Several critics, including Erhard Friedrichsmeyer, believe that Böll’s greatest work is to be found in his short stories and, more particularly, in his satires. Friedrichsmeyer, writing in his University of Dayton Review article, “Böll’s Satires,” considers his satirical stories his best work, and he calls “Christmas Not Just Once a Year” one of his “masterpieces.” Robert C. Conard, writing in Understanding Heinrich Böll, concurs: “Böll’s work in the satiric mode has no equal in postwar German literature.” He adds, “In “Nicht nur zur Weihnachtszeit” Böll created not only a national classic but a satire for all ages.” Conard also quotes Friedrichsmeyer as saying that the story is a “satiric gem.” Rienhard K. Zachau, in his book Heinrich Böll: Forty Years of Criticism discusses the views of German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who had a strong influence on the reception of Böll’s work in Germany in the early 1960s. Reich-Ranicki, according to Zachau, believed Böll’s short story style was his trademark and that Böll had not written anything perfect “except for a few short stories.”
In general, Böll was highly regarded around the world for his writing and his commitment to literature. Because his subjects were most often political and, more specifically, dealt with the less advantaged members of German society, Böll often suffered from the political vicissitudes of reviewers and critics. This was especially true of his reception by critics in former communist countries. Zachau, for instance, points out that Böll was warmly received early in his career in the former Soviet Union and became one of that country’s major Western writers, “second only to . . . Ernest Hemingway.” Critics pointed to his commitment to working class ideals and his antimilitarist and antifascist stances. However, starting with the publication of his novel The Clowns in 1965, Böll began falling out of favor with communist orthodoxy, and following the 1974 publication of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, Böll was officially banned by Soviet censors, although his books could continue to be sold in the country in foreign languages.
In the United States, Zachau writes that the reception of Böll’s works reflected that of German literature in general. Until 1954, with the translation of And Never Said a Word, no German author, according to Zachau, had become widely known in academic or critical circles in the United States. For several years, then, at least until the publication of Günter Grass’s breakthrough novel The Tin Drum in 1959, Böll was considered “the” German writer in the eyes of American critics and academics. However, Böll would continue throughout his career to receive praise in America for his work. Reviewing the posthumously published The Stories of Heinrich Böll in the Chicago Tribune on March 23, 1986, critic Miriam Berkley concludes her review by writing, “Readers of this volume should have no doubt that Heinrich Boll well deserved his Nobel Prize.” Michael Heskit, reviewing the collection on January 12, 1986, for the Houston Chronicle, writes that the “collection provides a powerful entrance to Böll’s tragic view of the world, tempered always by wit and compassion: the sordidness and inhumanity of war, the hollowness of Germany’s postwar economic recovery, and the moral rot pervading the new Germany.” While most of the reviews of Böll’s stories were positive, there were some notable exceptions. In the Los Angeles Times, for instance, Michael Scammell concludes that “Böll’s talent was largely unsuited to the genre of the short story, and that he needed more space to succeed.” And although it fell short of being negative, the New York Times published a less than enthusiastic review, calling the collection “a memorial to the far more subtle-minded author” that Böll was.
In Germany, Böll became an enormously popular cultural icon. Known for his political work as well as his writing, Böll was, according to a poll conducted shortly before his death in 1985, considered by Germans to be the second most popular figure behind the country’s chancellor at the time, Helmut Schmidt. Zachau points out that in 1977 alone, more than fifteen books, twenty dissertations, and twelve hundred newspaper and magazine articles were written about Böll, and by 1993, more than sixty books had been written about him.