An ordinary German in extraordinary times.
Jul 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 40 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
The Turbulent World
An Ordinary Berliner Writes the Twentieth Century
by Peter Fritzsche
Harvard, 288 pp., $26.95
In the spring of 2003, Peter Fritzsche, an insightful and respected historian of 20th-century Germany, discovered in the state archives of Berlin the extensive diaries of an ordinary German named Franz Göll. The diaries run from 1916 to shortly before Göll’s death in 1984, at the age of 85, and cover a period in German history marked by extraordinary violence, social upheaval, and political and economic transformations.
There is very little that we do not know about 20th-century Europe. Multitudes of historians have combed through the remains of the two 12- to 14-year German regimes, the reckless Weimar Republic and the brutal Third Reich. Thousands have examined every move made in the two world wars, and every scrap of paper written during the Holocaust. We have more letters and diaries than we know what to do with—but the diaries, in particular, have tended to be those of well-educated, highly self-conscious intellectuals, from the aristocratic Count Harry Kessler to the caustic, melancholy professor of French literature Victor Klemperer.
Franz Göll, by contrast, was (as Fritzsche puts it) “uneducated but highly intelli-gent, the son of a luckless typesetter and a barely literate mother.” His grandmother, however, was a minor aristocrat, Gertrude von Göll. Her son, born in 1864 when Gertrude was 24 and unmarried, was raised by her sister. The illegitimate son jettisoned the “von” but his son, in turn, always referred to himself as Franz von Göll. That “von” gave him social capital (he had no other) and “seemed to affirm his sense of mistaken identity and unrecognized genius.” The would-be-genius Franz—the man who missed the boat of history because, as he wrote about himself, he was “just not a shaper. I cannot master my own destiny”—lived his entire life on Berlin’s Rote Insel (red island), a small working-class neighborhood with strong socialist leanings, bordered on two sides by railway tracks. From this perch, and while working at various menial jobs in the Reich Coal Distribution Office, the post office, and, finally, for the publisher Julius Springer, he observed himself and German society for nearly 70 years.
The problem confronting Peter Fritzsche is whether he can pull a Rumpel-stilts-kin and spin the dull straw of a never-married German loser into the gold of intel-lectual discovery. Will Göll’s diary finally reveal to us why the majority of Germans fell so fast for Hitler? Why they acceded so easily to their own political disen-franchise-ment? Why they remained unmoved by the public harassment, torture, and liquidation of German Jews? Why they went off in droves to fight another war for the greater glory of—well, what exactly? And why they did it when so many of them perfectly remembered the horrors of 1914-18? Will Göll’s diary teach us something about the enigmatic mindset of ordinary Germans during the crucial period from 1914 to 1945?
Well, Fritzsche’s problem with Göll is that his Franz is not quite ordinary enough socio-logically, and all too ordinary as a thinker and writer. The way Fritzsche solves this problem is brilliant: He never lets us see the diary itself but presents an interpretation of it in six distinct and distinguished chapters. He begins with a social and psychological exploration of Göll’s “graphomania.” Physically a small man, Franz “felt a profound sense of alienation and humiliation and shame in his relations with society.” He was uneasy around people, unsure how to approach women, uncertain how to manage his sexuality. He presents himself largely as an injured individual, passive, voyeuristic, maladroit. His ultrasensitive register of melancholy emotion turns him into “an accountant of loss, worthlessness, and incapacity.” He played with dolls as a boy, and as a young man identified with the women in the food lines rather than the infantrymen returning from the front: “His failure to develop strong ties of association and loyalty left him disinclined to identify with the German nation.” After a short spurt of enthusiasm for the Nazis in 1933, Franz was turned off by them. But he never opposed them in political actions because, as an injured soul, he was not cut out for a life of action—any action.
“One way to read the diary,” writes Fritzsche, “is to understand it as a continuous transcript of his compulsive study of his battered self.”
We know where this is going. Fritzsche wants to suggest connections to other modern melancholy diarists: Goethe, Hebbel, Henri-Frédéric Amiel. He cites the astounding diarist Arthur Inman’s response to reading the diaries of Pepys, Rousseau, and Tolstoy: “Doors of chance into rooms of experience.” A good quote, except that Franz Göll’s rooms of experience are filled with straw, not gold. Nevertheless, Fritzsche is spinning hard and the yarn begins to shine in the second chapter, devoted to Göll’s multiple selves. Fritzsche describes Göll’s unaffectionate parents, whose influence on Göll was overwhelmingly negative and whom Göll himself calls “grossly neglectful.” Add to them a miserly grandfather worthy of Dickens and a child’s troubled psyche gains contours. Fritzsche’s analysis of Göll’s scrupulously kept household account books presents a fascinating picture of the material living conditions of a lower-middle-class household in Berlin. Conditioned by his grandfather and schooled by tough economic times, Göll develops borderline obsessive-compulsive traits, and the reader is relieved when it turns out that he goes to the movies several times a week.
The third chapter, about Göll’s views of physical intimacy and relations with women, reveals the key to his psyche: the mother whom he didn’t love and who, after the death of her husband in 1915 when her son was 16, became dependent on Franz. She infantilized him and relied on him to the point of suffocation. I’m reminded here of Elias Canetti’s torturous relationship with his mother: Both mothers interpret their sons’ slow moves toward independence as deep rejection, which leads to fierce quarrels and psychic melodrama.
“From the very beginning,” wrote Göll, “the immaturity of my mother was at the center of my life.” The tension was palpable: “Even the most trivial matter was like a spark in a pile of explosives . . . she apparently was always on the alert,” watching for the next injury, real or imagined, because nothing is less tolerable than indifference. It’s amazing, really, that Franz didn’t run off to war at the first opportunity.
By the early 1930s, he is actually doing well. After a chapter on Göll’s unoriginal thoughts on science, Fritzsche presents Göll’s view of German history before closing with a section about Göll’s comfortable life in the Federal Republic. Of course, by “German history” Fritzsche means the Third Reich and World War II and here, then, comes the surprise that really isn’t a surprise because, despite being louche, Göll was indeed an ordinary German. By 1931 he has completely absorbed the current anti-Semitic rhetoric and targets Jews as predators: “Franz arrived at anti-Semitism before he got to the Nazis,” writes Fritzsche, “and it never completely released its hold on him; as late as the 1970s he continued to distinguish Germans and Jews.”
And Göll did eventually arrive at the Nazis. The surprise is that he didn’t get to them when he felt downtrodden. Instead, he “mobilized himself in the broad National Socialist drive for power . . . after his period of despair had ended,” when he had a steady (though modest) job, when he could go on vacations, when he had two female lovers with whom he romped through the city: “He became a Nazi and an anti-Semite from a position of strength.”
We should not be surprised. Having established a tenuous hold on a bit of good fortune, Göll now felt strong enough to join the manly men who were going to protect it. In which case, Fritzsche’s astounding book opens our eyes, once again, to the disappointing sight of an ordinary human being. And an ordinary human being is just that: ordinary.
Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.
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