Heinrich Böll Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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.


(The entire section is 2156 words.)

Heinrich Böll Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Heinrich Theodor Böll (buhl) was one of the most significant German writers of the postwar era. He was born in Cologne on December 21, 1917, to Victor and Marie Hermanns Böll, the eighth of eight children. He was educated in Catholic elementary and secondary schools.

The years of Böll’s youth coincided with some of the grimmest years in modern German history—the inflated economy of the mid-1920’s, the Great Depression of the early 1930’s, the rise to power of the Nazis, and the early years of the Third Reich. Victor Böll lost his business in the Great Depression. The family’s subsequent loss of middle-class status without clearly identifying with the working class caused an identity crisis that remained with Heinrich Böll and influenced his writing.

In 1937 Böll completed his secondary education and became an apprentice to a book dealer in Bonn. He was required to perform compulsory labor service during 1938 and 1939, after which he enrolled at the University of Cologne to study German and classical philology and literature. In 1939 he was drafted into the German Army, and he served as an infantryman until taken prisoner by the Americans in 1945.

Böll returned to his native Cologne in November, 1945, together with his wife, Annemarie Cech, whom he had married in 1942. Their first son, Christoph, died shortly after birth during the harsh winter of 1945. Upon his return to Cologne, Böll began to write short stories. In an interview during the early 1960’s, he admitted that he had always wanted to be a writer....

(The entire section is 639 words.)

Heinrich Böll Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although Heinrich Böll belonged to the generation that was most attracted to the Nazis, he was never deluded by their rhetoric and promises. He even recognized their success in alleviating the distress of workers ravaged by a worldwide depression as achieved only by means of a conspiracy with capitalism.

Coming from a large family of Rhineland Catholics, Böll grew up in broad-minded Cologne, happy and well adjusted. Despite the nation’s hard times and the limited means of his father, who ran a small woodworking business, Böll’s childhood was rich in the pleasant qualities of German life alluded to in his stories: a loving family, decorated tables for special occasions, Christmas trees and songs, and flowers, gatherings, books, music, wines, and stately churches.

In 1937, Heinrich Böll was graduated from the Gymnasium (the German name for the demanding preparatory school). After a few months of work as a clerk in a bookstore in Bonn, he entered the University of Cologne to study literature. Previous labor service and an aversion to Nazi affiliations, however, led to his precipitate induction into eight weeks of military training, weeks that turned into six endless years when war broke out in September, 1939. Wounded four times and serving on both the Eastern and Western fronts, Böll, who despised the cause for which he was fighting, succeeded in surviving only by a combination of luck and desperate ruses. Captured on April 9,...

(The entire section is 533 words.)

Heinrich Böll Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Heinrich Theodor Böll was born in Cologne, Germany, on December 21, 1917. On his father’s side, his ancestors were ship carpenters who emigrated from England centuries before, Catholics fleeing persecution under the reign of Henry VIII. On his mother’s side, his ancestors were Catholic farmers and brewers. Böll’s father was a cabinetmaker. In an autobiographical sketch of 1958 titled “Über mich selbst” (“About Myself”), Böll describes the hunger, poverty, and unemployment in Germany during the inflationary years of the 1920’s, topics that frequently recur in his works. He remembers the first money he received—a note for one billion marks with which he managed to buy a stick of candy. In an autobiographical...

(The entire section is 488 words.)

Heinrich Böll Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Heinrich Theodor Böll (buhl) was born December 21, 1917, in Cologne, Germany, to Victor and Marie Hermanns Böll, solidly middle-class, liberal Catholics from old Rhineland families. Böll’s native region, the time of his birth, his parents’ class, and their moral and religious convictions all were strong influences on his character and works. Although his parents suffered from the inflation of the 1920’s and the Depression of the 1930’s, so that Böll sometimes identified his background as middle-class, other times as proletarian, the Bölls provided their children with security, understanding, and freedom but did not hide social problems from them. Devout but independent-minded Catholics, the elder Bölls taught their...

(The entire section is 923 words.)

Heinrich Böll Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Although Heinrich Böll insisted that his characters were “compositions,” not psychological creations, they have psychological reality. Hans, the reification of the clown metaphor, is actually an opinionated, sensitive, sentimental, narcissistic, nonintellectual man. Leni, an archetype, is real in generosity, sensuality, and will. “As an author,” said Böll, “only two themes interest me: love and religion.” With a dichotomous cast of “compositions,” the evil self-servers and the persecuted pure, a contemporary sociopolitical setting, and a repertory of symbols, Böll condemned the sin of exploitation wherever it occurred and preached a religion of love made manifest in forbearance, generosity, and grace.

(The entire section is 102 words.)

Heinrich Böll Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Heinrich Böll was born December 21, 1917, in Cologne, Germany. The sixth child of Maria and Viktor Böll, Böll’s clearest memories were...

(The entire section is 553 words.)