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

The Turbulent World of Franz Göll
– An Ordinary Berliner Writes the Twentieth Century
By Peter Fritzsche
Harvard University Press – £19.95

The truth makes for a poor companion,’’ wrote the German diarist Franz Göll – a curious and rather brave dictum that speaks and screams volumes. Far more so than most of us would ever care to hear or admit. Let alone embrace. It’s the sort of homegrown truth of an assertion that might circumnavigate Bob Dylan’s world.

The prime and only difference being, the latter might acknowledge as such in song, whereas the ever grappling Göll traversed way beyond any realm of mere acknowledgement. He confronted much of the loneliness that the truth brings, by way of struggling with the absolutist theories of Freud, Einstein and Darwin; theories that are herein, captured in all their seemingly blatant, isolationist glory.

The above opening line – taken from the second chapter of The Turbulent World of Franz Goll – An Ordinary Berliner Writes the Twentieth Century – punctuates the here and now with as much probable force as the day it was written. Perhaps in the big scheme of things, even more so; as it is preceded with just as much thought provoking and sociological, self-introspection with regards the truth, in the first chapter.

Thus making for a quintessentially dense, and occasionally contentious read.

Writing in ‘The Case of Franz Göll, Graphomaniac,’ Peter Fritzsche (whose excellent, previous book Life and Death in the Third Reich I have also reviewed), will no doubt trigger a certain amount of debate by quoting: ‘’‘’Even when you have graduated from the schools of life, sampled the most diverse circumstances, and suppose that you know yourself,’’ Göll asked, ‘’is that really so? Already the grown man finds that his childhood is actually quite strange to him; he has long grown out of it. The truth about a person is not a formation fixed for all time, but transforms itself over time and is really only fastened in outline. Franz considered knowledge dynamic and contingent, as two aphorisms – his own – confirm. ‘’The more you know,’’ Göll asserted as a twenty-one-year-old in 1920, ‘’the more often you will let what you know be contradicted by what you come to know.’’

Many might consider the non-sanguine honesty of the latter (‘’the more you know, the more often you will let what you know be contradicted by what you come to know’’) as being contingent upon one’s own truth. Or at least as much truth as one is able to convey and live with. For in all honesty, who, amid the stoic parameters of the economically dependent – and thus, out-of-control – free world, would actually admit to the above? Former US Presidents George Bush Senior and Junior? Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher? Current Libyan leader and murderer, Colonel Gaddafi?

Just as it sometimes takes genius to recognise genius, so too, might the same apply to the truth: ‘’[…] near the end of his life, in 1974, in the middle of his critical enquiries into the origins of Christianity, he concluded: ‘’For the philosopher, nothing is self-evident.’’’’

If this doesn’t set one’s mind to thinking, I’m hard pressed to think of something that will.

By depicting a deeply inspired portrait of a self-educated Berliner, wrought with an effervescent desire to record the trials and tribulations of what he has gleaned in life, author and professor (of History at the University of Illinois) Fritzsche has almost managed to forego the fact that history repeats itself.

What happened in the city of Berlin throughout so much of the last century is truly monumental in terms of history, tragedy and artistry. By delving into another man’s thoughts who lived in the infamous working-class district of Rote Insel his entire life, we are a little more able to understand, for better or for worse, the world in which we live today.

David Marx


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