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.
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.
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.