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Un-superman

An ordinary German in extraordinary times.

Jul 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 40 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
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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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