Heinrich Böll Essay - Böll, Heinrich

Böll, Heinrich


Böll, Heinrich 1917-1985

(Full name Heinrich Theodor Böll; also transliterated as Boell) German short fiction writer, novelist, poet, playwright, essayist, translator, and editor.

A recipient of the 1972 Nobel Prize for Literature who has often been deemed "the conscience of the German nation," Böll is best known for satires and moral tales in which he delineates the problems of post-World War II German society. Noted for their concise and simple style, varied narrative voices, and nonconformist themes, Böll's works marked an abrupt departure from the propagandist fiction of Nazi Germany. His short fiction is usually set during and after World War II and dramatizes the plight of the victim in order to stress the need for compassion, tolerance, and social reform.

Biographical Information

Böll was born in Cologne into a family of devout Catholics. Because Cologne was the site of numerous Nazi demonstrations in the 1920s and 1930s, Böll grew up with a strong dislike of Germany's new political structure; when asked to join Adolf Hitler's Youth Corps, he refused. After graduating from a local secondary school in 1937, Böll became apprenticed to a bookseller in Bonn and then served in Hitler's compulsory labor program. He enrolled in the University of Cologne in 1939 intending to study philology and literature, but his studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the German army. Forced to serve on the French and Russian fronts, Böll grew resentful and quickly became an outspoken critic of the German military. In 1945 he deserted from the German army and was later interned in an Allied prisoner-of-war camp. After the war Böll returned to Cologne to resume his writing career, only to discover that his early writings had been destroyed. He published his first short story, "Die Botschaft" ("Breaking the News"), in 1947 and his first novella, Der Zug war pünklicht (The Train Was on Time), in 1949. Böll became actively involved in politics, denouncing German capitalism as well as rearmament in the 1950s and calling for a social system that valued and protected basic human rights. Because his political views often contradicted government policy he was frequently placed under police surveillance after 1974. He died in 1985.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Böll's earliest works—such as his novella The Train Was on Time and his first short story collection, Wanderer, kommst du nach Spa . . . (Traveller, If You Come to Spa, 1950)—are set during World War II and focus on individuals who are confronted with an awareness of their own mortality and the senselessness of war. Although Böll's first published story "Breaking the News," is also set during the war, this piece introduces themes that would preoccupy Böll in his later works, particularly the sense of loss and guilt experienced by the German people following the war. "Nicht nur zur Weihnachzeit" ("Christmas Every Day," 1952), a satirical story often considered a classic work of postwar literature, similarly focuses on the problem of guilt in the postwar era, specifically the attempts of many Germans to deny that atrocities were committed during World War II. Much of Böll's short fiction also chronicles Germany's attempts to rebuild in the years after the war. In such stories as "Der Wegwerfer" ("The Thrower-Away") and "An der Brücke"—which lampoon capitalism, the work ethic, and Germany's Wirtschaftwunder, or economic miracle—the government creates inane jobs for its citizens in order to curb unemployment. Through his stark depiction of the economic hardships of postwar Germany Böll implies that individuals who are accustomed to being deprived of food, drink, and shelter are unable to move beyond their physical needs and engage in meaningful relationships.

Critical Reception

Because Böll was of Catholic ancestry and his fiction advocates individual rights and a return to Christian ethics, some critics have described him as a Catholic writer. Others have compared Böll to Hemingway and Kafka, referring favorably to his vivid but economical evocations of scenes and characters and to his sometimes nightmarish sense of satire. When Böll's writing is faulted, it is for the occasional clichéd story ending, or for being overly sentimental or reductive.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

Der Zug war pünktlich [The Train Was on Time] (novella) 1949

Wanderer, kommst du nacht Spa . . . [Traveller, If You Come to Spa] 1950

Nicht nur zur Weihnachtzeit [Christmas Every Day] 1952

Das Brot der frühen Jahre [The Bread of Those Early Years] (novella) 1955

So ward Abend und Morgen 1955

Unberechenbare Gäste 1956

Abenteuer eines Brotbeutels, und andere Geschichten 1957

Doktor Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen, und andere Satiren [Dr. Murke 's Collected Silences and Other Satires ]1958

Der Bahnhof von Zimpren 1959

Der Mann mit den Messern: Erzählungen 1959

Die Waage der Baleks, und andere Erzählungen [The Balek Scales and Other Stories] 1959

Als der Krieg ausbrach; Als der Krieg zu Ende war: Zwei Erzählungen 1962

Die Essenholer, und andere Erzählungen 1963

1947 bis 1951 1963

Entfernung von der Truppe [Absent without Leave] (novella) 1964

18 Stories 1966

Ende einer Dienstfahrt [End of a Mission] (novella) 1966

Children Are Civilians Too 1970

Erzählungen, 1950-1970 1972

Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum; oder, Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie führen kann [The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum: How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead] 1974

Du fährst zu oft nach Heidelberg, und andere Erzählungen 1979

Gesammelte Erzählungen. 2 vols. 1981

Der Angriff: Erzählungen, 1947-1949 1983

Die schwarzen Schafe: Erzählungen, 1950-1952 [The Black Sheep: Stories] 1983

*Die Verwundung, und andere frühe Erzählungen [The Casualty] 1983

Veränderungen in Staech: Erzählungen, 1962-1980 1984

The Stories of Heinrich BÖll 1986

Other Major Works

Und sagte kein einziges Wort [Acquainted with the Night ] (novel) 1953

Haus ohne Hüter [Tomorrow and Yesterday] (novel) 1954

Irisches Tagebuch [Irish Journal] (travelogue) 1957

Billard um halb zehn [Billiards at Half-past Nine ](novel) 1959

Ein Schluck Erde (drama) 1962

Ansichten eines Clowns [The Clown] (novel) 1963

Gruppenbild mit Dame [Group Portrait with Lady] (novel) 1971

Missing Persons, and Other Essays (essays) 1977

Fürsorgliche Belagerung [The Safety Net] (novel) 1979

Was soll aus dem Jungen bloss werden?; oder, Irgendwas mit Büchern [What's to Become of the Boy? or, Something to Do with Books] (autobiography) 1981

**Der Vermächtnis [A Soldier's Legacy] (novel) 1982

Frauen vor F lus s lands c haft: Roman in Dialogen und Selbstgesprächen (novel) 1985

Heinrich Böll als Lyriker (poetry) 1985

*The stories collected here were written between 1946 and 1952.

**This work was written in 1948.


Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "The Unsaid Says Much," in The New York Times Book Review, September 12, 1965, pp. 4, 54.

[Vonnegut is an American writer of darkly comic fiction which reflects his essential compassion for humanity and his complete pessimism. He rose to prominence during the 1960s with such works as Cat's Cradle (1963), God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), and Slaughterhouse Five (1969), which is considered his best novel to date. His novels and short stories, which frequently contain elements of science fiction, satirize human stupidity, shortsightedness, and brutality, assailing in particular humanity's tendency towards warfare and the worship of automation. In the following review, he praises the incomplete quality of the two novellas comprising Absent without Leave.]

Disturbing, queer things these—two unconnected novellas ["Absent without Leave" and "Enter and Exit"] in one thin volume—tales told in the first person by German males who, like the author, were of military age during World War II. The reader must bring to each his own understanding of Germans and the war, for the principal materials used by Heinrich BÖll are blanks and holes.

He uses the qualities of nothingness as a modern sculptor does, which sounds like a rotten idea, but he makes it work like a dream. Take the second of the tales, "Enter and Exit." It begins with the first day of the war, and ends with the day of the narrator's return to peace. There is not one word about what happened between those two days. Hey presto! Do what you will with the missing six years.

"Enter and Exit" is easy reading. The two days are odd but natural. The other novella ["Absent Without Leave"] which has the same title as the whole book, is a royal pain, a mannered, pretentious, patronizing, junky sort of Notes From the Underground. It seemed a sophomoric piece of work...

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Donald Heiney (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "The Irreverent Germans," in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 57, No. 259, September 30, 1965, p. 11.

[Heiney is an American educator, novelist, and critic. In the following favorable review, he examines stylistic aspects of Böll's Absent without Leave.]

The new wave of young German writers, led by Günter Grass and the 47 Group, has finally arrived. Germany, which recovered physically from the war so quickly, has taken much longer to recover culturally and intellectually. It was only with Grass's novel The Tin Drum in 1959 that the German literary world showed some real signs of vitality. Even today German writers are still preoccupied—one can...

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Dieter Baacke (essay date 1965-1966)

SOURCE: "The Short Stories of Heinrich Böll," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall, 1965-66, pp. 89-103.

[In the following essay, Baacke provides a thematic analysis of Böll's short fiction. ]

The principal theme of Böll's short stories up until approximately 1951 is the war. Only very rarely, however, does he show actual fighting; his stories take place in areas where the battle has not yet begun or has just ended: at the station where soldiers board a train for the front; in the dugout or infirmary where the wounded prepare to die. That the narrator is himself involved is shown most clearly by his usually appearing as "Ich." He not only portrays the...

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G. Ralph Smith, II (essay date 1966-1967)

SOURCE: A review of 18 Stories, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 4, No. 1, Fall, 1966-67, pp. 355-57.

[In the following essay, Smith explores the childlike aspects of Böll's short fiction. ]

Most of [18 Stories] show conflicting interpretations of the world. One set of characters, usually children or childlike adults, is concerned with natural forces and events, no matter how old. The opposing characters are wiser in the ways of the world. They are more concerned with the devious procedures and protective screens used by civilized people to protect themselves from life than with life itself. For example, in "Like a Bad Dream," the narrator (who has...

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J. P. Bauke (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Watcher on the Rhine," in The New York Times Book Review, October 16, 1966, pp. 4-5.

[In the following review, Bauke lauds 18 Stories, maintaining that "it is a measure of Böll's insight and wisdom that his stories, despite their intensely local color, have universal application. " ]

Heinrich Böll is one of the most significant writers in contemporary Germany. Though he has never been so extravagantly praised as Günter Grass or Jakov Lind, his reputation has grown steadily over the years. In the late forties, when his countrymen turned to rebuilding their towns and their industry and started to forget the Nazi interlude, Böll established himself as...

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The Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Jeep Thrills," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 1028, November 10, 1966, p. 1028.

[In the following review, the critic commends the diverse range of characters in Böll's novella Ende einer Dienstfahrt.]

On the eve of his demob (and return to the family furniture-making business) a private in the Bundeswehr is sent on an extended jeep ride. The ostensibly absurd, but administratively tenable, object of this exercise is the "clocking up" of a certain mileage in time for the next vehicle inspection. Rather than wear out long stretches of Autobahn the driver heads straight for home, parks the jeep without switching off the engine, and a few sawdust-shrouded...

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Edward M. Potoker (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "At the Fringes of the Miracle," in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. XLIX, No. 50, December 10, 1966, pp. 50, 55.

[Potoker is an American educator and critic. In the following favorable review, he examines themes common in BÖll 's short fiction. ]

Heinrich Böll, whose prose is remarkable for its vitality, lucidity, and color, now enjoys a reputation, well and scrupulously earned, as one of contemporary Europe's most influential writers. Achieving international recognition in the immediate postwar years, Böll was hailed as the analyst—indeed, the laughing vivisectionist—of the German generation that promoted and somehow accommodated Hitler. With an...

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William J. Schwarz (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: A review of Children Are Civilians Too, in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. LIII, No. 13, March 28, 1970, pp. 38-40.

[In the following essay, Schwarz asserts that most of Böll's early stories depict the dreariness of war ]

Heinrich Böll has written short stories, Novellen, novels, radio plays and drama, but his true talent lies in telling stories. His first "novel," Adam, Where Art Thou, is really a series of terse short stories, held together by a theme—the little man in war—rather than by central characters. In Böll's radio plays several stories are usually told by a commentator to amplify the dialogue. His Irish Journal...

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Donald Heiney (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Böll—'A Miniature Dante'," in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 62, No. 125, April 23, 1970, p. 12.

[Heiney is an American educator, novelist, and critic. In the following review, he provides a positive assessment of Children Are Civilians Too.]

It may very well be that "national voices" in literature, as they used to be known, are disappearing. In the time of Dostoevski and Tolstoi people talked about the "Russian Soul." The German tone of Hesse and Mann, the Scandinavian mood of Hamsun and Selma LagerlÖf, the Frenchness of Paul Bourget, are unmistakably linked with their national origins. There was an "American voice" in fiction that began with Twain...

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Gabriele Annan (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: A review of The Bread of Those Early Years, in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3911, February 25, 1977, p. 201.

[In the following negative review, Annan finds The Bread of Those Early Years typical of Böll's work. ]

Walter Fendrich, a washing-machine maintenance man, is the first-person hero of this novella [The Bread of Those Early Years;] twenty-three, Catholic, a virgin, and engaged to his employer's daughter, Ulla Wickweber. The story takes place in Cologne on a Monday in March during the early 1950s. Walter's father, a schoolteacher in a small town, has asked him to find a room for the daughter of a colleague who is coming to the...

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Margit M. Sinka (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Heinrich Böll's Die verlorene Ehre der Katherina Blum as Novelle," in Colloquia Germanica, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1981, pp. 158-74.

[In the following essay, Sinka summarizes how Die verlorene Ehre has been classified (variously as a novella, novel, and political pamphlet) and explores how genrebased perceptions affect interpretations of Böll's work. ]

Reader response to Heinrich Böll's Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum, accessible thus far mainly from interviews and media coverage, focuses on Böll's characterization of Katharina and on the interpretation of her deed—that of killing the newspaper reporter TÖtges. In the course of...

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Robert C. Conrad (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Heinrich Böll's Political Reevaluation of Adalbert Stifter: An Interpretation of Böll's 'Epilog zu Stifters "Nachsommer" '," in The Michigan Academician, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Summer, 1981, pp. 31-9.

[In the following essay, Conrad determines the influence of Adalbert Stifter's novel Der Nachsommer on Böll's story "Epilog zu Stifters 'Nachsommer', " and asserts that "although [the story] reads as an entertaining spoof, on close analysis it reveals Böll's serious social concerns at the beginning of the seventies. " ]

Böll's work has never been without its moral dimension, but in the five years between the novels End of a Mission (Ende einer...

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Yvonne Holbeche (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The Rhenish Foxes: An Approach to Heinrich Böll's Ende einer Dienstfahrt," in German Life & Letters, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, July, 1981, pp. 409-14.

[In the following essay, Holbeche examines Böll's interpretation of the relationship between "the artist as social critic and the state" as evinced in his Ende einer Diensfahrt.]

Like so many of Böll's works, Ende einer Dienstfahrt has sharply divided critical opinion. For some, mostly Eastern European critics, the Gruhls' 'happening' is an act of resistance against the West German state, and Birglar society a refuge of those humanistic values which are lacking on higher social and political...

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William S. Sewell (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: '"Konduktion and Niveauunterschiede': The Structure of Böll's Katharina Blum," in Monatshefte, Vol. 74, No. 2, Summer, 1982, pp. 167-78.

[In the following essay, Sewell analyzes the form of Böll's novella Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum, describing it as "a structure which threatens to slip into chaos, but paradoxically does not"]

If critics have by and large directed their energies towards the content of Böll's work, they have been seduced into doing so, as Rainer Nägele points out [in Heinrich BÖll: Einführung in das Werk und die Forschung, 1976], by the very nature of the work itself:


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Yvonne Holbeche (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Carnival in Cologne: A Reading of Heinrich Böll's Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum" in AUMLA, No. 63, May, 1985, pp. 33-42.

[In the following essay, Holbeche explores the significance of the carnival in Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum.]

Criticism of Heinrich Böll's Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum has only briefly addressed the question of the significance of the carnival which provides such a suggestive backdrop to this melodramatic tale. Traditionally a period of gaiety and frivolity preceding Lent, whose origins, although still a subject of some dispute, can be traced to ancient Greek, Roman, Germanic and Celtic mid-winter...

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S. S. Prawer (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Modern Germany's Master Storyteller," in Book World—The Washington Post, February 9, 1986, p. 4.

[Prawer is a German-born English critic and educator specializing in German literature, particularly the work of Heinrich Heine. In the following review of The Stories of Heinrich Böll, he analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of the short fiction comprising the collection.]

This generous selection [The Stories of Heinrich Böll] from the late Heinrich Böll's shorter and medium-sized fictions forms an ideal introduction to one of the world's master storytellers. No German author has managed so consistently to arrest attention by a striking opening...

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D. J. Enright (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "When They Were Wrong They Were Right," in The New York Times Book Review, February 23, 1986, p. 42.

[Enright is an English man of letters who has spent most of his career abroad, teaching English literature at universities in Egypt, Japan, Berlin, Thailand, and Singapore. His critical essays are frequently marked by sardonic treatment of what he considers the culturally pretentious in literature. In the following favorable review, he examines the plots, characters, and major themes of the stories collected in The Stories of Heinrich Böll.]

Born into a liberal Roman Catholic family in Bonn in 1917, and the least military of men, Heinrich BÖll was...

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Lynton Lesserday (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: A review of The Casualty, in Punch, Vol. 291, No. 7607, October 8, 1986, p. 72.

[In the following posive review, Lesserday compares BÖll's early war stories to those of Ernest Hemingway.]

How surprising it is thatThe Casualty, this little book of early (1946 to 1952) stories by the German Nobel Prize winner, Heinrich BÖll, has never been published in English before. But then they were not published in German until 1983, two years before BÖll's death. One can perhaps see why the Germans would feel uncomfortable with these tales of the 1939-45 war. They are raw, straightforward, brutal stories told without any frills. They are rather like...

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Russell A. Berman (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "A Language to Live In," in The New York Times Book Review, August 23, 1987, p. 27.

[In the following mixed review, Berman contends that the stories in The Casualty are vivid but not as accomplished as BÖll's later works. ]

In one of Heinrich BÖll's most famous stories, the narrator, a young soldier just wounded in the final days of World War II, describes a makeshift military hospital. From his stretcher he sees enough of the hallways to recognize that the building formerly served as a high school, a classical Gymnasium, for the walls are adorned with busts of Cicero and Caesar, paintings of Prussian kings and imposing portraits of Friedrich...

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Tom Wilhelmus (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Nothing Pretentious about Life and Art," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XL, No. 4, Winter, 1988, pp. 669-76.

[In the following excerpt, Wilhelmus offers a mixed review of The Casualty.]

Böll, well known to American audiences, resembles Hemingway in his blunt, uncompromising portrayal of the brutality of war, its occasional absurdity, its desperate humor, and its dehumanizing effects.

[The Casualty, a collection of stories] written between 1946 and 1952 (when BÖll was between the ages of 29 and 35), clearly predict the successful career to follow. In conception as well as execution they are journeyman pieces intended to establish...

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Charlotte Armster (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Katharina Blum: Violence and the Exploitation of Sexuality," in Women in German Yearbook, Vol. 4, 1988, pp. 83-95.

[In the following essay, Armster examines the issue of sexual exploitation in Die verlorene Ehre her Katharina Blum.]

In 1974, Heinrich Böll's then recent novel Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum was serialized in the West German magazine Der Spiegel. The appearance of the novel in the news magazine was notable, as it marked the first time that Spiegel published a literary work in its entirety. The novel's literary merit was not, however, the reason the editors chose to make an exception to their usual policies...

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Russell A. Berman (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "The Rhetoric of Citation and the Ideology of War in Heinrich BÖll's Short Fiction," in Cultural Studies of Modern Germany: History, Representation, and Nationhood, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1993, pp. 147-58.

[In the following excerpt, Berman analyzes the semiotic aspects of BÖll's short story "When the War Began."]

Böll's 1961 story ["Als der Krieg ausbrach" ("When the War Began")] presents itself as a personal recollection of a historical moment, linking objective and subjective dimensions by eliding the title—"When the war began" with the initial sentence, "I lay in the window, sleeves rolled up, looking out the window to the telephone office ....

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Further Reading


Reid, J. H. Heinrich BÖll: A German for His Time. Oxford: Berg Publishers Ltd., 1988, 245 p.

Critical biography.


Conrad, Robert C. Heinrich BÖll. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981, 228 p.

General critical study of BÖll's life and career that includes three chapters on his short fiction.

Kuschel, Karl-Josef. "The Christianity of Heinrich BÖll." Cross Currents XXXIX, No. 1 (Spring 1989): 21-36.

Examines the nature of BÖll's Christianity and how his Catholic faith is reflected by his writings.

Ley, Ralph. "Making It in the...

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