Reviewed by Rachel Harland
“I had the feeling that the GDR only really came to an end at that moment,” writes Berlin-based journalist Maxim Leo in the prologue to his autobiographical narrative Red Love: The Story of an East German Family. “Eighteen years after the fall of the Wall the stern hero had disappeared. Before me there sat a helpless, lovable man. A grandfather” (11). Leo is recounting a hospital visit to his grandfather Gerhard, whom a stroke has left incapable of coherent expression. While his grandfather’s body is present in the room with him, it seems as though the old man is really elsewhere. The author’s words indicate the existence in his mind of an inextricable correspondence between Gerhard, once an important functionary of the East German state, and the state itself: only now that his grandfather’s speechlessness has made him unreachable does the GDR, too, truly seem to be gone.
Inspired by this encounter to “go back” (11) to the GDR, Leo draws on old photographs and letters, diaries and memoirs, interviews and Stasi (secret police) files in exploring four generations of family history dating from the Weimar Republic to German reunification. His story interweaves tales of prohibition and persecution with happier details of daily life in a collection of nuanced psychological portraits examining a variety of responses to political oppression. The narrative is dominated by Gerhard, the courageous son of a Jewish lawyer who joins the French Resistance during the war before returning to help found East Germany, but other principal characters include Leo’s mother (Gerhard’s daughter) Anne, herself a journalist torn between faith in the socialist ideal and disillusionment at the reality of its implementation in a surveillance state, and his rebellious father Wolf, an artist who chafes at the censorship and scrutiny of the “GDR prison” (187) while taking comfort in the material security it affords. Crucially, Leo also examines his relationship with Wolf’s Nazi-sympathizing father Werner, who survives Wehrmacht service and a stint as a prisoner of war to become the perfect Socialist citizen—a “Meritorious Teacher of the People” (162), as he is dubbed in Shaun Whiteside’s English rendering of the regime’s wooden bureaucratese. Having grown up secure in his identity as part of a Jewish resistance family, encountering Werner—whom he only gets to know as an adult—“throws [Leo’s] whole image of the family into disarray” (136). Finally, Red Love traces the author’s own shifting attitudes to the country of his youth, which is the setting for a “mostly normal” (189) childhood—albeit one filled with school assignments entitled “Why the State Border Must Be Protected” and games called “Escape to the West” (180)—until it encroaches too far on his educational and professional prospects, provoking him to contemplate an escape.
Despite the gravity of much of the subject matter, Red Love is narrated in an often informal style that is characterized in the original German by a mixture of colloquial diction and modal particles, and conveyed by Whiteside through the use of such phrases as “The GDR has been dead for ages” (11), “lousy sense of direction” (77), or “that jerk of a Stasi” (177). Even in cases where the German terms are not obviously colloquial and could be rendered in different registers, the translator’s choices ensure consistency of tone (e.g. “keen”  for “begeistert” and “weird”  for “unheimlich”). There are also many humorous moments, such as when a hole dug at the beach by the young Leo attracts police attention as a possible escape route to the West. At the same time, there is an evident seriousness of purpose underlying Leo’s text. He emphasizes his determination as a genealogist to remain analytical in interrogating his relatives, regardless of any pain caused to them and his own feelings of uneasiness. This is essential to his stated aim of understanding “what actually happened” (11).
What remains unclear is whether in its search for truth Red Love should be read as a purely personal memoir or a representative account of life in East Germany—“an unofficial history of a country that no longer exists,” as the quotation from Julian Barnes on the cover of the English version puts it. On the one hand the prologue states: “Our family was like a miniature GDR” (11). On the other, recalling how as a teenager he was denied a place to study for the Abitur (the German university entrance qualification and one of a handful of terms preserving local color left untranslated by Whiteside) and forced to embark on a vocational apprenticeship in a pharmaceutical factory, Leo reminisces: “All of a sudden I understood how little my parents’ world had to do with everything else that was happening in the country. How shielded from reality I had been in that airy, warm household of intellectuals. […] My parents’ friends were photographers, painters, designers, architects or doctors. They all lived far from the everyday life of the GDR, far from the toiling masses who kept this country running” (217). Indeed, one might argue as Anna Saunders and Debbie Pinfold do in their critical anthology Remembering and Rethinking the GDR that “autobiographical texts are almost by definition limited in scope and appeal, and their longer-term contribution to the broad cultural memory of the GDR thus seems doubtful” (6).
And yet, the archetypal status accorded to Gerhard in the prologue of Leo’s memoir and the prominence of his story throughout the book as a whole indicate engagement with at least one fundamental aspect of East German cultural memory. As a Jew who survives National Socialism, exile, and war to help build the GDR, Gerhard embodies what Julia Hell, among others, has called the “antifascist father”—the central figure in a hegemonic discourse of antifascism deployed by the ruling East German Socialist Unity Party (SED) following the collapse of Nazi Germany in order to legitimize its assumption of power. Through the propagation of narratives about recent German history structured as family sagas, centered on Communist fathers as antifascist heroes, and depicting children carrying on the political struggles of their parents, GDR functionaries fostered a self-image for East German society as the heir to the antifascist resistance movement. That this discourse also subsumed men like Gerhard is made clear in Leo’s remark: “They needed people like him at the time. People who had done everything right in the war, people you could refer to if you wanted to explain why this anti-fascist state had to exist” (10). The foundation of Anne’s faith in the Party, with which she struggles for decades to come, is explicitly linked to her devotion to Gerhard: “The worry that the bad people [i.e. the fascists] might come and get her beloved father […] must have left a deep mark on Anne. Long before she can understand what’s happening around her, the Cold War has slipped into her little world and made her a comrade” (27).
Ultimately, though, Anne comes to realize that antifascist heroes in fact represent a minority in the GDR and that even for her father fascism has become little more than an emotive argument to exploit when nothing else will convince. For Leo himself, a further generation removed, the discourse of antifascism loses its pull entirely: “The energy of the state had been used up in three generations. The GDR remained the country of old men, of the founding fathers, and their logic no longer made sense to anybody” (176). Moreover, as the grandchild rather than the child of the antifascist father, he is forced to acknowledge the existence of a second, less heroic forefather in Werner, whose dedication to the GDR is cast as an attempt to repress his dubious past. By foregrounding the antifascist hero in his own family saga, Leo revives the foundational paternal narrative of the GDR, but he does so in order to trace its decline.
Hell, Julia. Post-Fascist Fantasies: Psychoanalysis, History, and the Literature of East Germany. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 1997.
Leo, Maxim. Red Love: The Story of an East German Family. London: Pushkin, 2013.
Saunders, Anna, and Debbie Pinfold, eds. Remembering and Rethinking the GDR: Multiple Perspectives and Plural Authenticities. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
A tempting review! I’m excited to read the original and the translation.