Author Peter Fritzsche on an ‘ordinary Berliner’ who wrote his way through the turbulent 20th century…
When I first found the sprawling diary in a Berlin archive, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
It was full of insight, but littered with self-pity. Political reportage on the terrible drama of twentieth-century German history often yielded to inflexible Social Darwinism, astrology combined with astronomy, aphorisms traded places with diatribes against women, self-laceration gave way to self-exculpation. Hitler, Stalin, Marx, Freud were all in the mix as well.
I knew that the diary was unusual because very few diarists comment on the world across a span of seventy years. Franz Göll began writing in 1916, just before his seventeenth birthday, and he continued until he died in 1984 – the diary observes Kaiser Wilhelm as well as Ronald Reagan, the Age of Darwin as well as the Age of Aquarius.
That Göll was an ordinary man – a clerk, a publisher’s assistant, a night watchman – who lived all his life in the same crummy apartment in the “Red Island,” a well-known Berlin working-class district made the diary all the more tantalizing; most diarists are well-born and many rather indolent. Here was a man who had to make his way in life; he seemed to step right out of Hans Fallada’s classic Depression-era novel, Little Man, What Now?
Franz Göll apprenticed himself to the big city along Reichsstrasse 1 (Germany’s equivalent of the USA’s Route 66), which extends from Aachen in the west, traverses Berlin, and continues on to Königsberg in the east. This is the metropolitan broadway where Marlene Dietrich, who is almost an exact contemporary, grew up, where Franz scouted his first love, Klara Wasko, and where he searched for jobs and posed as a dandy.
If Franz Göll never moved, world history moved through him: from his perch on Rossbachstrasse, he witnessed the German Revolution in 1918, the rise of the Nazis in 1933, the pogrom against the Jews in 1938, the bombing of Berlin and the rape of his neighbors in the last years of World War II, and the frightening prospect of nuclear annihilation after 1945.
Yet the diary is also cluttered with the musing of a lonesome man: a solitary child, he played horsey and whipped himself; linkisch or bumbling, he was too frightened to pick up the candy thrown out during party showers. His mother had to accompany the boy to school because he couldn’t get his winter coat off by himself. Classmates teased him for being fit only for a coffin, not a career.
An avid reader, Göll turned inward and spent hours in the local library and sometimes willed himself to be an unrecognized genius who, following the wildly misogynistic yet widely influential philosopher Otto Weininger, had chosen creativity over sex. Elsewhere, and very much in the spirit of this eugenic age, Göll prepared biological studies of his family to confirm his degeneracy. At one point, he was attracted to the Nazis and developed into an anti-Semite before turning against the bullies whom he hated in the public square as much as he did on the schoolyard.
A closer reading of the diary reveals a portrait of what it felt to live in the twentieth century. Göll repeatedly deployed the Darwinian notion of “the struggle for survival.” On the one hand, he was burdened by the necessity to “make” his way alone in the world by developing the skills to find a job, to evaluate social situations, to acquire a girl friend, to negotiate city streets.
On the other hand, he reveled in the possibility of fashioning himself in a highly mobile, if turbulent consumer society. Both the solitude and the freedom of the individual became fundamental twentieth-century experiences, and Göll wrote quite perceptively about each. In this sense, he followed the characteristic twentieth-century practice of making a case study – of himself, which is one of his motivations for keeping the diary.
Göll’s somewhat unforgiving Darwinism came from his study of nature; he embodied the promise of popular science by reading Ernst Haeckel and Sigmund Freud, by building an aquarium, and by keeping weather logs and star-gazing charts. But Göll tended to see life from the bottom up. The bumbling boy not surprisingly sympathized with those who never were able to press their advantage or make “propaganda” for themselves and thus came out short.
For this reason, he was ultimately not vulnerable to the Nazis whom he regarded as ferocious predators. In one of the most moving passages of the diary, Göll reported on viewing the 1938 Nazi propaganda exhibit on “Degenerate Art,” which he found provocative rather than repulsive. Standing in front of Otto Dix’s famous triptych on war, Franz Göll made an extraordinary declaration that turned the aim of the exhibit on its head: “The picture is not a bloody-minded depiction of the degenerate, war is.”
Further along, “one more picture.” It depicted “a war invalid who wants to tenderly draw his wife to him with his prosthetic arms. He awkwardly places his artificial arm outfitted with a claw hook around his wife. From their expressions, it is obvious that this caress is not regarded as a moment of bliss, but as a painful disappointment over a happiness that is gone forever.”
This sort of empathy did not circulate widely in the Third Reich. To be sure, Franz was not an ordinary twentieth-century German man: he never served in the army in either world war and perhaps for this reason he had little feeling for German nationalism or German patriotism. As a child, he preferred to play with dolls rather than soldiers.
The diary’s depiction of the little man, beleaguered by social change and historic dramas, is not quite convincing, however. There are at least three diarists who inhabit the diary, multiple selves which are themselves consistent with ideas of modern individuality. The day-by-day entries of the diary contrast with a memoir that Göll wrote inside the diary.
The diary tracks Göll’s inability to achieve what he thinks is his call to “genius.” Instead of living life, he withdraws and reports on it. His diary came to serve as a place for Göll to register the discrepancies between his ambitions and expectations and the deeds he in fact carried out, between the call to genius he felt and the absence of any outward confirmation of such a calling. Throughout the diary, Franz Göll reveals himself to be an object who cannot make his way in the world. The diary mirrors what he regards as the fragmentary, aimless nature of his existence.
By contrast, the memoir, written between 1941 and 1948, is the product of a confident amateur historian who uses background and agency to render an active subject whose life has considerably more purpose and coherence (and fun) than the diaries indicate. As a self-conscious historical observer, Franz the memoirist gives a robust account of his life and times. He deliberately avoids the episodic or ruminative nature of the diaries. The memoirs bring Franz Göll to life. Two very different literary approaches – the diary and the memoir – reveal two very different Franz Gölls. Each offers a rare reflection on the nature and artifice of autobiography.
And a third autobiographical genre, the household account books, provides yet another vantage point from which to observe the self. They reveal Franz’s daily spending habits during the dramatic years of the Great Inflation (1922/23), the Great Depression (1929/33), World War II and the postwar “economic miracle.” His everyday purchases reveal the degree to which an upwardly mobile, though socially uprooted Berliner fashioned a consumer “lifestyle” as he outfitted himself with fedora hats, walking sticks, black boots, and cigars and cigarettes and went to movies, amusement parks, and other metropolitan spectacles.
We see Franz constantly on the move, browsing, breezing, picking up a pound of apples, plums, or cherries from a fruit cart on the corner, drinking a mug of beer or a glass of “Weisse mit,” Berlin’s favorite sour beer with raspberry syrup, stopping off at a café for coffee, lemonade, or a bottle of “boa-bie,” grabbing some chocolate or a roll of mints at a Tabak, and bringing home to his mother a slice of “honey cake” or “gingerbread” from a pastry shop.
In the end, the diary exposes the scars of the struggle to survive the twentieth-century, but also reveals the rich souvenirs amassed in experiencing it. It becomes a kaleidoscope in which, by turns, readers see the different selves of Franz Göll and the open-ended opportunities and dangers of twentieth-century life. Unauthorized, the diary is also unauthoritative and therefore particularly telling.
This post first appeared on the excellent Berfrois website and was re-posted here with kind permission from the author and Berfrois.