Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Who wants the Goebbels house?

It can be a temptation to own a historic home. It can also be a mixed blessing.
Some years ago I succumbed to the temptation and acquired one of those beautiful old buildings East Anglia is so rich in.
An elegant, slightly tired house with a long frontage in warm red 18th-century brick. A quiet eye-catcher in the middle of its village.
Frankly, we wouldn’t have been able to afford it if it hadn’t been right on the main road.
A road that had never been expected to cope with motorised traffic, let alone millennial volumes of it.
And a house that would surely have been a money-pit if we’d had the money to pour into it.
As it was, I had to find a significant sum PDQ when I finally tumbled to the reason why one of the upstairs doors sometimes swung free and sometimes stuck fast.
Or when the surveyor I called in explained it to me.
Most of the house, in fact, was in pretty good shape for its 250 years.
Give or take the odd rotten windowsill. And the place on the end wall where the exhaust fumes of cars revving up to get out of the lane and into the traffic flow had eroded a hole clean through the brickwork.
The real structural problems weren’t with the original building. They were with the cheap and flimsy extension added in the 1960s.
And especially with the decision taken at that time to demolish a length of the original back wall up to first floor height.
It had left an original oak beam spanning a gap of something like 15 feet – with the full weight of another storey of brickwork above it.
It’s remarkable, really, that that beam had taken more than 30 years to start showing severe signs of fatigue.
The surveyor reckoned that in another few months that whole end of the house might have collapsed.
A heavy steel U-shaped girder and another venerable oak trunk now support it. And another owner has the responsibility.
I occasionally go by that way and it’s clear even from a passing car that the house has benefited lately from more love and more money than I could afford.
If the village ever gets the by-pass that’s been on and off the agenda repeatedly for at least the last 30 years, the owners will no doubt get a handsome return on their investment. And good luck to them.
I hope in the meantime they haven’t had too much of the hassle from planners that I now know can afflict anyone who has to maintain a Grade II listed property. For myself, I’ve been there, done that.
None of these are quite the problems that will afflict whoever cares to buy the historic Haus am Bogensee – though it too is a listed building.
Assuming, that is, a buyer can be found. There are now, apparently, bidders for the property, which has been standing empty for 24 years.
Bidders, what’s more, who are considered acceptable by the current owners, the city government of Berlin.
They are right to be fussy, even though they will no doubt be delighted to get the haus and its 42-acre grounds off their hands at last.
Before 1990, the Haus am Bogensee, beautifully secluded in beech woods 45 minutes’ drive north of Berlin, was used as a heavily guarded kindergarten for East Germany’s Communist Party youth movement.
In those Cold War days, the previous history of the building was probably not much thought about.
That kind of sensitivity didn't count for much in the Soviet bloc. Post-war Germany and Eastern Europe had too many buildings with queasy stories in their recent past.
But it's not its use in the Communist era that makes the Haus am Bogensee a difficult subject today. It's what it was before.
The lakeside villa, completed in 1939 in then-fashionable “Germanic” style, was built – at the expense of Berlin's tax-payers – for Joseph Goebbels.
It's where the Nazi propaganda minister had sexual trysts with a whole parade of young actresses.
And where he wrote his toxic anti-Jewish tracts.
It still has its grandiose stone columns and steeply sloping roof, and a banqueting hall with a large open fireplace and oak-panelled ceiling.
It has a private cinema where Goebbels presumably didn't entertain his wife, Magda, or their children.
And a bunker which isn't the one where he and Magda poisoned all six of those children before killing themselves in 1945.
Remarkably, the Haus am Bogensee is the only home of any of the former prominent Nazis still standing.
Which makes it historically interesting. And potentially difficult for its owners.
The Berlin government hopes it will become a boarding school or a hotel.
What it really, really doesn't want is for it to fall into the hands of neo-Nazis. For its old propaganda role to be revived.
An intriguing and important building. But not an easy one to own.

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