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Niall Ferguson Inc, or history as a business

As he moved from journalistic elan to TED-friendly gimmickry, the historian racked up an impressive roster of enemies.

Twenty-five years ago, the journalist and historian Max Hastings asked a young Niall Ferguson, then a graduate student in history at Oxford, where he wanted to be in two decades’ time. “He said,” Hastings reported, “he wanted to be the A J P Taylor de nos jours.”

Ferguson, who is now 48, has since devoted himself to realising that ambition with assiduity. Like his hero Taylor, who once boasted that he was “fast on the typewriter”, Ferguson is prolific. Since 1995, when his doctoral thesis on German politics in the “era of inflation” was published, he has written 11 books. He is working on his twelfth, a biography of Henry Kissinger.

Also like Taylor, of whom it was said that his name appeared in print “with the regularity of the Sabbath”, he contributes with Stakhanovite frequency to newspapers and magazines, both here and in the US. Ferguson is good on television like Taylor, too: he has, at the last count, presented six TV documentary series. He was also this year’s Reith lecturer on Radio 4.

The comparisons with Taylor, the prototype of the “telly don”, don’t end there. Although he espouses libertarian, free-market views at odds with Taylor’s professed socialism – as an undergraduate at Oxford in the early 1980s, Ferguson belonged to a coterie of ardent provincial, mostly lower-middle-class Thatcherites that included the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and the writer Andrew Sullivan – he shares his predecessor’s taste for paradox and the bracingly counter-intuitive conclusion. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s description of Taylor’s “love of firing squibs and laying banana-skins to disconcert the gravity and upset the balance of the orthodox” could be applied to Ferguson, who is an enthusiastic practitioner of “counterfactual history”.

Revision time

It was the revisionist brio of his book on the First World War, The Pity of War, published in 1998, that secured Ferguson’s reputation with the wider reading public. He blamed Britain, not Germany, for causing the war, which, he argued, had the unintended consequence of fatally undermining the British empire, whose merits he trumpeted in a subsequent book, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, published in 2003. (Ferguson’s imperial predilections later caught the eye of the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who hired him as a consultant to help with his overhauling of the secondary school history curriculum.)

The journalistic elan of his early books has curdled somewhat in recent years into a kind of TED-friendly gimmickry (though this probably makes his work a more saleable commodity in the US, where now he spends most of his time, as a professor at Harvard). His most recent book, Civilisation: the West and the Rest, is tricked out with a crude, though eye-catching, conceptual apparatus that identifies the six “killer apps” on which he claims the supremacy of western civilisation was based. (In a review of the book published late last year, Pankaj Mishra wrote that Ferguson sounded “like the Europeans . . . who ‘wanted gold and slaves’” and harboured a deep “nostalgia for the intellectual certainties of 1914”. Ferguson complained that Mishra’s article was defamatory and demanded an apology, which has not been forthcoming.)

With his spat with Mishra still unresolved, Ferguson has found himself tangled up in another public imbroglio. This was occasioned by a Newsweek cover story he wrote in mid-August, under the title “Obama’s gotta go”. (If ever an editor and a writer were made for each other, it is Newsweek’s Tina Brown, the neophiliac queen of “buzz”, and Ferguson, the Tory contrarian and provocateur.)

Ferguson launched a full-frontal attack on Barack Obama’s economic record, describing the country the president has bequeathed to the electorate as a “50-50 nation” in which “half of us [are] paying the taxes, the other half receiving the benefits”.

The article’s demotic fizz (Paul Ryan, Ferguson wrote, “psychs Obama out”) no doubt played well in Peoria, but its deployment of economic data turned out to be dubious, to say the least. The Nobel laureate Paul Krugman found “multiple errors and misrepresentations” of official statistics; Ferguson’s old friend Sullivan criticised his “sleight of hand”; and other commentators completed the fact-checking that Brown’s staff apparently neglected. Little of his argument was left standing.

Ferguson, however, has affected imperturbability. To understand his reaction, it is worth recalling something he told the New Yorker in 1999. “Why be a passive, unworldly academic, who expects to sit all day in an ivory tower writing great works that no one will read? After all, history is a business.”

The question is whether Niall Ferguson Inc has overleveraged itself this time.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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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