April 2, 2011

Peter Fritzsche’s Berlin

** A post dedicated to Berfrois, and to all students of Berlin.

Peter Fritzsche has published extensively on European history.  Here I look at two of his books that focus on Berlin.  They are not histories of the city per se, but rather depictions of the city as seen by its inhabitants.  Inevitably the accounts are subjective: the protagonists select their tales and how they are presented, as does the author in retelling them.  But then, isn’t all history like this?

Reading Berlin 1900

Fritzsche constructs Berlin as seen through its newspapers.  The newspapers themselves produce the metropolis and at the same time, are products of the metropolis.  Fritzsche examines how the image of the newspaper conveys the modern spirit of urban life.  We see the coming into being of a new urbanised Berlin.

Fritzsche gives us a ‘grand narrative’ version of urban life but he tempers this with poignant vignettes that remind us there is a human face to historical accounts.  Two instances stick in my mind.  The first concerns an account of the murder of little Lucie Berlin (how appropriate her surname is!) who was killed in 1904 and her dismembered body dumped in the Spree river.  (For the morbid amongst you, here's a picture of the spot where she was found.) The police investigation was the first one to use forensic science to prove that blood stains discovered were of human, and not animal, origin.  My apartment building (constructed 1905) is of a similar type to Lucie’s.  The apartments did not have bathrooms and residents shared toilets that were situated on the stair landing between floors.  It was from such a toilet that Lucie was abducted.  Lucie’s story was a perverse blessing for newspaper editors – stories like these helped circulation numbers tremendously.

Fritzsche’s second portrait is of an old widow who sits in her window seat observing the comings and goings of people in the central courtyard of her apartment building.  All the old apartment blocks have an interior courtyard, overlooked by windows from all the flats around the courtyard.  (My exhibitionist neighbours opposite have no net curtains in their windows and I know that the girl is hard working and leaves the flat every day while it’s still dark, while her lay-about boyfriend takes his leisurely breakfast after 9.00 a.m. in his curtainless kitchen … but I digress.)  Today’s courtyards are filled with rubbish bins and rusty bicycles.  In 1900 children played there safely and women sat outside chatting.

It is this blending of the public and private lives of Berlin that makes this account so readable.  Fritzsche merely draws out a couple of threads and elaborates on these. 

I found the author’s version of Berlin to be ‘unheimlich’: different but the same.  There were the known landmarks, the streets that I traverse, the city trams I travel on, the way of life – all these are familiar yet at the same time strange, because they belong to a different age.  An epoch that wasn’t too long ago but just far enough back to be unreachable.

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

I am struggling to find an explanation but when I read a description of Göll’s life, I immediately remembered the German film The lives of others (Das Leben der Anderen).  Even though the film is set in 1980s East Berlin, both narratives share the same atmosphere and tone.  Considering the timelines, the film could even pick up where Göll’s life finishes.

Perhaps we should be wary of Göll’s account; was he writing for himself or for his putative readers?  His self-awareness as an author undoubtedly would colour his writing.  Regardless of our misgivings on the veracity of Göll’s account, we must still be glad that we have a first-hand account of historical events, even if this account has been mediated by Fritzsche.

Timewise, Göll continues after Reading Berlin but there is a sense of disjuncture. Perhaps this is my fault; maybe I’m trying to find a continuation or connection where none exists.  Had Göll been born a couple of decades earlier, he would have had adult experience of the events in Reading Berlin and written about them.  There is again a mix of the public and private: an ‘ordinary’ man’s take on big events. And it is ‘ordinary’ that is the key word in the book’s title.  We have a clerk’s voice to add to that of the Establishment’s.

Unheimlich is also a term I would apply to Göll’s life (for the same reasons as Reading Berlin).  He died relatively recently (1984) but witnessed events that most of us only read about in archives and history books.  For heaven’s sake, why didn’t anyone interview this man for an oral history project???  People like him are a godsend for historians yet we let his journals languish in dusty archives.

Some readers, more discerning than I, may take issue with the editorial decisions made by the author: which events from the diaries to select and how to present them.  I think Fritzsche weaves the threads of Göll’s story seamlessly into his own narrative, providing as well all the necessary contextual information.  Rather than an edited diary with footnotes, it’s best to view this new book as a history of twentieth-century Berlin and Germany which draws on first-hand accounts.  Anyone who wants to read Göll’s unmediated version, however, is free to read his original journals at the Landesarchiv in Berlin. 

In the book reviews, I sense an undertone of slight derision about Göll’s writing activities.  Is this because he is a ‘little man,’ insignificant, untalented, unqualified to express an opinion?  Or is it sour grapes on the part of all the rest of us, because Göll was plucked out of obscurity and his story made public? 

Both books amazingly capture the spirit of Berlin. Fritzsche shows how Berliners write their own city into being, and are still doing so!  We meet characters who we dismiss as ordinary or nondescript.  But there is no such thing as ‘ordinary.’  Every life has to be examined and has a story to tell.  Just look at the stories our nondescript ‘little man’ has for us.  I might keep a diary or write a blog (!) describing my prosaic life or mundane (to me) events in public life.  Today such events are nonentities, non events but tomorrow, with the added patina of age, they will become historical accounts and readers will clamour to learn about times gone by.

Fritzsche is spot on in seeing Berlin as ‘transitional.’  I also see the city as always being in a transitional phase, then and now.  So much has happened in such a brief timespan (empire, world wars, cold war, democracy) and nothing seems to be settled yet.  Scheffler’s verdict on Berlin’s fate seems to be validated: “Condemned always to become and never to be.”

Postscript: Here I really ought to confess my motivations for reading Fritzsche’s work.  On a naïve, ostensible level I was looking for evidence of use of telecommunications in early twentieth century Germany.  Realistically, I knew I wasn’t going to find much.  What the books did provide, however, was an insight into urban living and Berliners’ transition into modern metropolitans.  Fritzsche has filled out an image of the milieu in which I am working and illuminated the workings of contemporary minds.

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