Franz Göll (1899-1984) was a seemingly ordinary Berliner who lived inconspicuously, first with his parents, then with his mother and finally on his own in the same flat in the Schoneberg district of Berlin, experiencing at first hand some of the most momentous historical and cultural developments in 20th-century Germany. At the same time, he was a most remarkable individual; a man who turned his own life and personal interests into a lifelong project that yielded a diary (covering the years 1916-1984), a memoir (composed between 1941 and 1948), a household account book (1919-19) and a collection of postcards.
In The Turbulent World of Franz Göll: An Ordinary Berliner Writes the Twentieth Century, historian Peter Fritzsche analyses Göll's writings based on his findings in the state archives in Berlin. Fritzsche began working with the documents in 2003, about a decade after Marie-Odile Berne had first considered them in her unpublished master's thesis. He approaches Göll's works in six chapters, analysing his deliberations with the help of numerous quotations from his source and drawing parallels with research in autobiographical and historical writing. Indeed, Franz Biberkopf, the main character in Alfred Döblin's sprawling 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, provides interesting literary associations.
One cannot help but feel that Göll would have been very pleased with all this attention: he had even "inserted reading aids for future readers in his entries and crafted his prose as answers to implicit questions that might be posed long after his death". Göll's consideration of the unknown future reader and the sheer length and intensity of his engagement with his own life and times make for the special excitement of this project, not least since he lived against the backdrop of four distinct periods in German history: the Wilhelmine monarchy until its end in 1918; the Weimar Republic; National Socialism; and finally, life in the Federal Republic of Germany, observed from the viewpoint of a West Berliner.
Inevitably, the eye is first drawn to the Berlin setting, but it is actually of limited impact. The metropolis did of course allow Göll particularly easy access to libraries, exhibitions and various opportunities for work. Historic events such as the revolution at the end of the First World War in Germany or the National Socialists' demonstration of power in the capital were developments to which he had immediate access. On 12 March 1938, for example, we find him at the National Socialist propaganda exhibition Degenerate Art in Berlin. On Otto Dix's Expressionist triptych Der Krieg, he concludes: "The picture is not a bloody-minded depiction of the degenerate, war is."
What really captivates the reader's imagination is Göll's lifelong attempt to place himself within a wider context, effectively dramatising the age in writing his own role in contemporary culture and politics. His perception of 20th-century German history is aided by his habitual zeal in collecting and examining his deliberations for posterity.
Fritzsche dedicates his first three chapters to Göll's personal life: "The case of Franz Göll, graphomaniac", "Franz Göll's multiple selves" and "Physical intimacies". Göll shares the trademark melancholy of other diarists and quotes Goethe, Christian Friedrich Hebbel and Henri-Frederic Amiel. He constantly pursues his own life "to account for why he was different". The difference was possibly more manifest to himself than others; he describes himself as being of puny stature, he never married and remained generally unattached.
Strikingly - and most interesting in relation to autobiographical writing - Göll's diaries and memoirs present different sides of the same person: the diarist is clearly more critical and at times plain miserable about his day-to-day life than is the writer of the memoirs. In the latter, he constructs a long-term narrative in which he is able to put less weight on his own eccentricities in the interest of bringing out broader cultural, social and historical perspectives. His memoirs were conceived during the Second World War from a position of authority - he was a Berlin air-raid warden and head of a mail and equipment department, a function important enough to save him from military service.
Both the diaries and the memoirs are underpinned by the findings, cross-references and thoughts of an ardent reader whose formative years fell in the 1920s. Göll's treasured documents, whose survival he registers with great relief after the war, display "multiple selves" searching for meaning, thereby destabilising, says Fritzsche, "the authority of any single autobiographical text" while enriching "the corpus as a whole". This is all the more interesting when one considers the demands that 20th-century German history made on its people: the Kaiser's subjects became democrats after the First World War, only to move in 1933 into a dictatorship that eventually made way for post-Second World War democracy under Allied supervision.
Göll's preoccupation with his own life goes hand in hand with his engagement with his times. The chapters "Amateur scientist" and "Franz Göll writes German history" consider his observations. He is detached, for example, from some of the National Socialist policies and their seduction of the masses, and is critical when their intervention in everyday life becomes all too obvious. That at the same time he remains a child of his times is clear when his thoughts on the "struggle for existence" and anti-Semitism are explored.
Fritzsche highlights Göll's troubling disregard for the victims of National Socialism, "typical for Germans of his day". In as much as he is an independent thinker in search of his own purpose in life, Göll refuses to acknowledge his role as a "protagonist in the rise and consolidation of the Third Reich".
Later in life, he becomes a supporter of Willy Brandt, the Social Democrat chancellor, embracing the cautious consumerism of post-war West Berlin. Even then it becomes clear that although certain ideas may have undergone reassessment, they continued to carry Göll through to the very end when "his legacy was not wisdom or happiness but the transcripts of his continuous endeavour to figure out what was going on and why events happened in the way they did".
The misery Göll experiences in the aftermath of the Second World War is an echo of another German diarist who captured the public's imagination not so long ago. In contrast to Göll's lifelong work, the anonymous writer of the diary Anonyma: A Woman in Berlin addresses only a very brief period at the end of the war; here too, however, the role of the individual as a forthright commentator on her times illuminates the experiences of the average German in the previous century.
At the heart of Anonyma's edited diary are accounts of the mass rapes that followed the Soviet occupation of Berlin. Göll belongs among the men she describes as passive onlookers of the plight of women in the ruins of Berlin - and he does indeed take the event in his stride.
"That is the way it was," he says, dispassionately noting that it was "sometimes worse and more terrible, elsewhere more civil and civilized, as is the case in war..."
A study of this high calibre can withstand minor criticism. Now and then a glimpse of the original German writings (including Göll's poetry) would have satisfied the curiosity one develops for someone to whom reading and writing in his mother tongue clearly meant a lot. But more importantly, this is a perceptive analysis of a 20th-century individual who cherished his perceived difference and who was at the same time representative of the masses, for better or worse.
Currently professor of history at the University of Illinois and a former Guggenheim and Humboldt Fellow, Peter Fritzsche likes to "work hard and play hard".
During the week he is up early to read and write, but at the weekend he "likes to have fun, drink wine, dance and be with my wife".
From a young age, Fritzsche knew that he wanted to be a historian. He recalls collating encyclopaedia articles in order to write a history of the world, aged just 10.
He is author of several acclaimed works of scholarship, including Life and Death in the Third Reich (2008), which won the Cundill International Prize in History's Recognition of Excellence award.
An avid traveller, Fritzsche has journeyed extensively across Europe, first by bicycle in 1974, and then two years later by train, immediately before beginning his bachelor's degree in history at the University of Pennsylvania.
Of all the places he has visited, he says, "If I spoke Portuguese and danced better, I could very well live in Rio de Janeiro".
The Turbulent World of Franz Göll: An Ordinary Berliner Writes the Twentieth Century
By Peter Fritzsche
Harvard University Press
Published 31 March 2011