Red Love is an autobiographical memoir by Maxim Leo who was nineteen when the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989. It’s not, strictly speaking, an autobiography, since the author devotes a great deal of space recounting the lives of his maternal and paternal grandfathers. This succeeds in giving us a picture of the two Germanies, the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich and how what happened there evolved in the third and fourth Germanies, the German Democratic Republic and the re-unified Federal Republic.
We learn from the two grandparents that, initially, the GDR had a good deal of support from its citizens emerging, as they were, from the blackest of all nightmares. It’s hardly surprising that, after almost six years of the most terrible war in history, many Germans were able to embrace the new idealism of the Soviet controlled East Germany. Of course, they were quickly disillusioned as their paranoid rulers instigated a system of surveillance and control that, in many ways, mirrored the twelve years of Nazi rule.
The two grandparents Gerhard is a Jew, a professional man and a communist. He flees Germany and settles in France where he becomes a member of the resistance. After the war he returns to the Eastern Zone of occupied Germany where he is viewed with suspicion. For Gerhard has a fatal flaw; he is an idealist and believes in democracy rather than dictatorship. It is this failure to embrace democratic left-wing ideologies that has resulted in virtually all communist experiments to ultimately fail. It destroyed the Spanish Republic in the 1930s and brought down Leon Blum’s ‘ popular front’ in France before the war, leading to one of history’s greatest betrayals, Vichy France. Indeed, Gerhard comments on the occasional disunity in the French resistance which, of course, almost brought about a minor civil war in post-war France.
The other grandparent, Werner, is a political opportunist and becomes part of the GDR because that’s where he returned to after the war after working on a prison farm in France. He became one of the millions of Germans trapped in the Eastern Zone of occupation. He makes the most of this and carves out a career for himself while Gerhard is often in trouble with the authorities for questioning policies, laws and practices. The GDR survived for forty years and this was in part because, despite constant criticism of the regime, the West was happy to let it. A divided Germany didn’t provide any kind of threat to world peace.
Eventually however, through Maxim’s interviews with his grandparents and parents, we learn of growing dissatisfaction from its citizens. The re-writing of history (just as in Nazi times), the attempts to control political thought, the surveillance state and the Stasi, the restrictions on travel and so on. We see, through the eyes of its citizens, the gradual decline of the GDR as an economic and political power.
The final part of the book deals with those thrilling months which led to the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and, of course, the fall of the Berlin Wall. These events are brilliantly described by Leo who, in his late teens, is able to witness and take part in a momentous bloodless revolution which would change the lives of twenty million Germans for ever.
This is a wonderful book, beautifully written (and translated) telling the tale of a country that existed for just forty years. Today, Germans approaching their mid-twenties will have been born after the fall of the Berlin Wall and, worryingly, some younger Germans may not realise the full significance of what happened in November 1989. They should read Red Love and watch its companion piece The Lives of Others, the finest film of the 21st. Century so that they may fully understand the dangers of political ideology attempting to seize control of the hearts and minds of citizens, backed not by consensus but by force.