George who?

Did the BBC really need another safe pair of hands as director general?

The BBC is at a moment of crisis. It can no longer compete for sports rights, especially for football, cricket and horse racing. It can’t compete for the top US imports, from Mad Men to The Simpsons. Its arts programming is less talked about than that of Sky Arts. Its best television current affairs programme, Newsnight, is losing ratings and credibility.

Worst of all, its much criticised coverage of the Diamond Jubilee Pageant suggested an identity crisis. It no longer knows what it’s there for. All those presenters from factual entertainment, the compulsive matiness, the lack of research and lack of sense of occasion, enraged viewers and journalists alike. Whatever else happened, the BBC has always had a fallback position: for the great state occasions, royal weddings, funerals, coronations, no one does it better than the BBC. That is no longer true. And when this was exposed to everyone, the BBC failed to respond. Director General Mark Thompson blathered about rain and went into defensive mode saying it was alright really. It wasn’t the fault of the rain and it wasn’t alright.

Enter George Entwistle, who will succeed Thompson as the BBC’s Director General in September. Entwistle is what the BBC considers a safe pair of hands. He has spent his entire broadcasting career, since arriving in 1989 as a Broadcast Journalist Trainee, at the BBC. Like all modern Director Generals apart from Birt and Dyke he’s a BBC insider through and through. And like Thompson, he has spent most of his programme making career in Current Affairs – an assistant producer on Panorama, a producer on On the Record, eight years at Newsnight, with a two minor excursions beyond current affairs, first a couple of years at Tomorrow’s World and then one season as the launch-editor of the middlebrow Culture Show which defined Mark Thompson’s early years as surely as The Late Show epitomised the more exciting BBC of Michael Jackson and Alan Yentob in the 1990s. It’s the programme-making record that Director Generals are made of. Nothing too exciting but nothing that will frighten the horses.

At the BBC it has always been the channel controllers who are the exciting figures, the ones who made the talked about programmes – David Attenborough and Jonathan Powell, Yentob and Jackson, Michael Grade and Roly Keating. All of them made their mark in music and arts, drama or light entertainment. Director Generals are the grown ups, usually from Current Affairs, men (always) who can be trusted in a crisis. No women, no Jews, no arts or drama, no one from outside the BBC. 

The question is whether a safe pair of hands is what the BBC needs in a crisis. Entwistle will doubtless build on Thompson’s successes. There will be more exciting technology. The archive will go online. There will be more developments like the red button, Freeview, iPlayer and HD TV. There will be more super-smart programmes like Doctor Who, Sherlock and superb dramas like the current Shakespeare history plays and The Shadow Line. The Today programme, The World at One, the News Channel and the Ten O’Clock News will continue to provide an excellent news service on radio and TV.

The problem, however, is whether Entwistle can deal with the problems he has inherited, and as Controller of Knowledge (2008-11) and Director of BBC Vision (2011-12) has contributed to. First, what can he do about sports rights? Nothing. The licence fee is frozen till 2016 and then has to be renegotiated, during a continuing economic crisis with further austerity measures called for. Cuts at the BBC will continue so he won’t be able to throw money at problems, let alone sports rights. But at least he can start to address some of the growing problems in BBC sports coverage, in particular the cosy, overpaid and very high-profile Hansen, Shearer and Lawrenson team.

Second, can he do anything about audience share? No. The multi-channel world of cable and internet has done for the BBC’s hegemony. In the 1990s the BBC worked wonders by developing factual entertainment programmes – cookery, gardening, DIY, antiques – which bought them a share of daytime. Under Thompson they have fought all comers for Saturday night entertainment ratings. But overall the big battle has been lost.

Elsewhere, though, much can be done. Seriousness and culture can return centre-stage. The blurring between BBC2 and BBC4 (what are either for?) can be sorted out. BBC3 can be returned to its once clear remit. Disastrous failures like the Diamond Jubilee Pageant can be avoided by being handed back to News and, more important, by restating what the BBC is for. Above all, it’s time to make the BBC more exciting, time to frighten the horses a bit. Thompson wouldn’t. Entwistle should.

The BBC is at a moment of crisis. Photograph: 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