows with swastikas, but pestered others to do likewise. While Gerhard joined the French Resistance during the war and had all kinds of astonishing adventures fighting against his former countrymen, Werner joined the Wehrmacht and fought for the Fatherland in the doomed Ardennes Offensive. Gerhard returned to Germany a hero, and became a poster boy for the Resistance; Werner returned a broken man, having spent two years toiling in a French prisoner-of-war camp.
And yet both of these men embraced East German Communism with a passion.
For Gerhard it was a matter of loyalty: it was the Communist Resistance which had saved his life, and fought against those who had persecuted his family. For Werner it was a chance to reinvent himself, and start again with a clean slate. Despite his Nazi past, all he ever really wanted was to belong to something bigger than himself, and this is what the GDR offered him.
The next generation, Leo’s parents, had a much more difficult relationship with Communism. His mother, Anne, found it almost impossible to reject the ideology of the hero father she loved so well. But as she grew up she began to discover that the Communist ideal and the Communist reality were entirely different things. As a journalist she wanted to criticise the regime, and yet because of her devotion to her father every criticism felt like a betrayal. And besides, criticism was not really an option in the GDR.
Leo’s father, on the other hand, rebelled against his Nazi-cum-Communist background almost from the very beginning. A colourful, defiant artist, Wolf constantly pushed the boundaries of what he was and was not allowed to do. He produced subversive pictures, and made inflammatory speeches at the Artists’ Association. This caused all kinds of family arguments, both between himself and Leo’s mother and between the generations. On one occasion the hero grandfather accused him of the worst crime imaginable: “When it comes to the crunch, you’re on the other side of the barricade.”
But even Wolf was not entirely against the regime. The secret police themselves quickly realised this: a Stasi report on Wolf noted that his attitude was “critical, but not hostile”, and they even made a couple of attempts to recruit him. In the end neither of Leo’s parents truly wanted to topple the state. They merely wanted it to change, to reflect the real needs of the people more effectively. As a consequence they found themselves in a sort of limbo, “not faithful enough for the faithful, too uncritical for the critical”.
And what of Leo himself? When he was growing up he had no idea whose side he wanted to be on. He just wanted to live in a normal family, without the “barricade” that his grandfather spoke of. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 he felt no surge of joy, just a kind of anxiety that he still has trouble identifying. He had no love for the GDR, and yet it was all he had ever known. And now, in a matter of what seemed like a few days, it had simply dissolved.
Leo’s memoir was the winner of the European Book Prize, and deservedly so. It is a moving saga of people who love one another but are doomed never to get along, and it is also an unbearably poignant description of a world that no longer exists. His family is a microcosm of the GDR itself, struggling with the same opposing sets of ideals that eventually tore the country apart.
The death of the GDR, when it came, was like the death of a dysfunctional relative, at once liberating and tragic. As Leo’s book makes painfully clear, those who grew up in this dysfunctional family are still living with the consequences today.
Keith Lowe is the author of Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II (Penguin)
Red Love is a compelling biography by Maxim Leo, a natural narrator whose sentences ring with hopelessness when his characters feel empty, and with abandon when his characters feel free
Pushkin Press, pp.266, £16.99, ISBN: 9781908968517
Historians still argue over whether the regime of the GDR can be called a totalitarian one. Some say that the definition reduces the difference between the Socialist Unity Party and National Socialism —that the Nazis left millions dead while the SED left millions of Stasi files. It’s a loaded question, and one that will occur frequently to the reader of Maxim Leo’s startlingly powerful, a memoir of his childhood in the GDR. But as the political theorist Hannah Arendt observed, ‘storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it’.
In this case the story is real, and is not one but many, running back and forth over the lives of Leo’s family as they form and re-form their relationship with their country. Leo writes as the genealogist rather than the son or grandson, a position that chimes with his characteristic dispassionateness towards the politics that governed his childhood. As he states from the outset, ‘Society isn’t the main subject of my life. I am’. Yet at the same time he must acknowledge that the East can never be far away: ‘It clings to me. It’s like a big family that you can’t shake off … that’s forever calling you up’.
The real family of his book is just as complex. Born in earlier times, the Party is the main subject of their lives, and allegiances are never straightforward. Leo’s mother Anne was born in the West to a Jewish father who fled Germany to fight with the French Resistance; it is his fervent desire for an antidote to fascism that draws him to the ideals of a new, democratic state. Gerhard’s missions with the Resistance are relayed with novelistic breathlessness, a thudding contrast to the stretch of grey obedience that later awaits him in the East. One of the most moving episodes of Leo’s story comes when Gerhard is permitted by the authorities to take his grandson to the West, to visit the France he had come to love. There the teeenaged Maxim witnesses the vibrancy of this other world matched on Gerhard’s face; up until now he has only ever seen it made grey and remote by conformity, even if it is a conformity that Gerhard still defends to the hilt.
Leo’s paternal grandfather could not be more different. Werner too throws himself passionately into a cause, but this time it is the fatherland as configured through the Nazi lens. He fights in the doomed offensive on the Ardennes, and is taken as a prisoner-of-war before returning to a Germany he no longer knows. Werner adopts the new cause of the GDR as eagerly as he once displayed the Nazi flag from his balcony; the impetus is the same — a filler for an emotional and political void.
The competing allegiances of Leo’s grandparents are played out in his parents, too. Bohemian and beautiful, they try hard to keep the state outside, to have as little contact as possible with the part of the GDR that is about red flags and the compulsion to unanimity. But their relationship can’t help but be full of ideological tension. At first Anne becomes enthralled to the Party, which she feels to be ‘like a supernatural being, something terribly big and remote from normal life’. Later, when it becomes clear that her journalistic ambitions can never include free speech, she feels all the confusion of a loyal heretic. When she witnesses the fall of the Wall, holding hands with her son, she doesn’t cry. The GDR was always like a teenage infatuation: ‘the unhappy love of her youth’.
Wolf, Leo’s father and an artist, is more readily subversive, but carefully so. His rebellion is deeply felt but controlled, even while he despairs at the truths being presented to his son. In the East, the aim of education is not to inspire convictions but to plant them. Leo admits honestly that he dealt with the listlessness of school because this was the way it was; he knew nothing different and, moreover, much of life in East Germany was normal. Later, he is conscious that his resistance is weaker than that of his parents and grandparents; ironically, his faded idealism matches the diminishing power of an opposing regime which, near the end, feels to be yawning its way to extinction.
Barriers appear in the book in many forms — Gerhard tells his daughter and son-in-law ‘you will always be on the wrong side of the barricade’, without acknowledging that he himself has seen the ‘right’ side constantly shift. Later, at the age of six, Maxim is run over by a Stasi car. He spends six weeks in hospital in a room with barred windows, and his parents are allowed to visit just once a week. His father comes more often and climbs up the bars to wave to his son from the outside. ‘I can’t remember if I thought that was nice or sad. But I’ve kept that image of my father behind the barred window’. It is an obvious motif, but never a laboured one.
This simplicity and lack of self-consciousness is there throughout Leo’s memoir. His stance is cool but never cold —the subject is love in a myriad of forms — and he allows the details of his family to mould their own account of why the GDR came, and then ceased, to exist. But these details had to be shaped as well as discovered, and while the lives they document would make any account special, what makes it exceptional is their telling. Leo is a natural narrator — his prose, beautifully translated by Shaun Whiteside, is clean and fluid, and sometimes unpredictable.
In his Prologue he writes of visiting Gerhard after a stroke, and emptiness rings out from his sentences: ‘Gerhard’s face was slack and empty. We said nothing. I would have liked to have a conversation with him’. Later, when Gerhard’s life in France is retold, the writing becomes as elastic as the freedom he discovers there: ‘All of a sudden he is so human, so vulnerable and so happy’.
At the end of his trip with Gerhard, on his way back to the GDR from France, Maxim is able to stop off in West Berlin and to see the Wall for the first time from the other side. He takes the S-Bahn back and forth from West to East, just to see what it feels like. He knows that, if he wanted, he could become a refugee and seek freedom. He opts to turn back to the ‘prison of home’. Earlier we’ve learned that Wolf once had just the same choice, standing in front of the Wall in its early days when barricades were low and poorly-guarded. He too turned back, and later sees that the decision cemented the rest of his life.
is an important and compelling book for many reasons, but perhaps more than anything it reminds us of the pull of family, however flawed it might be.
Saturday 5 October 2013
Maxim Leo's engaging family memoir reveals much about life under communism
Maxim Leo's fascinating memoir about life in the GDR sees the author plunge back into his family's past to explore the experiences of his parents and his grandparents under communism.
Leo was in his teens when the Berlin Wall came down and his anxious younger self is a presence throughout the book, but it's his family's stories that dominate. The most compelling sequences concern his grandfathers: two men who were different in every way imaginable. Gerhard, his mother's father, was a Jew who ended up fighting in the French Resistance while his paternal grandfather, Werner, fought for the fatherland before ending up a prisoner of war. Leo pieces together their stories and, in Gerhard's case, struggles to connect the stern, remote man he knew, and to some extent feared, as a child with the bright, brave young man in uniform. "Why did he hide from us for all those years?" he wonders.
Leo's parents, the bohemian Wolf and Anne, also feature prominently and the writing process, the gathering of old files and photographs, appears to allow him to better understand the ideological struggles that shaped them, the numerous compromises and adjustments that came from living in such a controlling environment.Leo documents his parent's complex and differing relationships with the state, this entity that permeated every aspect of their lives – and yet was home. In a tone that is analytical yet not without affection, Leo grapples with these contradictions, sculpting a family narrative that is simultaneously gripping and meditative, an engaging and thought-provoking portrait of a disappeared world.
26 September 2013
Like Jana Hensel, whose memoir was published in English in 2008, Maxim Leo belongs to that last significant generation of East Germans: people young enough to have been able to reinvent their lives after unification yet old enough to have been aware of current events in the German Democratic Republic when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
No matter how chimerical they came to believe the GDR to be, this generation is united in having once been deeply invested in its success. But where Hensel’s book had a predominantly forward thrust, weighing the gains and losses of unification, Leo’s – which won the European Book Prize in 2011 – lingers ruminatively in the past.
He is in no hurry to forget the GDR, confessing at one point that he was never more drawn to the place than at the moment of its liquidation. Even now, he continues to holiday at lake Liepnitz, showing his children the houses in the forest that once belonged to Politburo members and the place on the beach where Erich Honecker had his swimming spot. Red Love is only secondarily a memoir: foremost it is a love story.
All the principal players – Leo, his parents, his two grandfathers – conduct a prolonged love affair with the GDR, though each is infatuated with it for a different reason. For his grandfather Gerhard, a Berlin-born Jew and French Resistance hero, the GDR was the brave anti-fascist state. To preserve this dream he was willing to sacrifice strongly held scruples; to swallow the bitter pill of the GDR’s raging anti-Semitism and, as a highlevel party operative, to negotiate dirty deals with ex-Nazis living incognito in the west, exchanging information for protection.
For Leo’s other grandfather, Werner, who came from solid farming stock in rural Uckermark, the GDR was a country in which workers could rise to become role models, even ideologues. Werner is the character who troubled me most: “He would have worked well in more or less any system, in any role,” Leo says. Flexing in whatever direction was required, Werner flew the Nazi flag from his apartment in the 1930s; then, without perceiving the least contradiction, flew the red flag in the 1950s.
One generation down, the self-contortions multiply. Leo’s father, Wolf (son of Werner) loved the state because it allowed him selfdefinition; he could be a wayward artist yet not a subversive, a critic of the party without being branded counter-revolutionary. The GDR was something Wolf could kick against, even if he soon realised: “It’s all about the façade . . . the state didn’t really demand genuine belief.”
It is Maxim’s mother, Anne, who possesses the purest and most fragile emotional connection to the state. She really did believe – her loyalty resting on a complex kind of idealism that required every citizen not only to uphold the highest standards but to expect the same of everyone else. Anne is the most dissociated of Leo’s subjects. The night the wall came down, she couldn’t bring herself to leave the house. She huddled on the sofa drinking tea, terrified that reality would crumble. At 10.30pm she went to bed, unable to withstand any longer the trauma of her nation disappearing.
What makes Red Love compelling is Leo’s cool analytic head. (“Anyone who gives in once will do it over and over again, and anyone who has ever been punished will never wash that stain away.”) In addition, he refuses to pass judgement on anyone – party loyalist, Nazi sympathiser, Stasi informer. He understands that eking out a space to breathe in under totalitarianism demands compromise and he is terrific at elucidating the slow, incremental steps by which people come to lie to themselves: giving an outward performance of believing one thing, while secretly holding to another. Guile, guilt and disappointment drip from these pages and is all the more affecting for it.
Until now, Anna Funder’s award-winning memoir (2003), with its creepy evocation of the paranoia and doublethink that defined the GDR’s emotional landscape, has stood unsurpassed. Red Love offers a worthy counterpoint. It’s warmer, for one thing; but more importantly, to an insider such as Leo, the ubiquitous paranoia doesn’t scream out, because it’s in him, too, part of the fabric of the universe he inhabits. Where other commentators might tilt to the negative, Leo tries to salvage, to heal, to mend.
Still, he is no apologist. He concludes that the GDR became “the country of old men”, one of founding fathers “whose logic no longer made sense to anybody”. Their children were obliged to dream along with them, whether they wanted to or not. But their grandchildren, people like Maxim Leo and Jana Hensel, could rail against the petty prohibitions, transparent propaganda and showy nationalism without feeling guilty about it. And tellingly, they were glad when it was all over.
Wednesday 25 December 2013
REBECCA K MORRISON
“I never felt as close to the GDR as I did after its downfall,” Maxim Leo remarks, pondering the paradox that in the final years of the East German state he had felt “a Westerner”, even pretending with friends that they were tourists from the West.
Whereas, years after the fall of the Wall, the East clings to him still. His is a personal quest to make sense of what the GDR meant to a child and young man, how it shaped the fortunes and relationships within his family, and what it was to be “German” from the 1920s to the era of the divided country. Leo remembers childhood games in the 1970s with a particular East German flavour. Behind the wheel of grandfather Gerhard’s exotic Citroën, he was Erich Honecker’s chauffeur; “Escape to the West” was a game for four kids and a climbing frame. How different was his childhood to that of his parents. His father, Wolf, remembers post-war Berlin as an exciting playground. His gang scaled piles of rubble and made dens in abandoned basements. With few trees left in Berlin, and no fuel – his mother gathered kindling and dug for turnips – there was also cold and hunger.
Wolf’s own father, a prisoner of war, returned, bringing elation, then beatings, then “citizenship lectures” as the soldier-turned-teacher found an anchor in GDR ideals. Deciphering whether this grandfather was a Nazi sympathiser, Maxim listens with some scepticism to his grandmother’s descriptions of those happiest years in their marriage: swimming, dancing, gymnastics.
How different again the childhood of his mother’s father, regarded as a hero of the French Resistance and the GDR. Some beautiful passages relate to grandfather Gerhard’s childhood – and his rude awakening to adulthood. There were the idyllic years in provincial Rheinsberg. Schubert and Lieder were sung round the grand piano; books discussed; debate encouraged. In a striking detail, Gerhard’s father Wilhelm made an enemy of Joseph Goebbels in the 1920s when he proved in court that Goebbels’s club foot had been there since birth, not the result of French military torture. The consequences were felt in 1933. The “Jewish traitor” and his family fled to Paris and so began Gerhard’s path into his lifelong love of French, his attachment to the communists, the Resistance and journalism.
Winner of the European Book Prize, Red Love offers an engaging exploration of the complex decades that caused families to become strangers to one another, and a refreshing response to the deceptively simple question: “What was it like?”
Ostalgie for East Germany
The story of an East German family
Translated by Shaun Whiteside
264pp. Pushkin Press.
978 1 908968 51 7
Shortly before German Reunification, the East German novelist Stefan Heym declared, somewhat acidly, that the German Democratic Republic would be no more than a footnote in history. That may or may not be so, but for those who were once its citizens, it remains a part of their biography and the memory clearly lingers, seen not least in the continuing phenomenon of “Ostalgie”, that nostalgic attachment to some of the characteristic brands and symbols of the defunct republic.
Maxim Leo was born in East Berlin in 1970, and so was twenty when the state collapsed. In Red Love, a memoir of his family, he is less concerned with fond recall than exploring why his grandparents’ generation had committed themselves to the East German state after the Second World War and then retained that loyalty in the face of an increasingly oppressive dictatorship. His family seems a particularly interesting example for such an enterprise, since his grandfathers had converged in the GDR from diametrically opposite ends of the political spectrum. Although the two never met and were both too old to be of much direct help, each had produced a written account of his earlier life, and Leo draws on these, together with his own memories and those of his parents, as well as family papers and other documents, including files from the ever-watchful Stasi, to create a persuasive and absorbing picture.
Werner, the paternal grandfather, is the less completely drawn of the two, since he divorced his first wife, Sigrid, and became estranged from their son Wolf, Leo’s father. Yet there emerges a clear image of a man who managed to accommodate himself quite happily in the social structures of one ideology and then, with disturbing ease, switch allegiance to its obverse. Old photographs and Sigrid’s memories paint him as a far more enthusiastic supporter of Hitler than he would later concede when filling in his application form for membership of the East German Communist Party. After service in the Wehrmacht and two years as a prisoner of war, he had landed, by pure chance, in the eastern sector of Berlin, where he acquired his communist convictions and flew the red flag outside his flat with the same insistence with which, twenty years earlier, he had flown the swastika. Though bewildered by this malleability and feeling little affection for him, Leo treats his grandfather with restraint, seeking to understand him not as a cynical conformist, but as an essentially naive man who only lived in the present and really believed his new truth.
The bewilderment occasioned by Gerhard, Leo’s other grandfather, is of a different order. Gerhard was born into an affluent Jewish family, his father a lawyer who, in 1927, conducted a case against an obscure right-wing agitator called Joseph Goebbels. After the Nazis took power the family fled Germany and settled in Paris, where a variety of encounters convinced the teenage Gerhard that the most credible opposition to the Nazis was being offered by communists. During the German occupation, he joined the Résistance, was involved in some perilous missions graphically described here, and was saved by communist partisans from almost certain execution. After a period in post-war West Germany as a secret agent setting up an East German spy network, he moved to the GDR to work as a journalist and continue building up the new society there.
One might have thought that, with such a background, Gerhard would have been a rather exciting grandfather, but both in public and within the family he was an unbending apologist for the regime, prepared to justify all its actions for the sake of the greater cause. In that sense he reflects the dilemma of other GDR intellectuals, not least some of the country’s writers, who embraced Marxism as a set of humanistic ideals which they saw as the antithesis of fascism and a bulwark against its return. It was their simultaneous espousal of the GDR as a political project, and its increasing failure to realize those ideals, that set up the tensions they were never able to resolve.
Those tensions are particularly evident in the story of Leo’s mother Anne, Gerhard’s daughter. Also a journalist, Anne experienced at first hand the falsification of reality to suit party policy, but felt she could never challenge the system without also betraying her father. The resulting moral contortions may have caused anguish, but it was only when the GDR collapsed that she was able to free herself from his influence. Her husband Wolf, on the other hand, adopted a bohemian appearance in keeping with his life as an artist and sought to put the state at a distance. But even he almost ended up as an informer for the Stasi, having been tempted into a number of small compromises and only narrowly avoiding a far deeper entrapment.
Despite the pervasiveness of politics, Maxim Leo seems to have led a relatively normal GDR life, and his account, fluently translated by Shaun Whiteside, is written with warmth, humour and no shortage of self-criticism for his own sometimes less than heroic clashes with officialdom. For his generation, however, with no residual memories of their own and facing a reality racked with contradictions, there remained no trace of the state’s founding ideals, and for all the appeal of this engaging memoir, it is hard, at the end, to resist the feeling that Stefan Heym was probably right.
The New York Times
The Story of an East German Family
By Maxim Leo
Translated by Shaun Whiteside. Illustrated. 264 pages. Pushkin Press. $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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 the translator Shaun Whiteside, that imparts an appropriately fablelike, once-upon-a-time quality to the narrative.
Fate dealt Mr. Leo some very good cards for his undertaking. 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 Mr. Leo with absolutely enthralling material.
Mr. Leo’s paternal grandfather, 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 up on Marx and Engels and joined the party, which he served enthusiastically.
The rifts and fault lines appear with Mr. 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,” Mr. Leo writes. “Anne said there were definitely big problems, but they could be overcome.” Mr. Leo sums up his own position as “numb indifference.”
Through his parents, Mr. 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.
There are many of these. One elderly editor is called on the carpet for writing, in passing, that lignite, or brown coal, produces soot when burned. “This essentially harmless statement is severely castigated by the editor in chief, because it might be read as a criticism of air pollution from lignite stoves,” Mr. Leo writes. Most of the political articles are party news releases that are simply pasted in the newspaper, unaltered. “Even spelling mistakes are left as they are, because no one dares to phone the Central Committee about something like that,” Mr. Leo writes.
The surveillance state is everywhere, like humid air that makes it hard to breathe. In the 1970s, Wolf and Anne join an informal discussion group to talk critically about journalism and politics. Four of the 10 members are informants for the Stasi, which has in any case placed a microphone in the chandelier in the sitting room where they meet. Not that the content of the discussion matters all that much. “Forming a group is illegal already,” Mr. Leo writes. “Ten people in a flat are a crime against the state.” The group disbands after a few meetings. Soon after, the leader loses his job.
Today, Mr. Leo lives two houses away from the shop where he was born in 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 Mr. 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.”
Wie war der Alltag in der DDR wirklich beschaffen? Maxim Leos ostdeutsche Familienchronik gewährt einen komplexen, differenzierten Einblick und bereitet eine positive Enttäuschung.
Maxim Leo: „Haltet euer Herz bereit“. Eine ostdeutsche Familiengeschichte. Karl Blessing Verlag, München 2009. 272 S., geb.,
Dieses Buch bereitet uns eine positive Enttäuschung, es bietet nämlich viel mehr und viel Besseres, als sein Titel verheißt. „Haltet euer Herz bereit“ - das könnte alles Mögliche meinen, jedoch, so suggeriert uns die Wendung im ersten Moment, nur Mögliches aus dem Bereich gefühlsbeherrschter Beziehungen. Um dergleichen geht es natürlich auch, denn es wird ja von Menschen erzählt, von ihren Taten, Sehnsüchten, Erfolgen und Niederlagen, und in solchen Zusammenhängen spielen Gefühle eben eine Rolle. Aber hier tun sie es nicht in beliebigen Bindungs- oder Trennungsdramen. Der Autor Maxim Leo wollte viel mehr, und er erreicht es auch.
Näher an sein Vorhaben führt uns der Untertitel: „Eine ostdeutsche Familiengeschichte“. Der Autor präsentiert sie in den Biographien seiner Ahnen und anderer Verwandter sowie im eigenen Lebenslauf. Doch auch dieser Hinweis greift noch zu kurz, denn Maxim Leo lässt sich in seinem Blick auf historische Geschehnisse nicht von den einstigen DDR-Grenzen einengen. Einige seiner Vorfahren hatten schließlich schon gelebt, gehandelt und manches erduldet, als es die DDR noch nicht gab.
Also musste Leo, wenn er seine Familie porträtieren wollte, die einzelnen Personen in ihren jeweiligen Lebenszeiten abbilden und deutlich machen, welche Einflüsse in welcher Gegenwart auf sie wirkten und wie sie sich diesen Einflüssen ergaben oder widersetzten. Was am Ende dabei herauskommt, ist ein Gemälde deutschen Daseins im gesamten zwanzigsten Jahrhundert, mächtig genug, um zu erfassen, was in jenen Zeiten geschah, und in den persönlichen Details so penibel gezeichnet, dass jeder Leser die Söhne und Töchter der einstigen Jahrzehnte begreift, als habe er schon immer über sie Bescheid gewusst.
Maxim Leo, 1970 in Ost-Berlin geboren, heute Redakteur der „Berliner Zeitung“, verfügt über eine Menge Voraussetzungen für seinen Ausflug in die Historie. Zum einen hat er ein gutes Gedächtnis für alles, was seine Jugend prägte. Zum anderen finden sich in seiner Familie Vertreter so ziemlich aller Sorten deutscher Bürger, die im vergangenen Jahrhundert unter den jeweiligen politischen Gegebenheiten litten, sie bekämpften, von ihnen profitierten oder sie gar unterstützten.
Da ist zum Beispiel Gerhard, Großvater mütterlicherseits, Sohn eines erfolgreichen und begüterten jüdischen Rechtsanwalts. Von 1933 an gehört der Anwalt zu den Verfolgten, nicht nur wegen seiner Abstammung, sondern auch, weil er 1927 einen Prozess gegen Joseph Goebbels geführt und gewonnen hatte. Der Familie gelingt es, nach Frankreich zu flüchten. Der Sohn Gerhard wächst französisch auf und kämpft später, als die deutsche Wehrmacht die neue Heimat überfallen hat, in der Résistance. Außerdem findet er, gemeinsam mit anderen Flüchtlingskindern, zum Kommunismus, weil der ihm als einzig leistungsfähige Gegenkraft zum Faschismus erscheint. Er genießt dabei die Billigung des Vaters. Der nämlich hatte schon vor dem Ersten Weltkrieg Berührung mit dieser politischen Richtung gehabt, war während eines Studienaufenthaltes in der Schweiz sogar dem damaligen Emigranten Uljanow, dem späteren Lenin, begegnet und betrachtet die Sowjetunion mit Sympathie. Was Wunder also, dass die Familie, nachdem Hitler erledigt ist, in den sowjetisch besetzten Teil Deutschlands heimkehrt.
Der Großvater väterlicherseits dagegen, Werner, gehört zum deutschen Durchschnitt, zu denen, die sich mit der Niederlage von 1918 nicht abfinden mochten und Adolf Hitler als Erlöser aus dem Nachkriegselend begriffen. Des Führers Weltkrieg kämpft Werner mit, gerät in französische Gefangenschaft, kommt 1957 zurück nach Berlin, in den Osten der Stadt. Es dauert nicht lange, bis er sich der dort geltenden Ideologie verschreibt. Offensichtlich fällt ihm der Wechsel nicht sonderlich schwer, scheint ihm die zweite deutsche Diktatur geeignet, jene bessere Zukunft herbeizuführen, an deren Verwirklichung, zu Werners Enttäuschung, die erste Diktatur gescheitert war.
Ein bisschen geformt, mehr noch geplagt von solchen Einflüssen, wachsen Wolf und Anne auf, die späteren Eltern des Buchautors. Maxim Leo erzählt, wie diese jungen Leute eine Weile lang versuchen, sich eine eigene Welt zu schaffen, das zu sein, was damals modern war: Halbstarke, einer frechen Musik hingegeben, die Haare wild frisiert und kess gefärbt. In jenen frühen Nachkriegsjahren gibt es noch viel Verbindung mit dem westlichen Berlin. Zwar ist die Stadt geteilt, aber noch ohne „antifaschistischen Schutzwall“, die Bürger fluten, zu Fuß oder per S-Bahn und U-Bahn, hin und her. So etwas lernt Maxim niemals kennen; als er geboren wird, steht die Mauer schon seit neun Jahren. Von dem, was die Großväter sich erhofften, was die Eltern als manchmal ärgerlich, aber irgendwie doch erträglich erlebten, ist nichts mehr übrig.
Der Sohn muss unter dem ungeheuren Druck ideologischer Verordnungen und entsprechender Maßnahmen existieren, jedes nicht vom Regime abgesegnete Vorhaben, jeder aus eigenem Denken entwickelte Schritt kann ihn und seine Familie gefährden. Dennoch folgen Maxim und seine Freundin Christine immer wieder einmal irgendwelchen Ideen, die als abseitig gelten, geraten dabei in Kollisionen mit der Staatsmacht, werden bedroht, auch verhaftet. Ihr Dasein scheint abgeschottet gegen alles, was ihnen je begehrenswert erscheinen könnte.
Das Buch bietet eine Fülle trüber, oft erschütternder Beispiele aus dem Bereich DDR, wie wir sie auch aus zahllosen anderen Berichten kennen. Doch hat diese Niederschrift einen besonderen Vorzug, den nämlich, dass der Autor nirgends die Position des überlegenen Fachmanns einnimmt, niemals vom Denkmalssockel dessen zu uns spricht, der über sämtliche Erkenntnisse verfügt und deshalb berufen ist, uns zu belehren. Vielmehr bindet er uns ein in das Dasein derer, von denen er erzählt, lässt uns ihre Anfechtungen miterleben, miterleiden und sorgt so dafür, dass zu jedermanns Sache werden kann, was diesen Personen begegnete.
Selten vermittelte uns jemand so stark das Gefühl, zu begreifen, wie der Alltag in jener DDR wirklich beschaffen war, wie er ihre Einwohner prägte, warum die Leute dort auf eine bestimmte Weise dachten und handelten. Man könnte sagen, dass dieses Buch erheblich dazu beiträgt, die jahrzehntelang getrennten Deutschen wieder zu vereinen. Auf stillere, aber vielleicht auf intensivere Art, als es das Ereignis vermochte, mit dem Maxim Leos Darstellung schließt: der Fall der Mauer, der Sieg der Bürger vor nunmehr zwanzig Jahren.
In erzählt Maxim Leo von seiner eigenen Familiengeschichte in der DDR. Im Mittelpunkt stehen zwei Figuren, Maxims Mutter, die er Anne nennt, und ihr Vater Gerhard, die moralische Instanz und der Vertreter der Macht. Gerhard Leo war ein Held und Résistance-Kämpfer, der von der SS gefoltert wurde und in der Uniform eines französischen Soldaten nach Deutschland zurückkehrt ist. Als überzeugter Kommunist ließ er sich nach dem Krieg in der DDR nieder. Seine Lieblingstochter Anne, Maxims Mutter, trat in die Partei ein, heiratete aber den Künstler Wolf, der den DDR-Staat für einen Verbrecherstaat erklärte und die Regeln brach, die sie immer beachtete. Anne brauchte Jahrzehnte, um sich von ihrem Vater zu lösen, ohne ihre Überzeugungen zu verraten. Maxim Leo blickt in die Vergangenheit zurück und erzählt von den Konflikten und Kompromissen in seiner Familie, die für die ganze DDR-Gesellschaft exemplarisch sind.
Marie-Laure Durand. 06/2012. "Maxim Leo: "Haltet euer Herz bereit"".
La Clé des Langues (Lyon: ENS LYON/DGESCO). ISSN 2107-7029. Mis à jour le 12 juin 2012.
Consulté le 9 mars 2014.
Haltet euer Herz bereit, Eine ostdeutsche Familiengeschichte, de Maxim Leo, Blessing, 2010, ISBN-13: 9783896674012
Tradução para Francês:
Histoire d'un Allemand de l'Est, de Maxim Leo, traduction de Olivier Mannoni, Actes Sud, 2013, ISBN : 978-2-7427-9272-6
Longa recensão (em que conta o livro quase todo) por Silke Hesse, no seu blog: