WRITTEN BY: The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica
Alternative Title: Heinrich Theodor Böll
Heinrich Böll, in full Heinrich Theodor Böll, (born December 21, 1917, Cologne, Germany—died July 16, 1985, Bornheim-Merten, near Cologne, West Germany), German writer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972. Böll’s ironic novels on the travails of German life during and after World War II capture the changing psychology of the German nation.
The son of a cabinetmaker, Böll graduated from high school in 1937. He was called into compulsory labour service in 1938 and then served six years as a private and then a corporal in the German army, fighting on the Russian and other fronts. Böll’s wartime experiences—being wounded, deserting, becoming a prisoner of war—were central to the art of a writer who remembered the “frightful fate of being a soldier and having to wish that the war might be lost.” After the war he settled in his native Cologne.
Böll’s earliest success came with short stories, the first of which were published in 1947; these were later collected in Wanderer, kommst du nach Spa (1950; Traveller, If You Come to Spa). In his early novels Der Zug war pünktlich (1949; The Train Was on Time) and Wo warst du Adam? (1951; Adam, Where Art Thou?), he describes the grimness and despair of soldiers’ lives. The uneasiness of reality is explored in the life of a mechanic in Das Brot der frühen Jahre (1955; The Bread of Our Early Years) and in a family of architects in Billard um halb zehn (1959; Billiards at Half-Past Nine), which, with its interior monologues and flashbacks, is his most complex novel. In the popular Ansichten eines Clowns (1963; The Clown), the protagonist deteriorates through drinking from being a well-paid entertainer to a begging street musician.
Böll’s other writings include Und sagte kein einziges Wort (1953; Acquainted with the Night) and Ende einer Dienstfahrt (1966;
End of a Mission), in which the trial of a father and son lays bare the character of the townspeople. In his longest novel, Gruppenbild mit Dame (1971; Group Portrait with Lady), Böll presented a panorama of German life from the world wars to the 1970s through the accounts of the many people who have figured in the life of his middle-aged “lady,” Leni Pfeiffer.
Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (1974; The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum) attacked modern journalistic ethics as well as the values of contemporary Germany.
Was soll aus dem Jungen bloss werden?; oder, Irgendwas mit Büchern (1981; What’s to Become of the Boy?; or, Something to Do with Books) is a memoir of the period 1933–37.
The novel Der Engel schwieg (The Silent Angel) was written in 1950 but first published posthumously in 1992; in it a German soldier struggles to survive in war-ravaged Cologne after World War II.
Der blasse Hund (1995; The Mad Dog) collected previously unpublished short stories, while another early novel,
Kreuz ohne Liebe (“Cross Without Love”), was first published in 2003.
A Roman Catholic and a pacifist, Böll developed a highly moral but individual vision of the society around him. A frequent theme of his was the individual’s acceptance or refusal of personal responsibility. Böll used austere prose and frequently sharp satire to present his antiwar, nonconformist point of view. He was widely regarded as the outstanding humanist interpreter of his nation’s experiences in World War II.
THE POLITICAL WRITER
Heinrich Böll | Photo (detail): © Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung
Nobel-prize laureate Heinrich Böll, who died in 1985, advocated the concept of the enlightened, responsibly-minded citizen – yet was often derided.
In July 2015 thirty years will have passed during which one of the most important German-language writers has been missing from the literary scene: Heinrich Böll. He was born in Cologne in 1917 and was one of the generation of war veterans, writers of the zero hour and opponents of the Vietnam War and of nuclear warfare. He was also a critic of authority and a pacifist. Hardly any other German-language author received as much recognition in his lifetime. In 1972 he was awarded the Nobel Prize. His greatest literary success, the story entitled
The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1974) sold six million copies in Germany alone.
Böll repeatedly succeeded in taking up and filtering out themes that were in the air, so to speak. His literary subjects almost all continue to have an uncanny relevance to this very day: for example, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum describes the persecution of a young woman by the media. Ultimately the mercilessness of the sensationalist press forces the protagonist to commit an act of despair. Today the Newspaper, as Böll calls his fictional tabloid, alluding to Germany’s Bild Zeitung, would possibly be a digital medium, perhaps even Facebook.
ATTACK ON THE PRIVATE SPHERE
In his novel The Safety Net (1979) Böll engaged with a burgeoning network of surveillance. The occasion for this particular theme was the all-encompassing hysteria in the face of the terrorism of the extreme left-wing Red Army Fraktion (RAF). That highly topical and oppressive book outlines the attempted destruction of a family by “state security and surveillance measures”. The author knew what he was writing about: he himself was under police surveillance, had to suffer house searches and was the victim of a smear campaign. Although Böll distanced himself clearly from the methods and aims of the RAF, he was declared, even in the German Bundestag, to be an ideological accomplice of the terrorists. The only ones to defend him were Willy Brandt and several other member of the SPD party and of the liberal FDP party.
Böll’s major themes were the war and the post-war period: novels like And Never Said a Word (1953), House without Guardians (1954) or Billiards at Half-past Nine (1959) deal with the very tentative reappraisal of the theme of National Socialism in the 1950s. Böll was from a Catholic family and was critical of the NS-regime from the very start. While Günter Grass, who was ten years younger than him, volunteered to join the Waffen SS, Böll tried to avoid military service, initially writing applications for exemption so as to be able to study and later even feigning illness or forging leave passes.
A CONSTANT FOCUS ON “ORDINARY PEOPLE”
Scarcely any other author provides so much information about the reality of post-war life in the Federal Republic of Germany, the outcome and aftermath of the Second World War. He typically focussed not on the grand figures or heroes, but on “ordinary people” whose lives he chose to highlight. Böll’s touching and colourful stories about families torn between enthusiastic Nazis and Nazi-critics are more informative and better than many of the various other books published on this over the past decades.
It was not just through his writings that Böll exerted an influence. He was also a politically active author and contemporary citizen, in the sense of an enlightened responsibly-minded citoyen. His commitment to Willy Brandt and his Ostpolitik towards East Germany, his support for persecuted writers and advocacy of humane treatment for the German terrorists were widely talked about. He also incurred people’s anger for not binding himself to a particular political party. He was close to Willy Brandt, but was not a member of the SPD, unlike Grass. He may have taken a stand on concrete political issues, but he did not want to be monopolized by anyone.
SEEN BY SOME AS A NAÏVE “DO-GOODER”
Over the past decades, Böll’s social and environmental involvement have often be derided, with some writers and literary critics even presenting him as a naïve “do-gooder”. However, since new centres of conflict have flared up, even within Europe or on its border, things have changed. Böll’s commitment is no longer regarded as “outmoded”, but as exemplary. Now many young authors and artists are again commenting on political events. Yet a public figure like Böll no longer exists. He was one of the few great thinkers in Germany who did not take themselves too seriously.
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Böll’s death, Klaus Staeck, creator of a politically critical poster-art and long-time director of the Academy of the Arts in Berlin, wrote: “Several of the obituaries seem to be indicating … that today someone like Böll is somehow missing.”
Since then, little has changed.