22 March 1958: Barbara Castle, Father Hooper and justice in South Africa

From our correspondence.

22 March 1958

Sir, - Among the many letters I have received arising out of my recent articles on South Africa there is one from Father Hooper, which I feel I must share with your readers. Father Hooper is the Anglican priest and missionary at Zeerust, in the North-West Transvaal, near the borders of Bechuanaland. I have already described in a New Statesman article the fearless way in which he has identified himself with the resistance of the local African people to the government’s attempt to impose passes on the women. Now he writes:

Things are very dire here: much more so than at the time of your visit. In reply to your request for news I shall outline one or two salient matters:

1. On the Friday of the week after you were here (24 January) four people were shot dead and several wounded in Gopane, 35 miles from Zeerust. The wounded who could run did so; some have not been seen since. Those who could not run were taken into custody and kept under guard in the Zeerust hospital. The official version is that the police were attacked. The unofficial version differs from the official version – diametrically. Among the four dead were a youngster and the village simpleton. At the time of the shooting the police are said to have been assaulting an old man – his youngest son ran, and bystanders and this son were shot. None of the bodies fell nearer than 75 yards from the scene of police action. Quite a civilising mission, really. Sten guns; and a lot of pieces of person on the grass. We had been expecting this for months.

2. Three to five thousand refugees have left the area for Bechuanaland – figures are uncertain. They are being well looked after there. I was told in Lobatsi that they are scattered from the border to the Kalahari, and from Mafeking to Serowe. A similar number have left for Johannesburg, many passing through this rectory. One woman had a miscarriage here at the rectory.

3. Police and pro-government chief action continue to be less than benign. A large number of illegal fines have been levied, and the people are in a terrible condition – their cattle having been seized in most instances. As a direct result of police action we face a major famine – no ploughing, or no weeding of crops means that this year this district is going to produce almost nothing. This will doubtless be represented as a visitation from the White Man’s God. For this reason, and because now we can no longer afford legal defence (in one instance 80 people are facing a charge of murder for the death of one man) we desperately need money. Can you help?

4. Banishment of local people to Natal has begun.

5. Last Friday the government (i.e., Vermoerd) made it illegal for anybody to enter these reserves without a permit from the Native Commissioner – penalty three years or £300. This means (a) refugees cannot return if they wish to; (b) nobody has access to observe what is going on behind our local iron curtain; (c) exempted people such as myself can be banned from entering – I have no received notice of such banning – yet; (d) husbands from the towns can no longer visit their wives or children. Further any statement, verbal or written, which is “likely to subvert the authority of the state, chief or headman”, carries a penalty of £300 or three years. Most of the people are of course ignorant of this proclamation.

6. Our own position is more or less impossible. When I go to visit church members in the reserves, police vans (riot cars) accompany me. Nobody wants to see his priest in such company.

7. In spite of all this, three villages have again refused to take reference books for their women. I don’t know what it is about these people, but they are both courageous and stubborn. They say: “The elephant is now stamping us into the ground”. And then they get up and defy the elephant all over again. In the end the elephant will have to depart or tire, and then we may expect all hell to break loose. Guns just can’t subdue the spirit; or not for long.

Father Hooper has risked a great deal to make these evils known. In this he is typical of many brave spirits in South Africa. In return we owe them our support – moral, political and – above all in the immediate future – financial.

Barbara Castle
House of Commons

Barbara Castle in 1974. Photo: Getty Images.

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis