Book Review: The Turbulent World of Franz Göll: An Ordinary Berliner Writes the Twentieth Century by Peter Fritzsche

This unusual book gave me very good insights into the German mindset. Along with creating realistic settings, my major writing challenge is to make my characters’ mentalities true to the era. It is not easy because it is natural for a human to skip or minimize less favorable episodes in his recollections and memoirs.

At the state archives in Berlin Peter Fritzsche found notebooks filled with writings by Franz Göll, an obscure Berliner. Göll was a loner and a graphoman, a low-level white-collar worker, who wrote down his daily impressions, reflections on his romantic affairs, summaries of his self-studies, musings on the official propaganda, and household accounting records that spanned the era from Kaiser Wilhelm II to Ronald Reagan.

Impressed by the scope of Göll’s diaries and memoirs, Peter Fritzche presented his overview and analysis of the remarkable historical evidence in The Turbulent World of Franz Göll. He outlined the evolution of Göll’s views, noted the clarity or ambiguity of different entries and highlighted the limitations of Göll’s judgments together with the depth of his thought, all supported by extensive quotes from Göll’s works.

Because of Göll’s ordinariness, his diaries reflected the popular ideas and stereotypes. At the same time, his inquisitive mind now and then allowed him to rise above the crowd and analyze the political and economical developments with the detachment of a scientific observer. He received only a basic formal education but he also was a voracious reader and avid self-learner.

An important advantage of Göll’s work was the unadulterated documentation of the life around him. Many Third Reich-era diaries and memoirs published after the war have a common defect: they were edited to conform to the new social standards. For example, Ursula von Kardorff, the author of Diary of a Nightmare, Berlin 1942-1945, toned down her epithets for American and British bombers when she prepared her diaries for publication.

But Göll’s writings were not “sanitized”, so they showed his changing perceptions. During the Weimar Republic he wanted a strong leader who could end the strife among numerous political parties and pull Germany out of the economic abyss. The Darwinian idea of survival struggle captivated him, and he applied it to everything beyond the animal world, including European politics. In the 1920’s he noted magazine articles about “the perfection of Aryanism”, “the Karma of the German people” and “a new era of global wars and the resurrection of Germany” although he made no distinction between Germans and Jews yet.

In the 1930’s he analyzed the genetics of his own family (he called it a “hereditary biological study”), much in the spirit of the times. Because of the necessity to prove his Aryanness, he researched his genealogy, which he found interesting and satisfying. He pondered the concept of genetically superior and inferior races, citing the blacks and whites in America. In 1932 he commented on the Jews’ “elaborate and immoral business conduct” and pegged them as “con men”.

Fritzsche demonstrates that Göll supported the Nazi party when it came to power, and how his excitement and anti-Semitism waned after a few years. Nevertheless, the Third Reich years were the zenith of Göll’s career success, when he was promoted to a department manager at Springer Publishers. He enjoyed state-subsidized vacation trips under the Strength through Joy program, which made it possible for an average German to travel as a tourist. It was also the highest point of his civic involvement and authority, when he served as an air raid warden for his apartment block. At the same time he derided the Nazis’ habit of “serving up anti-Semitic atrocities” and likened them to “highly skilled, if voracious, predators”. In his opinion, “the National Socialist regime aimed to commit and bind – preferably crisscross – every single person.” Göll analyzed parallels between the Nazi and Soviet regimes. In his entry on July 3, 1941 he stated his shrewd awareness of the Holocaust: “It is an open secret … that they are proceeding against the Jews in the most rigorous way with sterilizations, removal to the eastern territories…”, which, in Fritzsche’s opinion, set him apart from most Germans at the time. In the last two years of the war Göll expressed his anti-Nazi views, recited, like many Berliners, caustic jokes about Hitler’s government and showed little anti-Semitism, although the traces of the latter still lingered in his post-war entries.

The book also gave me an answer to my question on how some regular Germans viewed the Nazi regime and the defeat of Germany immediately postwar, which was definitely not something freely expressed in memoirs. In November 1947 Göll wrote:

“Although we became culpable, we also paid heavily, and now we should draw a line under this completed account. We should not think of ourselves as better than other people, but we are also certainly not worse. We are guilty of having done too little; let the others take care not to be guilty of doing too much. And when we are accused of being ‘war criminals’, then we have every right to respond, ‘Peace saboteurs!’ ” In Peter Fritzsche’s opinion, Göll was not alone in dismissing the case for German guilt.

The Turbulent World of Franz Göll made me want to read the diaries and memoirs in full. Fritzsche’s analysis, despite his scholarly style, is incredibly interesting, and I wonder how objective he has been in summarizing Göll’s vast works. If you are interested in an in-depth exploration of German mentality and do not mind psychology jargon and references to Nietzsche, you will certainly find this book engrossing.

My ROW80 progress:

  • Finished reading The Turbulent World of Franz Göll on Sunday;
  • Not much writing and revising done because my laptop died on Friday. The weekend was taken up by home and family, and I got to Best Buy only on Monday. Thankfully, the culprit was a broken power adapter and nothing more!
  • Searched the Bundesarchiv database for old photos of Leipzig and downloaded a few. I still have a hard time visualizing Leipzig streets.  I cannot find a Third Reich-era map of the city although I have downloaded several wartime maps of Berlin and a German occupation map of Kiev.

This week’s ROW80 goals:

  • Write and revise as much as possible (and treat my laptop with care!);
  • No readings planned because I want to focus on writing;
  • For a change, make a film review post.