Franz Göll: Witness to History

The Turbulent World of Franz GollAn old saying goes like this: “There are three types of people in the world: Those who make things happen; those who watch things happen; and those who wonder what happened.”

The implicit meaning is that only the first set of people are consequential in life.

But sometimes those who watch from the sidelines make their mark in surprising ways.

I think a good example of this is a person who is the subject of a new book. The Turbulent World of Franz Göll, by Peter Fritzsche [Harvard University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0674055315], is a fascinating read. It chronicles the tumultuous events of the 20th century as seen through the eyes of a lower-level administrative manager, a lifetime resident of Berlin.

What makes the book so interesting is that everything is taken from the meticulous diaries and notes written down by Herr Göll over the course of his adult life. And his 85 years of life happened to span the entire sweep of the consequential events in Germany and Europe during the 20th century (1899-1984).

This isn’t the first book that deals with private diaries kept by people living in Berlin during World War II. About 25 years ago, the diaries of Marie Vassiltchikov, a young Russian/Lithuanian princess who moved to the German capital city after the Soviets had occupied her country in 1940, were published by her son after her death. In Berlin Diaries: 1940-1945 [Vintage, ISBN-13: 978-0394757773], we get a blow-by-blow description of life as an aristocrat in Berlin … a city full of nervous energy that quickly becomes an inferno. As an adrenaline rush, it’s hard to top that book. (In fact, I’m surprised Mlle. Vassiltchikov’s story hasn’t been made into a movie.)

But this volume on Franz Göll is quite different. Peter Fritzsche, the book’s author, is a professor at the University of Illinois who specializes in German history. In researching the book, Fritzsche had a veritable treasure trove of material to work with. That’s because Göll bequeathed his entire set of diaries plus other ephemera to the Berlin State Archives upon his death in 1984.

There they remained, essentially untouched, until Professor Fritzsche came across them and realized what he had found: some 23 volumes of diaries meticulously chronicling one man’s life in Berlin from the era of World War I all the way up to the modern day.

… And more. Not only was Göll a writer, he was an obsessive collector as well – so much so, he’d probably be a prime specimen for a psychoanalyst.

Göll kept copious notes on his voracious reading … created poems … collected postcards (more than 8,000 of them!) … clipped and saved countless newspaper and magazine articles. A lifelong bachelor who would live in the same two-room Berlin apartment his entire adult life, he was a loner who likely felt out of place in his working class surroundings despite being of working-class rank himself.

He was largely self-taught in his knowledge, and his entertainments were solitary pursuits like going to the movies.

Surely a “sad sack” case if there ever was one.

But author Fritzsche has gleaned all sorts of interesting material from Göll’s diaries — and in the process helps us understand that, far from being “in the dark” about the conditions of Jews and other minorities during the era of the Third Reich, Göll was aware of what was happening. Maybe not the details, but certainly in a broader sense.

In a diary posting from 1941, he wrote: “It is an open secret that they are proceeding against the Jews in the most rigorous way with sterilization [and] removal to the Eastern territories.”

An early supporter of the Nazi party, as early as 1935 Göll had became disillusioned with conditions under Hitler, his diary postings reveal.

Some of Göll’s diary entries from earlier decades of Germany’s turbulent history are equally interesting. He wrote of the hungry Berlin winters at the end of World War I, and during Germany’s period of hyperinflation in the early 1920s, took note of what he saw all around him.

Later in life, as a resident of West Berlin, Göll saw his younger countrymen shake off their “German-ness” and embrace a generalized Western materialism that he found difficult to understand or accept. (In this regard, he was probably no different from many people of the older generation – in Germany or elsewhere.)

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that it shows how an obscure person with no claim to fame — a loner with virtually no friends or relatives — can accomplish something important for posterity. As “obsessive-compulsive” as Göll may have been, even he seemed to think what he was doing was for naught. Writing in 1954 at the age of 55:

“I used to take myself very seriously: my diaries, my collections, my readings, my poems, and not least, my ‘self.’ Today, I have to admit it: It would have been important to have acquired a trade, to have become a man, and to have founded a family … Nothing I did ever bore any fruit; it was all an idle wasting of time.”

Readers of this book will disagree. In “watching things happen,” Herr Göll actually accomplished a great deal — for historians and for us.

The Berlin Wall Looking Back 20 Years: What Caused the Fall?

Austro-Hungarian Border
Border guards dismantling the fence dividing East and West: Austro-Hungarian border, Summer 1989.

This month, the world commemorates the momentous events of 20 years ago when the Berlin Wall fell and a divided Germany came together amidst the wreckage of the Soviet Empire.

Already, there have been poignant tributes such as the recent celebration in Berlin honoring three elder statesmen who were at the center of the events at that time: Mikhail Gorbachev, President Bush (the elder) and Germany’s Prime Minister Helmut Kohl.

But what seems lost among the commemorations is the fact that the Berlin events were set in motion earlier in 1989, some 350 miles to the south. And they involved neither East nor West Germany.

In fact, the first “hole” in the iron curtain came about at the Austro-Hungarian border, masterminded by Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Németh and his equally brave Austrian counterpart, Chancellor Franz Vranitzky.

A reformer who was also a Communist Party member, Németh had come to power in 1988 and was determined to bring Hungary into a more close economic and political relationship with the rest of Europe. Faced with horrific economic conditions at home, he knew had had limited time to effect positive change or he would be replaced.

Students of history know that the “ties that bind” Austria and Hungary date back ~700 years, through centuries of the Habsburg Empire to the early 1900s when Vienna and Budapest were two of the most glittering cities of Europe.

In a sense, the forced separation of the two countries between East and West Bloc factions was as unnatural as the division of Germany itself; a quick look at the bevy of German and Hungarian surnames in the Vienna telephone directory proves the point.

Secret communications between Hungary and Austria culminated in a public ceremony held on the Austro-Hungarian frontier on May 2, 1989, where, documented by television cameras, the electric fence running the length of the border was declared an “anachronism” and a hole was ceremoniously cut in it.

“What are those Hungarians up to?” bellowed East German premier Erich Honecker at an East German Politburo meeting the next day. The answer was obvious. Soon throngs of East German citizens, traveling to a fellow Eastern Bloc country on tourist visas, simply moved across the Hungarian border into Austria from where they could continue on to West Germany to be reunited at long last with relatives and friends.

The die was cast. Faced with the prospect of its citizens draining out of the country, the East German government had little choice but to announce a relaxation in travel restrictions to West Germany.

This attempt at accommodation was a classic case of “too little, too late”:  The avalanche that was soon to come was simply overwhelming. Down came the Berlin Wall – and down went the East German government.

In hindsight, it’s easy to recognize the important role Mikhail Gorbachev played in the events of 1989. By signaling that Soviet troops would not necessarily come to the aid of beleaguered Eastern European satellite regimes, Gorbachev gave the restive citizens of East Germany the courage to seize the moment and take decisive action while they had the chance.

But the most credit must go to the governmental leaders of Hungary and Austria. It was these unsung heroes who took the biggest risks from the very beginning, bravely plotting their moves in the face of potentially severe political and military repercussions. (After all, memories of the ill-fated Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the subsequent refugee flight across the Austrian border weren’t all that distant.)

In a sense, history came full circle in 1989. At the beginning of the century, Germany had been dragged into World War I because of problems faced by its Habsburg neighbor, Austria-Hungary. So many of the major political challenges in the 20th Century – communism, fascism, the Cold War, even the Middle Eastern conflict – stemmed from that struggle. And none of these were more searing for Germany than World War II and the subsequent division of the country between East and West.

Once, Austria and Hungary had created problems for Germany. Seventy-five years later, they helped solve them. Not a bad result in the end!