Heinrich Böll Biography

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(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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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...

(The entire section is 2,709 words.)