The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History
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The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History

by Thomas Harding

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A Finalist for the Costa Biography Award

Longlisted for the Orwell Prize

Named a Best Book of the Year by
The Times (London) • New Statesman (London) • Daily Express (London) • Commonweal magazine

In the summer of 1993, Thomas Harding traveled to Germany with his


A Finalist for the Costa Biography Award

Longlisted for the Orwell Prize

Named a Best Book of the Year by
The Times (London) • New Statesman (London) • Daily Express (London) • Commonweal magazine

In the summer of 1993, Thomas Harding traveled to Germany with his grandmother to visit a small house by a lake on the outskirts of Berlin. It had been her “soul place,” she said—a holiday home for her and her family, but also a refuge—until the 1930s, when the Nazis’ rise to power forced them to leave.

The trip was his grandmother’s chance to remember her childhood sanctuary as it was. But the house had changed, and when Harding returned once again nearly twenty years later, it was about to be demolished. It now belonged to the government, and as Harding began to inquire about whether the house could be saved, he unearthed secrets that had lain hidden for decades. Slowly he began to piece together the lives of the five families who had lived there: a wealthy landowner, a prosperous Jewish family, a renowned composer, a widow and her children, a Stasi informant. All had made the house their home, and all but one had been forced out.

The house had weathered storms, fires and abandonment, witnessed violence, betrayals and murders, and had withstood the trauma of a world war and the dividing of a nation. Breathtaking in scope and intimate in its detail, The House by the Lake is a groundbreaking and revelatory new history of Germany, told over a tumultuous century through the story of a small wooden house.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A fascinating window on a tumultuous period."—Financial Times

The House by the Lake is an extraordinary book…. History is too often detached from the people who live through it, producing a soulless account of the past. Not this book, however. Harding has extracted the past from the dust that collects between floorboards and from layers of peeling wallpaper.”—The Washington Post

"The House by the Lake skips between its varied occupants and [historical] events to present an admirably clear and concise history of modern Germany. It’s an impressive feat of archival and investigative research. Fascinating revelations abound…. [A] powerful book.”—The Economist

The House by the Lake meticulously chronicles two linked feats of reclamation: the author’s reconstruction of the house’s life and times and his quest to restore the building itself…. The principal achievement of The House by the Lake is Harding’s portrayal of the ordinary lives, loves, and foibles of the people who passed through the house. He manages to show, too, how historical currents carried them along, channeling them into Nazi Party politics, Stasi spying, and other not entirely voluntary pursuits. This is a tale of multiple dispossessions, but also of adaptation and resiliency.”—Julia M. Klein, The Boston Globe

"An epic, fact-filled, multi-voiced saga told with pace, verve and warmth, and rich in fascinating revelations....[Harding] regales us with murder, espionage, de-Nazification trials and simple family drama, and at the end of his masterful tale we understand more about Germany’s difficult past and appreciate what makes a house a home.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“In his absorbing personal history, The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History, Harding recounts, with a measured pathos, the experiences of a succession of tenants. It is a story of aspiration, fleeting joy, escape and the small-scale dramas of domestic life…. For all the political and personal upheaval detailed here, Harding writes with a restraint that’s all the more impressive given his personal connection to the material....Harding makes excellent use of eyewitness testimony, interviews with Gross Glienicke villagers, family papers, government archives and other documents, as he moves across a century of time.”—Newsday

“Breathtaking in scope and intimate in its detail, Harding’s book is a groundbreaking and revelatory history of Germany, told over nearly a century through the story of a small wooden house.”—Anne Hammock, Florida Times-Union “Book of the Week”

“By tracing the lives of the different families who lived there, Harding sheds fresh light on the German 20th century, a tale of war, spies, murder and political, racial and social division. His account of the house is a superb work of social history, told with tremendous narrative verve.”—The Sunday Times (London)

"This is a history that is often poignant, sometimes heartening, and never other than intimate... This is a gentle but rewarding book, carefully tuned into the marginal voices recorded in the history of one small house by a lake."—Clare Mulley, The Spectator (UK)

"Diamond-brilliant... If a webcam had been left on at number 101 Gross Glienicke for 90 years, the record could not have been more vivid or revelatory. Harding’s research, from eyewitness accounts to the files of ministries, is jaw-dropping. This is an extraordinary book. Five Stars."—Sunday Express (UK)

"This emblem of tyranny [the Berlin Wall] 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." —Adam Kirsch, The New Statesman

"It would be hard to write an original and moving account of the tortured 20th-century history of Germany. But, in The House by the Lake, Thomas Harding succeeds remarkably... A tragic and beautifully told history."—The Jewish Chronicle

"Impressive... A deft history of a cabin containing many secrets." —The Independent (UK)

"The house by the lake has survived economic booms, busts, extremist ideology, persecution, barbed wired fences, blame and retribution and this book is a potent reminder that behind all these, are human stories."—Country Life

"In The House by the Lake, the simple villa loved and lost by Thomas Harding's family magically becomes the setting for the great clashes of the twentieth century, and for a Technicolor cast—victims, villains and ordinary compromisers—struggling not to be crushed by them. Personal and panoramic, heart-wrenching yet uplifting, this is history at its most alive."—A. D. Miller, author of Snowdrops and The Faithful Couple

"A passionate memoir about Germany."—Neil MacGregor, author of A History of the World in 100 Objects and Germany: Memories of a Nation

"This revelatory and compelling book is a clear must-read for anyone interested in German history during the past tumultuous century. The House By The Lake is a deeply moving story of endurance - of place as well as people. It is also uplifting as we learn of how the crumbling wreck of the house is restored to a haven of reconciliation and peace for the community and visitors to enjoy, and to heed its history which has been so brilliantly exposed."—Lyn Smith, author of Forgotten Voices

"With the narrative drive of a great novelist and the meticulous research of a great historian, Harding has crafted a moving, instructive and important book."—Herald Scotland

"A fascinating and revealing account of a century of German social and political history, told in an effortlessly accessible way."—David Lodge, author of Changing Places

"A superb portrait of twentieth century Germany seen through the prism of a house which was lived in, and lost, by five different families. A remarkable book."—Tom Holland, author of In The Shadow Of The Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World

“Harding recounts not only his family’s story, but also those of the others who inhabited the beautiful country house, most notably composer (and one-time member of the Nazi party) Will Meisel and, later, secret police informant Wolfgang Kuhne. In doing so, he also traces the complicated German history of the mid- and late-twentieth century…. The overarching notion of using a building to trace a family’s and a country’s troubled history is affecting and even, at times, inspirational.”—Booklist

“An absorbing account.”—Library Journal

"Extraordinary... A masterpiece of microcosmic history."—The Bookseller

"Original, personal, moving and uplifting... [Harding] writes engagingly and sympathetically."—The Literary Review

"Harding writes of love and loss, of victims and villains, of struggle and survival in a heart-wrenching family memoir that many novelists would envy for powerful story, colourful characters and cool style."—Saga Magazine

Library Journal
Journalist Harding (Hanns and Rudolf) provides an absorbing account of a century of German history as it relates to a modest home located by a picturesque lake on the outskirts of Berlin. The author, who grew up in England, heard tales throughout his childhood of this beloved dwelling built in the early 20th century by his great-grandparents. In 2013, he visited the cottage and was saddened to find the building derelict and scheduled for demolition by the local government. In an attempt to save the structure, Harding decided to chronicle what happened to the house after his relatives were forced to flee owing to Nazi persecution in the days before World War II. Interviews with local townspeople and tenacious records research disclosed the stories of the house's residents who arrived after his kinfolk left. Remarkably, during the Cold War, a portion of the Berlin Wall was constructed right next to the property—thus placing the house on the communist side of the divided country. Works such as Christopher Hilton's The Wall have told how the division of Germany affected everyday life. VERDICT This personal saga centered on a family home will appeal to enthusiasts of German history, especially post-World War II division and reunification.—Mary Jennings, Camano Island Lib., WA
Kirkus Reviews
The inhabitants of a summer house reveal Germany's political, economic, and social history.In 2013, journalist and biographer Harding (Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz, 2013) traveled to the lakeside vacation home outside Berlin where his grandmother had spent a bucolic childhood. He was shocked by its condition: abandoned, in disrepair, its roof cracked, its chimneys crumbling, the once-beloved refuge was in possession of the city of Potsdam, scheduled for demolition. The only way to save it, he learned, was to "prove that it was culturally and historically significant." Harding's efforts to amass that proof have resulted in a well-researched, intermittently interesting overview of 20th-century German history, focused on five families who lived in the house. In the 1890s, Otto Wollank, a wealthy businessman, bought the property, adding to his already large holdings in Berlin. In 1927, his son-in-law, an early Nazi supporter, leased part of the land to Harding's great-grandfather Alfred Alexander, a prominent Jewish physician. After the Nazis took power, the Alexanders—including their daughter, who became Harding's grandmother—reluctantly fled to London. Although the author claims that "virulent nationalism and anti-Semitism…[were] a rarity in the Germany of 1929," he concedes that Jews could not serve in the army, secure a university professorship, or hold other state positions without converting to Christianity. The story he tells of Nazi persecution of Jews is, sadly, familiar. After the war, the house's residents included a working-class family whose access to the lake was cut off by the Berlin Wall. Surprisingly, Hardings' relatives responded with hostility to his pleas to claim and restore the house, eventually giving in and participating in a cleanup day. The house was saved, and Harding asks readers to contribute to its restoration. A personal and imaginative yet overlong perspective on German history.

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Read an Excerpt

The House by the Lake

One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History

By Thomas Harding


Copyright © 2015 Thomas Harding
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-06508-7



Sitting astride his horse, Otto Wollank made his way slowly through a narrow avenue of ripening vines, towards a lake, shimmering in the early-morning light. The way was sandy and treacherous, he had to be careful that his mare did not slip on one of the many stones, or brush up against the gnarly, twisted branches that marked his path. But there was no rush, for Otto was in a contemplative mood, considering whether he should acquire the estate through which he rode.

Of average height, and with a round chin and unimposing physique, the twenty-seven-year-old would have made scant impression, were it not for the enormous moustache which he sported below a white fedora, tilted gamely to one side.

From a bluff at the vineyard's edge, he looked out at the land around him. At the estate's centre lay the beautiful Groß Glienicke Lake. Two and a half kilometres long and five hundred metres wide, the lake was large enough to sail a dinghy, but smaller than most of the other waterways which dotted the Brandenburg countryside. There was good fishing here, Otto had been told: one could catch carp and eel, or – with some skill – a pike, up to one and a half metres in length, which swam through the lake's deepest sections.

To the east and west of the lake a thick forest hugged the shore: a mixture of black alder, towering trees, with thin dark trunks, whose green triangular crowns blotted out the sky, and willows, whose branches reached out over the lake's edge. Below, growing in the sandy soil, spread a sweet-smelling blanket of ground elder, lilac and irises. In the lake's shallows, tall grasses swayed, alternating with a patchwork of lilies from whose pads pink, white and yellow flowers erupted.

To the north of the lake lay marsh, and then an ancient woodland filled with oak and Scots pine. These woods contained a rich variety of wildlife – deer, wild boar and red fox – each an attractive target to a hunter. Beyond these woods, to the west, stretched out the Döberitzer Heide, a wide-open heath that had been used by Prussian soldiers as a training ground for over a hundred years.

The lake's margins went undeveloped, without a single house, jetty or dock along its shore. Unsurprisingly, the area was a haven for birds: giant white cranes, who passed through from Siberia and Scandinavia on their way to Spain; bitterns with their loud calls booming out from the dense reeds; swans swimming in pairs on the water; and woodpeckers, drilling the trees nearby.

Advertised as one of the largest parcels in the state of Brandenburg, the estate contained some of its prettiest and most productive land. And while decidedly rural in nature, it was only a morning's ride to two major cities, Berlin and Potsdam. The property itself had many names. To some, it was known as the 'Ribbeck Estate' after the renowned Ribbeck family who had owned it from 1572 to 1788. But the Ribbecks had not lived at the property for more than a century and, it having changed hands so many times since, most of the locals now called it the 'Groß Glienicke Nobleman's Estate', or more simply the 'estate'. For the past sixty years the land had been owned by the Landefeldts, a local family with farming in their blood. But after years of mismanagement and falling profits they had been forced to sell.

On offer was four thousand Morgen of land, a Morgen being equal to that area which one man and one ox might till in a morning, roughly equivalent to two-thirds of an acre. In all, the estate was two and a half kilometres long and four kilometres wide. In addition, the sale included an array of farm buildings, plus the cattle, pigs, goats, geese and horses that populated the fields and barns, the farm machinery, and that year's harvest.

Otto turned his horse round and retraced his steps back towards the village of Groß Glienicke, on the northern end of the western shore. It was an ancient settlement, one of the oldest in the region, dating back to 1267, and an insular place, populated by families who had lived here for generations, who knew each other's business, who feared strangers. With the exception of one Catholic couple, all of Glienicke's three hundred or so villagers were Protestant. The little stone houses were built along the Dorfstraße, or village street, a road that ran along the lake's western side, constructed a hundred metres from the water's edge. There was a grocery and a baker's, a small stone-faced school, and a windmill. At the village's centre was the Drei Linden Gasthof, a two-storey inn that for centuries had served as a local watering hole, and which was fronted by three lime trees. In Germany, as in other European countries, the lime was a sacred tree, whose presence protected against ill luck.

At the lake's northern tip, two hundred metres from the lake shore, stood the schloss, or manor house. Three storeys high, the schloss was built of white brick, with a shallow-pitched roof and tower, and contained more than twenty bedrooms and sixteen fireplaces. Inside, the living and dining rooms had floors of wide oak planks, the stairs rose in steps of polished marble and the walls were covered with the finest plaster. Its front hallway ceilings were adorned with colourful frescos: one showed a scantily clothed man firing an arrow at a flock of flying cranes; another depicted a bare-breasted woman looking coyly aside, as angels showered her with petals and serenaded her with a golden harp.

As he continued on around the estate, Otto saw the workers busy with their labours. White-scarfed women, in clogs and long grey dresses, pulled large square-shaped tins from the oven, providing endless loaves of bread for the village. A line of labourers knelt in a wide muddy field next to round-bottomed wooden baskets, placing small potatoes in long rutted rows. Grey-capped men, in shirts and vests, walked behind horses, encouraging their charges with long whips, as they ploughed one of the many fields. Meanwhile, others bound giant bushels of wheat with twine, the windmill behind them, its four sails beating the air. Each of their faces appeared old, weather-beaten, unsmiling.

This land appealed to Otto. It was a gentle place, full of potential, yet uncrowded, unhurried and steeped in tradition.

* * *

Groß Glienicke lay fifteen kilometres west of Berlin's city boundary. While life had changed little for this small Brandenburg village, the same could not be said of Berlin, for, by 1890, it had established itself as the most important city in Germany.

Nineteen years earlier, Berlin had been declared the capital of a new German empire. Until that time, Germany had been a fragmented country, without an effective central economic, military or political structure. Since 1871, Germany and its twenty-five kingdoms, principalities, grand duchies and cities, had been joined together as a single empire, overseen by Kaiser Wilhelm I.

It was also in 1871 that Berlin had been chosen to host the empire's Reichstag, or parliament. The members of this Reichstag were directly elected by men over the age of twenty-five and it was led by a chancellor appointed by the Kaiser. As the seat of government, the city attracted powerful interests, supported by legions of professionals, each with their own retinues, families and domestic staff. Then there was the military, with its influential officer class, whose presence was felt everywhere in Berlin. Almost every day a troop of soldiers was seen parading or marching through the city streets. Military uniforms were worn both on and off duty, and they had become a statement both of fashion and social standing. With barracks located in Berlin and the nearby city of Potsdam, tens of thousands of soldiers lived in or around the city.

Meanwhile, Berlin had established itself as one of Europe's centres of intellectual and cultural excellence. Its Friedrich Wilhelm University boasted an impressive list of former students and academics, including Arthur Schopenhauer, Georg Hegel, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Similarly, Berlin's Kaiser Friedrich Museum was one of Europe's finest, exhibiting extraordinary Byzantian and Egyptian antiquities, as well as paintings from the masters: Raphael and Giotto, Rembrandt and Holbein.

In 1888, Kaiser Wilhelm was succeeded by his son, Friedrich III, who died of cancer of the larynx after ruling for only ninety-nine days. Friedrich's son Wilhelm II then took the throne, aged only twenty-nine. Since that time, Wilhelm II had ruled from an enormous white-stoned baroque palace on the banks of Berlin's River Spree. Forming the hub of royal patronage and command, the palace was serviced by thousands of courtiers and bureaucrats, accountants and engineers, artists and bankers.

Following these momentous changes, the imperial city was transformed in a few short years from a sleepy provincial town into one of Europe's leading metropolises. Attracted by the rapidly expanding economy, and the opportunities that it provided, a rush of newcomers entered the city. Berlin's population doubled, from 800,000 in 1871, to over 1.6 million by 1890.

As part of this expansion, large tracts of land on the city outskirts were developed. The vast majority of these new buildings were apartment blocks, often hastily and inexpensively built, and before long, two-thirds of the city's residents were tenants. Many of the developers came from the middle classes, and were soon amassing vast fortunes. One of these developers was Otto Wollank.

* * *

Born on 18 September 1862, in Pankow, a northern suburb of Berlin, Otto was the eldest son of five children. Tragedy struck early when his thirty-four-year-old father, Adolf Friedrich Wollank, died when Otto was only five years old. Luckily for the family, Adolf left a large inheritance, having purchased hundreds of acres of land in Pankow during the middle of the nineteenth century, before Berlin's massive population explosion, when prices were still cheap.

After graduating from school in 1881, Otto enrolled in agricultural college in Berlin, undertaking work experience on various farms in northern Germany. He also travelled to France, Italy, North Africa, Greece and Turkey during this period. At the age of twenty, Otto began his military service, enlisting with the 2nd Dragoon Guards regiment, with whom he perfected his riding skills and practised basic military techniques. He then joined the Danzig Death's Head hussars, known to include some of Germany's best horsemen and to produce military advisers to Kaiser Wilhelm.

After leaving the cavalry, Otto took over his father's property business, growing it rapidly over the next few years. It was relatively easy to make money. All Otto had to do was find willing buyers, a simple matter given the city's shortage of new homes. Within a short while, he was turning a massive profit. The question was: how to invest it?

Otto was an ambitious man. He wished to progress beyond his father's status as a tradesman. During his time as an officer in the army, and while selling property in Berlin, Otto had learned that the corridors of power were controlled by the aristocracy. No matter how much wealth was accumulated, it was close to impossible to find political favour unless one was a member of the nobility. To fix this problem, he would have to purchase a rural estate, with the hope that this would make him suitable to marry into a noble family. Which is why Otto Wollank had ended up surveying the estate in Groß Glienicke.

On 18 February 1890, apparently satisfied by what he found, Otto Wollank made an offer to purchase the estate, which was accepted. So it was that four days later, on 22 February, the landowner, Johann Landefeldt, and the purchaser, Otto Wollank, met at the Spandau courthouse located ten kilometres north of Groß Glienicke. There, at quarter past eleven in the morning, they signed their names to the purchase contract: in exchange for 900,000 marks, Otto Wollank was now the Rittergutsbesitzer, or landlord, of Groß Glienicke.

* * *

Over the next few years, Otto worked tirelessly, throwing himself into modernising the estate. Keen to apply the scientific methods he had learned at college, he reorganised the manor farm. Using fertilisers and pesticides he increased crop yields. He built a new steam-powered mill to grind the wheat more efficiently. He introduced pasteurisation to milk production, extending its shelf life, and then developed a chain of shops in Berlin in order to sell the milk. Next, he built a brickworks, diversifying the estate's income beyond those of a traditional farm, providing bricks for houses on his estate, as well as the village beyond.

Along the lake's sandy northern shore, he planted a vineyard. Young vines were laid out in long rows, held up by trellises that stretched from the estate's entrance, at the Potsdamer Tor, down to a bluff overlooking the lake. Once the vineyard was established, labourers picked the grapes, which were then crushed and juiced, before being fermented in large metal vats that Otto had installed in one of his barns.

Concerned for the welfare of his workers, Otto converted an old farm building into a nursery. As the labourers' children grew up, the nursery added on a kindergarten and then a school. Initially, the local landlords remained unsure of this Berlin interloper, who had purchased his way into their rarefied circle, but the villagers warmed to their new landlord. In an unpublished family history, a member of the Wollank clan later recalled that Otto was a good landlord who cared for the workers. More than this, he was viewed as 'gütig und mitfühlend,' or 'kindly and compassionate'.

On 15 June 1894, four years after arriving in the village, and now aged thirty-one, Otto married Katharina Anne Marie, a twenty-three-year-old local girl from an established Brandenburg family. A year later, they had their first child, Marie Luise, and then, eleven months later another, Ilse Katharina. A third daughter, Irmgard, was born almost exactly a year after that, but she died when only two days old. Finally, they had a son, who was born on the twenty-third day of the first month of the new century. He was baptised at the schloss, and given the name Horst Otto Adolf. Otto was thankful that at last he had a male heir.

The schloss was a wonderful place to grow up. Educated at home, Marie, Ilse and Horst had plenty of time to play in the fields and woods. Their father built a wooden playhouse for them, an ornately carved structure that was tall enough for an adult to stand, and wide enough to host a tea party for their friends.

As soon as they were old enough, the children were allowed to swim and sail on the lake, exploring its islands, hidden beaches and coves. Although Horst was often unable to participate in the more arduous recreational activities due to his persistent ill health, he was taught to ride a horse, and to shoot with an air pistol, and later with a hunting rifle. The girls, meanwhile, contented themselves with singing lessons in the front parlour.

Every October, the villagers and the Wollanks came together for the Erntedankfest, or Thanksgiving festival, to celebrate the gathering of the harvest and the good fortune of the village. Assembled in the schloss' courtyard, the villagers awaited the landlord's arrival. The men were dressed in their Sunday-best suits; the more affluent wore fedoras and ties, others sported peaked caps. The women wore formal dresses and were accompanied by boys in lederhosen and girls in frocks. Also present were the men of the fire brigade, their belts and buckles gleaming, the village pastor, and the nightwatchman, who lived in a house next to the Drei Linden and who provided security to the village in the absence of a police force.

After some time, the landlord's family joined the crowd on the front steps of the schloss, greeted by the villagers. A few moments later, children were pushed forward carrying the Erntekrone, large wreaths of wheat and flowers tied to long poles from which hung multicoloured ribbons. After the landlord had thanked everyone for coming, he led them away from the schloss, with his family at the head, marching along the sandy lane which ran around the northern tip of the lake, past farm buildings and the new vineyard. At the end of the lane they walked under the Potsdamer Tor, the stone arch that marked the entrance to the schloss and its manor park, and upon which was carved the Wollank family crest: the head of a black wolf and a crown painted in the red and white colours of Groß Glienicke. Now on the Potsdamer Chaussee, the procession turned left at the fire station, and down to the fourteenth-century stone church.

While the rest of the party entered the church through the large wooden doors on the nave's northern face, the Wollanks arrived via the landlord's personal door, on the eastern side of the building. Inside, the church gleamed following the renovation recently paid for by Wollank: a crown of gold-fringed alabaster hung above the colourfully decorated pulpit – painted in rich greens, blues and reds; an enormous oil painting of Christ was placed behind the altar, on which were inscribed the words Ecce Homo; an oil painting portraying the Last Supper featured a former owner of the estate, Hans Georg Ribbeck, as one of the disciples; and at the ceiling's centre, the sun appeared through a hole in the painted clouds, on which was written the Hebrew word for God, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].


Excerpted from The House by the Lake by Thomas Harding. Copyright © 2015 Thomas Harding. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Meet the Author

THOMAS HARDING is an author and journalist who has written for the Financial Times, The Sunday Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian, among other publications. His #1 internationally bestselling book Hanns and Rudolf won the 2015 Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize, was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Book Award Biography prize and is being translated into more than a dozen languages.

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