REVIEW by Maxim Leo

NWR Issue 107

Red Love: The Story of an East German Family

by Craig Thomas

For those of us too young to remember the reality, the idea that such an influential and powerful European nation as Germany could split in half seems like an unlikely, if not ludicrous idea. Yet for 40 years, that was precisely what happened, with the Capitalist West Germany and the Soviet German Democratic Republic sharing a wall. We can only imagine that for those who lived through through the period, the idea of a unified Germany must have seemed equally as ludicrous.

It is into this world that Maxim Leo takes us, in Red Love (published in paperback in the autumn). Through a personal exploration spanning four generations of his family, he seeks to understand more about them; how their lives and personalities were shaped through their relation to the GDR.

In many ways Red Love reads like a work of fiction. Each character seems a little larger than life, primed for conflict. There is Anne, Maxim’s mother, the dedicated Party member and journalist struggling to balance her dedication to the Party with her dedication to the truth. There is his father, Wolf, the renegade artist who sees the Party as little more than a mutual source of irritation. There is Gerhard, his grandfather, who fought with the anti-Fascist resistance and became a committed Communist. There is his other grandfather, Werner, who was an enthusiastic Nazi and after the war became an equally enthusiastic Communist. Then there is Maxim himself, who describes himself as ‘the bourgeois in our family’.

Meanwhile, the situations in which members of this family find themselves (wittingly or otherwise) could have been lifted straight out of the movies. Here they are watched by the secret police and visited by spies, fight against the Nazis and for the Nazis, get captured by the enemy and experience numerous close calls where they miss death by the narrowest of margins. It is a real roller-coaster ride through the reality of living in the aftermath of a corrupted utopian revolution.

Jumping from one side of the family tree to the other, Leo moves backwards through time, giving a personal account of each family member (including himself), trying to understand, not from the position of a family member, but from that of a social scientist.

Yet that isn’t always easy. Memories fade and others are deliberately forgotten to erase the embarrassment or shame. Others, being too horrific to confront head on, are simply repressed. Oftentimes, this leads the author to rely on documents of which there are thankfully a great deal. Both grandfathers wrote autobiographies. One kept notes from during his time fighting in World War Two against the Americans. Then there were the apparently extensive Stasi files on his family, which tell another version of the story.

Leo takes this information, along with scraps picked up over the years, and creates a powerful narrative for each family member. He tries to place himself in their position, considers the occasionally conflicting reports, and tries to understand what it must have been like to be there. This inevitably leads to speculation about psychological motivations and the perception of the self, which raises many interesting questions both about his family and people more generally.

Unfortunately, these questions inevitably fall outside the remit of his topic and so end up going unanswered. However, a proper analysis would have made the work unwieldy and severely diminished its emotional impact.

Though the inter-family antagonisms were clearly exacerbated by the totalitarianism of the GDR, it is difficult not to think that these people would have been struggling with similar problems had they been on the other side of the wall. In the end, this is a fascinating, often poignant account of a conflicted family, struggling with issues of ideology, loyalty and identity.

Craig Thomas writes for New Welsh Review online.


previous review: New Monkey
next review: Estuary


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