The Turbulent World of Franz Göll: An Ordinary Berliner Writes the Twentieth Century

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Overview

Franz Göll was a thoroughly typical Berliner. He worked as a clerk, sometimes as a postal employee, night watchman, or publisher's assistant. He enjoyed the movies, ate spice cake, wore a fedora, tamed sparrows, and drank beer or schnapps. He lived his entire life in a two-room apartment in Rote Insel, Berlin's famous working-class district. What makes Franz Göll different is that he left behind one of the most comprehensive diaries available from the maelstrom of twentieth-century German life. Deftly weaving in Göll’s voice from his diary entries, Fritzsche narrates the quest of an ordinary citizen to make sense of a violent and bewildering century.

Peter Fritzsche paints a deeply affecting portrait of a self-educated man seized by an untamable impulse to record, who stayed put for nearly seventy years as history thundered around him. Determined to compose a “symphony” from the music of everyday life, Göll wrote of hungry winters during World War I, the bombing of Berlin, the rape of his neighbors by Russian soldiers in World War II, and the flexing of U.S. superpower during the Reagan years. In his early entries, Göll grappled with the intellectual shockwaves cast by Darwin, Freud, and Einstein, and later he struggled to engage with the strange lifestyles that marked Germany's transition to a fluid, dynamic, unmistakably modern society.

With expert analysis, Fritzsche shows how one man's thoughts and desires can give poignant shape to the collective experience of twentieth-century life, registering its manifold shocks and rendering them legible.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In a time when public self-disclosure and blogging seem almost de rigueur, examining the diaries kept by a German everyman for the better part of the 20th century is both curious and refreshing. Born in 1899, Franz Göll chronicled everything from the years before the Weimar Republic to the Reagan era—telescoping between personal intimacies ("deeply entwined with his relations with women"), psychological analyses, family history (Göll wrote a complete memoir within his diary), and global change—without traveling much beyond his own borders. Though Fritzsche (Life and Death in the Third Reich) doesn't present extensive English translations of Göll's writings (the originals were impossibly voluminous), the quotations he includes are superb and include many of Göll's poems. He meticulously contextualizes them, convincingly argues the noteworthiness of their rediscovery, and reveals them as subjective attempts to fashion coherence out of increasingly violent times, as conflicting "ego documents" penned by a figure who decried his own passivity and seemed "caught endlessly between the fantasy worlds of poems and panties." Taken together, they are also a sobering record of modern life's impact. Göll's diaries, begun in 1916, when he was 17, and continued until his death in 1984, offer an invaluable and absorbing look at the preoccupations of a turbulent century. (Mar.)
Wall Street Journal

Instructive and fitfully absorbing...Readers...will be fascinated by the strange private world of an eccentric obsessive.
— Ian Brunskill

Boston Globe online

A fascinating glimpse beneath the historical wave...Göll's diary is an amazing artifact in itself: in hundreds of plain, hand-written notebooks (now stored in a Berlin archive), it stretches from the era of Kaiser Wilhelm II to the age of Ronald Reagan. Göll lives through the aftermath of World War I, attends the Nazis' "Degenerate Art" exhibit in 1938, survives the bombing of Berlin during the Second World War, reflects on the rise of the nuclear age, and tries out, well into his fifties, the sexual revolution. All the while he works on his aquarium, travels around Germany, and reads widely and ravenously...Fritzsche helpfully summarizes and explains the diaries, putting them in a broader context and isolating the major themes; he reflects, too, on the very modern project of writing a diary.
— Josh Rothman

Times Higher Education

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.
— Ulrike Zitzlsperger

Weekly Standard

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

Konrad H. Jarausch
An extraordinary portrait of an ordinary twentieth-century Berliner's life. As an accomplished historian and a fine writer, Fritzsche uncovers the multiple resonances in Göll's political, social, and intellectual worlds. His deft and systematic handling of the intensely self-reflective Göll is quite simply fascinating.
Stephen Brockmann
The account Fritzsche weaves out of Göll's idiosyncratic yet strangely representative diaries makes for fascinating, exciting reading. There are wonderful nuggets throughout, such as Göll's thoughtful reaction after seeing a pro-euthanasia film in 1941—the only such account by an actual member of the German public of which I am aware—and Göll's response to the notorious Nazi 'degenerate art' exhibition in 1937. This compelling book is for anyone who wants to view history from a more personal level.
Wall Street Journal - Ian Brunskill
Instructive and fitfully absorbing...Readers...will be fascinated by the strange private world of an eccentric obsessive.
Boston Globe online - Josh Rothman
A fascinating glimpse beneath the historical wave...Göll's diary is an amazing artifact in itself: in hundreds of plain, hand-written notebooks (now stored in a Berlin archive), it stretches from the era of Kaiser Wilhelm II to the age of Ronald Reagan. Göll lives through the aftermath of World War I, attends the Nazis' "Degenerate Art" exhibit in 1938, survives the bombing of Berlin during the Second World War, reflects on the rise of the nuclear age, and tries out, well into his fifties, the sexual revolution. All the while he works on his aquarium, travels around Germany, and reads widely and ravenously...Fritzsche helpfully summarizes and explains the diaries, putting them in a broader context and isolating the major themes; he reflects, too, on the very modern project of writing a diary.
Times Higher Education - Ulrike Zitzlsperger
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.
Weekly Standard - Susanne Klingenstein
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674055315
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/21/2011
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 809,308
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Fritzsche is Professor of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign..
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