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||Heinrich Böll (1917-1985)|
German writer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, whose career spanned virtually the entire existence of the old Federal Republic. Heinrich Böll portrayed Germany after World War II with a deep moral vision and attacked the materialistic values of the post-war society. With the writer Günter Grass, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999, Böll played an unwanted role as a sort of national conscience. Böll's unorthodox Catholic belief added also a spiritual content to his stories, which were anchored in the present-day reality.
"Art is always a good hiding-place, not for dynamite, but for intellectual explosives and social time bombs. Why would there otherwise have been the various Indices? And precisely in their despised and often even despicable beauty and lack of transparency lies the best hiding-place for the barb that brings about the sudden jerk or the sudden recognition." (from Nobel Lecture, 1973)
Heinrich Böll was born in Cologne, the son of Victor Böll, a
sculptor, and Maria Böll (née Hermanns). Victor's ancestors
had fled from England to escape the
persecution of Roman Catholics. Maria was according to the author "a
real and true Catholic leftist in comparison to whom all other Catholic
leftists paled". Böll's parents gave their children freedom in
religious matters, while rising them as practicing Catholics. During
the war, Maria's remarks on Hitler in an air-raid shelter were reported
to the authorities; her views nearly got her killed.
Already at school, Böll started to write poetry and short stories. In the 1930s, he was one of the few boys among his classmates at the humanistic Kaiser Wilhelm Gymnasium who did not join the Hitler Youth movement. However, his elder brother, Alois, joined the movement to keep his father’s business afloat. Böll graduated from a high school in 1937 with a certificate which had two errors: Böll's birth date was incorrect and his choice of career – "book trade" was altered by the school principal.
Böll was drafted into the compulsory work program. "... my
unconquerable (and still unconquered) aversion to the Nazis was not
revolt," Böll later wrote, "they revolted me, repelled
me on every level of my existence: conscious and instinctive,
aesthetic and political." (from What's to Become of the Boy?, 1981, p. 4) In
1942 he married Annemarie Cech; their first son Christoph, died in
October 1945. During World War II, Böll served six years as a private
and corporal in France, Poland, the Crimea, and Romania. Most of his war Böll spent in France. He was
wounded four times. Bored with endless sentry duty, he sometimes tried to report sick in order to escape the military life. (The State of Health: Illness in Nazi Germany by Geoffrey Campbell Cocks, 2012, p. 213)
At the end of the war on the Western front, Böll was taken prisoner by the United States army and interned in a prisoner-of-war camp. Like many other Wehrmacht soldiers during the conquest of Poland and France, Böll had become addicted to Pervitin, a methamphetamine drug, better known as crystal meth. "Send me more Pervitin if you can; I can use it on my many watches; and a bit of bacon, if possible, to fry up with potatoes," he wrote to his family in a letter in 1940. (Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler, 2017, pp. 41-42) Pervitin boosted endurance and aggressiveness, but it was not until December 1940, when the German command began to discourage its massive military use without proper control. Böll also took opium tablets for diarrhoea.
After returning to Cologne, Böll studied at the university and worked then for a short time in the family workshop and later at the city's Bureau of Vital Statistics. Böll's first stories appeared in 1947. Some of his early pieces were published in English in The Mad Dog (1997). The title story depicts two friends, a priest and a murderer, who meet at the end of the war but find that they are separated by their own horrific experiences and spiritual emptiness. Böll's first novel, The Train was on Time, came out in 1949. From 1951 he devoted himself entirely to writing.
"Pedanterie", sagte Bur-Malottke, "wird ja nur von unsauberen Geistern als des Genies unwürdig bezeichnet, wir wissen ja" – und der Intendant fühlte sich geschmeichelt, durch das Wir unter die sauberen Geister eingereiht zu sein – "dass die wahren, die grossen Genies Pedanten waren. Himmelsheim liess einmal eine ganze, ausgedruckte Auflage seines Seelon auf eigene Kosten neu binden, weil drei oder vier Sätze in der Mitte dieses Werkes ihm mehr entsprechend erschienen." (from Doktor Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen, 1958)
During his first postwar visit in Moscow, Böll said in an
that "I constantly feel my part of the responsibility for what this
army [the Wermacht] did. And
everything I write stems from this realization, from this sense of
responsibility . . . " His early novels dealt with the despair of
soldiers' lives, the
oppressive cruelties he witnessed in his youth and in military service.
From the "worm's-eye" view of World War II his scope widened gradually
on the reality of modern German society. Works such as Der Zug war
pünktlich, 1947, The Train Was on Time), Wanderer, kommst du
nach Spa… (1950, Traveller, If You Come to Spa), and Wo
warst du, Adam?
(1951, And Where Were You, Adam?) were written in an understated
style and focused on the brutalities of the Nazi era and army life.
The title of his first novel, And Where Were You, Adam?, was taken from a diary of the Catholic writer by Theodor Haecker: "A world catastrophe can serve many things, one of which is to find an alibi before God. Where were you, Adam? 'I was in the world war.'" In a 1952 essay, Böll accepted the label "rubble literature" as a designation of literary trend which focused on the war, coming home, and reconstruction. Böll strived for realism that would correspond "to the laconic nature of the generation which has 'come home', a generation that knows there is no home for them on this earth."
Und sagte kein einziges Wort (1953, And Never Said a Word), which gained commercial and critical success, alternated the first-person narratives of a man and a woman whose marriage is in crisis because of their poverty and the husband's loss of faith. Billiards at Half Past Nine (1959) took place in a single day (September 6, 1958). It depicted a prominent family of Cologne architects, who have been successively involved with the building of an abbey at the beginning of the 20th-century, its destruction during World War II, and its rebuilding after 1945. Böll reveals in the course of the day the crucial incidents in the past of the family, from the Wilhelminian empire through Weimar and Hitler to the prosperous West Germany of 1958.
Böll made his first trips with his wife to Ireland in 1954 and 1955. Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, they stayed on Achill Island, were they bought a holoday cottage. Böll's Irisches Tagebuch (Irish Journal), which was mostly ignored in Ireland, came out in 1957. Later the people of Achill established a festival in his honor. When visiting St. Patrick's Cathedral, Böll observed: "Some people . . . must make a fortune in Ireland with plaster figures, but anger at the maker of this junk pales at the sight of those who pray in front of his products: the more highly colored, the better; the more sentimental, the better: "as lifelike as possible" (watch out, you who are praying, for life is not lifelike")." Annemarie Böll translated numerous Irish authors into German, including Brendan Behan, J. M. Synge, G. B. Shaw, Flann O'Brien and Tomás O'Crohan.
The Clown (1963), constructed around interior monologues and a series of telephone calls, tells in first person about a young man, Hans Schnier, who refuses to place in the post-war society, where former Nazis, like his mother, lived a normal life. In the short story 'The Laughter' Böll approached distorted human emotions through the character of laughter – a person who laughs for his profession. He laughs on records, on tape, in television programs, where ever he is needed. In the end he confesses: "So I laugh in many different ways, but my own laughter I have never heard." (from Eighteen Stories, 1966)
Group Portrait With a Lady from 1971 was again formally innovative: it was composed from interviews and documents about Leni Pfeiffer, through whom the lives of some sixty other characters are depicted. Boll parodied fashionable documentary novels, but also used the idioms of Nazi bureaucracy. The narrator tries to reconstruct the life of Leni, the simultaneously saintly and sensuous heroine. "The female protagonist in the first section is a woman of forty-eight, German: she is five foot six inches tall, weights 133 pounds (in indoor clothing), i.e., only twelve to fourteen ounces below standard weight; her eyes are iridescent dark blue and black, her slightly greying hair, very thick and blonde, hangs loosely to her shoulders, sheathing her head like a helmet." Leni has survived a difficult childhood, a bad marriage, a forbidden love affair with a Soviet prisoner-of-war, the bombing of Cologne, and postwar series of losses. In the end his friends, social 'discards', organize a 'Help Leni Committee' to bail her out of bankruptcy and prevent her eviction.
"Aunt Leni, on the other hand, he regarded as being reactionary in the truest sense of the word: it was inhuman, one might even say monstrous, the way she instinctively, stubbornly, inarticulately, but consistently, refused – not only rejected, that presupposed articulation – every manifestation of the profit motive, simply refused to have anything to do with it... She was the inhuman one, not he, for a wholesome striving after profit and property – as had been demonstrated by theology and was being increasingly acknowledged even by Marxist philosophers – was part of human nature." (from Group Portrait of With a Lady)
It has been alleged that Böll was a member of a CIA front organization in the 1960s and the the CIA paid Böll's travel expenses (television documentary: Benutzt und gesteuert – Künstler im Netz der CIA by Hans-Rüdiger Minow, 2006). In 1968 Böll worked as a teacher at the University of Frankfurt and later at other universities (in Prag 1969 and in Israel 1970). After Willy Brandt (1913-1992) was elected leader the Social Democratic Party of Germany and began his eastward-facing policy, Böll became also politically active and in 1972 he participated in SPD's election campaign.
Böll's major later works include The Lost Honour of
(1974), which attacked yellow journalism. In the preface, Böll said.
"The characters and the treatment of this story are imaginary. If there
should emerge similarities in this account between certain journalistic
practices and those of the Bild
Zeitung, such similarities are neither intended nor
unintentional, but unavoidable."
The protagonist, Katharina Blum, is a decent young
housekeeper. She falls in love with a young man, who is wanted by the
police. Katharina helps him to escape, and is interrogated by the
police as if she had participated in terrorist acts. She is persecuted
in the sensation-seeking press, and especially an unscrupulous reporter
named Tötges, who is responsible for ruining her reputation. Finally
she is driven to the act of murdering him. When the reporter says, "How
about us having a bang for a start?" she shoots him. Böll himself had
experienced harassment by the media and his house was searched by
police when he announced that terrorist Ulrike Meinhof should be given
a fair trial. Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta adapted the
book into screen in 1975. Safety Net (1979) was inspired by the
press coverage of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group.
Right-wing critic, particularly in the popular press, suspected Böll
of sympathizing with social dissidents and even condoning the aims
of terrorist. Actuall its bungling terrorists inadvertently help big
business. With Günter Wallraff he published Berichte zur Gesinnungslage der Nation /
Bericht zur Gesinnungslage des Staatsschutzes
(1977, Reports on the State of Mind). Böll's contribution
satirized the investigations of the security forces in the field of
In his essays Böll saw his role as a writer to act as the
conscience of his age. He ridiculed contemporary jargon, defended
individual freedom and self-determination, warned about the dangers of
escalating nuclear armament and the creeping powers of the state
security system. Often returning to his Catholic faith – like Graham Greene and Georges
– Böll examined the godlessness of the times but viewed critically the
church itself. Along with his wife, he left the Catholic church in 1976
as a protest against church taxation, which he described as criminal
and untenable. (On
the Rationality of Poetry: Heinrich Böll's Aesthetic Thinking by
Frank Finlay, 1996, p. 41) Nevertheless, religion remained one
of his central themes.
On the 40th anniversary of the capitulation of the Wehrmacht, Böll wrote a "Letter to My Sons or Four Bicycles,' which was published in Die Zeit. The tone is very personal, he criticized the Nazi regime, but gives the Holocaust only a few lines: "After the war, after this war, I expected the worst: decade-lomg forced labor in Siberia or elsewhere; but then it was not really bad – only half as bad, when you consider what devastation the war had caused, and more so when you consider that without the German army, of which I was a member, not s single concentration camp could have lasted even for a year." (The Language of Silence: West German Literature and the Holocaust by Ernestine Schlant, 1999, p.180)
A Soldier's Legacy (1947), Böll's earliest story, not
previously published, appeared nearly forty years later in 1985. The
(2002, Cross Without Love), which was written 1946/47, came out
seventeen years after the author's death. Its central character,
Christoph, fights in the Wermacht and sees it all, and becomes a
world-weary veteran. "I want no more. It is horrible to have been a
soldier in a war fox six years and always to have the wish that it
would be lost," he confesses. The publisher, Johann Wilhelm Naumann
Verlag, returned Böll's manuscript, saying that his view of the German
armed forces was too black and write and tinted with bitterness.
Böll died of complications from arteriosclerosis on July 16, 1985, in the town of Bornheim-Merten, near Cologne. At that time, world sales of his books exceeded 31 millions copies, over 12 of these in the Federal Republic. Böll was given a full Catholic burial although he had not returned to official membership of the Church. Many of his obituaries commented that with the death of Böll, a whole era has come to an end and lamented the lack of a successor capable of carrying on his public missions as moral authority and a spokesman for intellectual freedom.
For further reading: Das essayistische und publizistische Werk von Heinrich Böll by Matylda Łucja Nowak (2015); Heinrich Böll and Ireland by Gisela Holfter (2011); Das Schwirren des heranfliegenden Pfeils: Heinrich Böll: eine Biographie by Christian Linder (2009); Der andere Deutsche: Heinrich Böll: Eine Biographie by Heinrich Vormweg (2002); Heinrich Böll als Moralist by Lawrence F. Glatz (1999); On the Rationality of Poetry: Heinrich Böll's Aesthetic Thinking by Frank Finlay (1996); The Narrative Fiction of Heinrich Böll by M.Butler (1994); Heinrich Böll: Forty Years of Criticism by R.K. Zachau (1994); Understanding Heinrich Böll by R.C. Conrad (1992); Heinrich Böll: A German for His Time by J.H. Reid (1988); Heinrich Böll, on His Death: Selected Obituaries and the Last Interview, translated by Patricia Crampton (1985); Heinrich Böll by R.C. Conrad (1981); The Imagery in Heinrich Böll's Novel's by I. Prodaniuk (1979); Heinrich Böll in America by R.L. White (1978); The Writer and Society by C.W. Ghurye (1976); Heinrich Böll: Withdrawal and Re-Emergence by J.H. Reid (1973); Heinrich Böll: A Student's Guide by E. Macpherson (1972); Heinrich Böll, Teller of Tales by W. Schwartz (1968) - See also: Brendan Behan's Stücke fürs Theater. Böll translated works from several other authors, among them Shaw, Salingen, Synge, Malamud. Note: After Alexander Solzhenitsyn was exiled from the Soviet Union in February 1974, his first hosts in the West was Heinrich Böll. Böll's works were popular in the Soviet Union, but he was also active in PEN, through witch he supported the rights of authors under Communist repression.