Rory MacLean meets Maxim Leo
Ostalgie – nostalgia for the grey, old days of Communism – haunts many former East Germans. Stable prices, guaranteed jobs, state health care were a given for citizens who played the game. Growing up in the vanished state, Maxim Leo knew not to ask certain questions: why did his patriotic mother quit her job in journalism? Why did his war-hero grandfather stop talking about the war? How could his parents drift apart? Red Love: The Story of an East German Family is a heartfelt and compassionate love story: for family, for nation, for yesterday. But it's no sentimental sop. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Wall, Leo asks those questions he could never ask, examining the truths, confusions and delusions of life in a dictatorship.
Leo's personal memoir traces the family's history: his loyal Party member mother, his rough and rebellious non-conformist father and their respective fathers – the stern Communist hero who fought with the French Resistance and the 'little Nazi who became a little Stalin'. When I met Leo in London, I asked him what had motivated him to research – through family papers, in interviews with his parents, at the Stasi archive - and tell the true story of his family?
'I wrote Red Love because I wanted to describe ordinary life in East Germany,' he told me. 'Today East German stories often have an almost mythological quality, as if the country had been inhabited only with Stasi monsters and rebels. Obviously 85% of the population lived normal lives during those years, and it's about that normality that I wanted to write.'
'I wanted to go back to the GDR, to understand what had happened there,' he writes in the book. 'What had driven my family apart? What was so important that it had turned us into strangers, even today?'
For me, one of the most heart-breaking moments in Red Love didn't happen during the Cold War, but rather 25 years later when Leo was writing the book. When he interviewed his mother Anne, and they spoke of the dream, of the Party as absolute truth, absolute wisdom, she often cried. 'Perhaps out of rage, because she was so naïve, but perhaps also out of disappointment that it didn't work,' wrote Leo. 'That this state and this Party, which had cost her so much energy, simply disappeared…'
I asked Leo if he felt today a lingering guilt for the abandonment of the past. 'Should I have a vision? Should I be trying to change the world?' he answered rhetorically. 'To be honest, my dreams are small. I don't have a political wish for the world, nor do I feel I need to have one. I am very happy with my comfortable life.'
He went on, 'I think this is a reaction to growing up in East Germany. Back then personal life didn't much matter. What mattered was the state, the ideal. After 1989 I became very individualistic. I didn't want to join groups or parties. Not because of arrogance but simply because I had the chance to be myself.'
In Red Love Leo writes, 'I think that for both my grandfathers the GDR was a kind of dreamland, in which they could forget all the depressing things that had gone before. It was a new start, a chance to begin all over again.'
At the European Book Prize award ceremony, Julian Barnes said that Red Love serves 'as an unofficial history of a country that no longer exists' and that Leo is 'wry and unheroic witness to the distorting impact – sometimes frightening, sometimes merely absurd – that ideology has upon the daily life of the individual: citizens only allowed to dance in couples, journalists unable to mention car tyres or washing machines for reasons of state.'
'The GDR has been dead for ages, but it's still quite alive in my family,' writes Leo in Red Love. 'Like a ghost that can't find peace.' He does not judge, does not point the finger at the compromises necessary to survive under Nazis or Communists. East Germany was the world's largest open prison, a place where the state was – as his father put it – 'always there in bed with us'. More than any other book on the former East, Red Love captures the feeling of what it was like to live in that 'brave new world', and why, in the end, it fell apart.