Heinrich Böll

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2156

Article abstract: Böll, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1972, remains one of the greatest German authors of the postwar era. His works evince a keen moral sense and a sincere commitment to social change.

Early Life

Heinrich Böll was born in the city of Cologne on December 21, 1917. Cologne is a strongly Catholic city located on the banks of the Rhine River in central Germany, and this religious heritage is evident in the author’s liberal and humanitarian themes. Böll attended elementary and secondary schools in Cologne and was graduated in 1937. He entered an apprenticeship in a bookstore and began to study German literature. During World War II, he served in the German army and was wounded four times. He was finally captured by the Americans near the end of the war. Böll had married Annemarie Cech in 1942, and they eventually had three sons. She often served as his collaborator in the numerous translations of English and American literature that he later published.

After the war, Böll returned to his studies of German literature and began to write his first fictional works. Although still unknown as a writer, he was invited to the 1949 meeting of the Group 47 circle of German writers, who gathered together once a year to read and evaluate one another’s texts. Böll’s narrative skills earned for him the respect of his peers, and, in 1951, he won the award for the best work read that year. From that point on, he wrote prolifically and won a number of prestigious awards. Throughout his life, he remained in the Cologne area.

Life’s Work

Böll’s first works deal with his personal experiences during and in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The major theme of virtually all of his writings—the alienation of the individual at the mercy of vast and impassive social and religious institutions—also becomes evident in these initial texts. The novel Der Zug war pünktlich (1949; The Train Was on Time, 1956) examines the brutal operations of the Nazi government bureaucracy that utilized the efficient German train system to transport millions to their deaths in concentration camps. He also assails the passivity and lack of compassion of the countless Germans who witnessed these events. His second novel, Wo warst du, Adam? (1951; Adam, Where Art Thou?, 1955), also takes up the strong antiwar themes of his first works. The main character, a soldier named Feinhals, must passively observe the terror of the Nazi era but serves, as do many of Böll’s characters, as a kind of moral “witness” figure whose testimony of the horrible events of that time forces the society of postwar Germany to remember a dark past that it would prefer conveniently to forget. This strong sense of social and moral conscience prevails in all Böll’s writings. These novels also suggest the sharply dualistic moral vision of the world that characterizes many of the figures in his works. Individuals are portrayed as either good or evil, as the helpless victims of persecution or the ruthless executioners of the innocent.

The novel Und sagte kein einziges Wort (1953; Acquainted with the Night, 1954) was an international success and illustrates Böll’s attempts to employ the techniques of modern narration. In alternating first-person accounts, he tells the story of Fred and Käthe Bogner, a married couple who lived in poverty and desperation in Cologne during the years immediately following World War II. Their marriage is falling apart, and, as a result of the stresses of their impoverished life, Fred has become alienated, unable to keep a job and given to drinking heavily. This novel takes up one of Böll’s more controversial themes: the hypocrisy of the Catholic church. Although it professes the love and compassion of Christ, the established Church with all its power, wealth, and influence does nothing to alleviate the very real sufferings of its followers. Böll remains deeply suspicious of social and religious institutions that have come to value their power and authority rather than the individuals whom they are presumably committed to serving.

Das Brot der frühen Jahre (1955; The Bread of Our Early Years, 1957) and Billard um halbzehn (1959; Billiards at Half-Past Nine, 1961) both examine from a critical perspective the postwar years of Germany, its rapid economic recovery, and its new spirit of materialism and prosperity. The latter novel remains one of Böll’s most famous texts. It presents the story of the Faehmels, a family of architects in the Cologne area, and chronicles several generations of their involvement in German history in the period from 1907 to the 1950’s. Böll is extremely critical of postwar German society and its apparent attempt to forget the Nazi past. As in his other novels, he tends to characterize individuals in this novel in terms of a somewhat dualistic “good/bad” schema. In Billiards at Half-Past Nine, he also experiments with more complex modes of narration by having the various family members present their perspectives in different chapters. In 1962, Böll visited the Soviet Union for a brief period.

Böll’s next novel, Ansichten eines Clowns (1963; The Clown, 1965) is one of his most popular and most controversial works. It continues the strong criticism of social and religious institutions found in his earlier texts. Hans Schnier, a satirical pantomime artist now drunk and unemployed, tells in a series of narrative flashbacks the story of his family and his failed marriage to his beloved Marie. Böll assails the hypocrisy of postwar German society in the figure of Schnier’s mother, a former racist Nazi who denies her deplorable past and now heads a group promoting intercultural harmony and understanding. Schnier is a typical Böll character who refuses to let postwar Germany forget its participation in the Nazi era. The hypocritical and insensitive stance of the Catholic church destroys his genuinely innocent but “unlawful” relationship to the woman he truly loves. Schnier is another of those alienated “outsider” figures who provide a critical perspective on society. At the time Böll was working on this text, he and his wife were also translating the well-known American novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), by J. D. Salinger, and the character of the alienated adolescent Holden Caulfield clearly informs that of Hans Schnier. Because of the rather negative view of the Catholic church presented in this novel, its initial publication generated a rather heated debate in the press. With Böll’s increasing prominence, his marked liberal views on social and religious issues began to invoke the wrath of the more conservative elements in German society. Böll also served as a guest professor in the mid 1960’s at the University of Frankfurt.

In 1972, Böll was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The novel Gruppenbild mit Dame (1971; Group Portrait with Lady, 1973) was a decisive factor in the Swedish Academy’s selection. The story of a poor woman, Leni Gruyten-Pfeiffer, the novel spans most of twentieth century German history. Leni represents one of the author’s “innocent” figures, a generous and deeply spiritual person who dedicates her life to the poor but who is scorned by a materialistic and uncompassionate society. Böll’s selection for the Nobel Prize evoked a barrage of negative reactions from the conservative German press, which maintained that the prize was awarded only to liberals and left-wing radicals.

The 1970’s were a difficult time for German society. Left-wing terrorism—kidnappings, assassinations, bombings—conducted by the well-known Baader-Meinhof group of radicals polarized public opinion. Many conservatives, especially the right-wing Springer publishing concern, advocated measures that would seemingly compromise democratic rights of civil liberty. Although Böll deplored acts of violence committed by the terrorists, he spoke out for the rights of the individual and as a result was often attacked in the press. His novel Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (1974; The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, 1975) deals with the fate of a young woman who, because of a love affair with a suspected terrorist, is viciously slandered in the popular conservative newspapers. The work is a thinly veiled polemic against the Springer press. This novel was made into a popular film version in 1975 by the German directors Magarethe von Trotta and Volker Schlöndorff.

The novel Fürsorgliche Belagerung (1979; The Safety Net, 1982) also deals with issues concerning the terrorism of the 1970’s and presents the author’s criticism of modern Germany’s social values. Böll maintained this aggressive stance with regard to human rights in both his literary works and his public speeches throughout his later life. In 1974, he acted as host for the expelled Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

One of Böll’s last published works recalls the subject matter of his works written at the beginning of his career in 1947. Entitled Das Vermächtnis (1982; A Soldier’s Legacy, 1985), the novel is set during the German occupation of France in 1943. The narrator, a soldier named Wenk, is an alcoholic who drinks to numb the pain he feels at the horror of the violence around him. His superior officer, Schelling, is a moral individual who tries to unmask the black market corruption of the troop. They are the typical Böll characters who represent the “good” people who suffer at the mercy of those who are “evil.” Captain Schnecker is one of the latter type, and he eventually has Schelling murdered so that the profiteering can continue.

Although best known for his novels, Böll was also a master of the short story form, a genre which became popular in Germany after World War II as American literature was more widely read. During his life, he published a number of short story collections. Böll died on July 16, 1985, in the town of Merten, not far from his beloved city of Cologne. His last work, the novel Frauen vor Flusslandschaft. Roman in Dialogen und Selbstgesprächen (Women in a River Landscape, 1988), was published in 1985, after his death.


In the era after the end of World War II, Heinrich Böll assumed an important role in the history of German literature, and, as winner of the 1972 Nobel Prize, his place in the canon of world literature has been assured. Although there are some critics who find his technique of stark “good/evil” characterization simplistic, his talent as a traditional narrative artist established him as a popular author, and his works have been well received throughout the world.

Böll’s literary career as well as political pronouncements had often been regarded as controversial, but he remained consistently true to his moral vision of society. Böll’s relentless championing of the individual’s rights in face of the impersonal authority of societal institutions and his rigorous efforts to examine the moral guilt of Germany’s involvement in the horror of the Nazi period made him a spokesperson for the moral conscience of his wartime generation. His criticisms of the materialistic values of Germany’s postindustrial society and his radical espousal of humanitarian and compassionate social values suggest his strongly spiritual and religious vision of the world. In a sense, he can be regarded as a radical Catholic who takes the Christian message of love and charity in its purest form and who deplores the seeming inertia and conservatism of the established Church. Throughout his life, Böll remained a committed writer who believed that it was the moral duty of the artist to address the social and political issues of his time.


Burns, Robert A. The Theme of Non-Conformism in the Work of Heinrich Böll. Coventry, England: University of Warwick, 1973. This volume is a scholarly dissertation that presents a detailed discussion of the “outsider” theme in Böll’s major texts up to the early 1970’s.

Conrad, Robert C. Heinrich Böll. Boston: Twayne, 1981. This well-written and extensive book offers the reader an excellent survey of Böll’s works up to The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. It contains a selected bibliography of secondary works (in both German and English) as well as listings of published interviews with the author.

MacPherson, Enid. A Student’s Guide to Böll. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1972. This rather slim volume is part of the publisher’s Student’s Guides to European Literature series and presents a well-written and informative introduction to the author’s major themes and works. It should be supplemented with more extensive secondary sources.

Reid, James Henderson. Heinrich Böll: Withdrawal and Reemergence. London: Wolff, 1973. A brief but useful introduction to Böll’s works for the beginning student.

Thomas, R. Hinton, and Wilfried van der Will. The German Novel and the Affluent Society. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1968. This volume deals with Böll directly in only one section, but it presents a good portrait of the German literary scene in the 1950’s and in the 1960’s in which Boll’s writing is to be situated.

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