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Why aren’t we more scared of the things most likely to kill us?

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

As I write the traffic is still backed up from the Wandsworth Road – I can hear an occasional frustrated honk from a trapped van man, or the stifled yawp of an emergency services vehicle threading its way through the metallic mesh. I’ve only been out this morning to walk the dog: a turd-bagging totter around the block but even here, several hundred yards away from the actual road closure, there are sheepishly bemused drivers diverted away from the flock.

Yesterday morning I was sitting on the top deck of the 88 bus: the traffic was slower than usual heading down the South Lambeth Road and as we reached Vauxhall Cross there began to be the unmistakable signs of an accident having just happened: fire engines shouldering cars over to the kerb and even firemen, on foot, running. By the time we were chugging over Vauxhall Bridge I’d overheard a man a few seats ahead of us say that a helicopter had crashed into the crane on top of the new cylindrical tower that, for the past few months, has been being extruded from the embankment – another architectural abomination to sully the London skyline.

Before we’d gained the north bank of the Thames, and despite the fog, my wife – who was sitting beside me – had visual confirmation: she could see the broken jib of the crane. It was about 8.15am and the crash had happened only a few minutes before. Back at home a couple of hours later I had a phone call from the man who mends my typewriters – he lives in a suburb of northwest London and had seen the crash reported on the news. Was I, he wanted know, all right? My wife was a little dismissive of his solicitude, seeing it as a slightly wacky example of ambulance-chasing by proxy, but with my fine attunement to – and sympathy with – the madness of crowds, I was rather touched by his concern.

True, this was the first time that anyone in London had ever been killed by a helicopter falling out of the sky on top of them but the singularity of the event only made it more paradigmatic. In survey after survey, people report that the greatest dangers they face are, in this order: terrorist attack, plane crashes and nuclear accidents. This despite the fact that these three combined have killed fewer people in the past half-century than car accidents do in any given year.

True, the mediatisation of certain kinds of spectacular events – the attack on the Twin Towers being the most obvious example – ensures they remain high in the anxiety hit parade, but I think there’s more to it than that. Human agency also makes us antsier: the idea that an individual or group of individuals is out there acting with malevolent intent is, we feel intuitively, a threat we should be able to assess and act upon – whereas there can be no anticipation of acts of God (or gods), unless, that is, we have a shamanic capacity for prognostication. It perhaps seems unfair but even human error of the kind that was probably involved in the helicopter crash, is, I would argue, grouped by our psyches under the heading of the potentially avoidable.

It may be crazy but in a deep recess of the group mind we imagine that we ought to reason along these lines: hmm, looks foggy out this morning, I think I’ll give Wandsworth Road a swerve – they’ll have switched off the warning lights on top of that crane and an unwitting helicopter pilot might crash into it . . . That this is a vanishingly small likelihood is neither here nor there, because the perceptual equipment required to swim safely through the urban mill race includes the expectation of other humans’ cock-ups as standard – along with airbags and safety belts.

All of this also helps explain why it is that public-safety campaigns need to be quite so relentless: they’re in competition. The wildcard helicopter crash gets free blanket coverage, but the 4,000 annual car fatalities have to pay for their bus shelter space. And with spectacular events taking up so much of the available anxiety quotient, we need to be constantly reminded of the more workaday threats to our mortality – threats that, while they may also be functions of human error, have become so ubiquitous that we’ve begun to apprehend them as natural phenomena. The traffic – like a river – either flows, or it is damned; and when it’s damned it backs up: a great logjam of frustration, anger and anxiety from out of which will come a host of misfortune. I’m not going to risk fording it – I think I’ll stop at home for the rest of the day.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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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