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The House by the Lake

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.
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By Thomas Harding



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.

Otto Wollank

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.

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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, הוהי.

As to Otto Wollank himself, his situation appeared stable and secure. The estate was developing nicely. The harvest had been good. His villagers were well fed and his wife and three children were healthy and happy. Sitting in the lord of the manor's box, located to the left of the altar and above and in front of the rest of the pews, its side emblazoned with the family crest, and singing the harvest festival songs, Otto's life had never seemed better.

Copyright © 2015 by Thomas Harding


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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