Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 177
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is the story of a young woman whose life is ruined by the media. She lives an honest life and works hard, and then she meets a man at a party one night who she falls in love with. The man, Ludwig Gotten, is...
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The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is the story of a young woman whose life is ruined by the media. She lives an honest life and works hard, and then she meets a man at a party one night who she falls in love with. The man, Ludwig Gotten, is a wanted criminal, and eventually, Katharina hides him from the police and helps him escape from her apartment through a secret passageway. When the press gets hold of the story, an overzealous journalist misrepresents the facts and claims that Katharina is Ludwig’s accomplice.
The press distorts the words of the people he interviews and prints libelous things about Katharina. Soon, the false accusations escalate into a scandal, and the scandal quickly spins out of control. Katharina, now the victim of a vicious smear campaign by the tabloid journalist, is accused of being a communist. Eventually, she is driven to the brink of insanity and commits murder. The story stresses the power of the media to sway public belief and the devastating effects of sensationalizing the news.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1007
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum examines, as Heinrich Böll’s subtitle suggests, “how violence develops and where it can lead.” The novel, narrated in what purports to be responsible journalistic prose, begins by “objectively” describing Katharina Blum’s murder of Werner Totges, a reporter for the irresponsible News, and then attempting to account for that murder by exploring the four days between Katharina’s meeting with Ludwig Gotten, a suspected terrorist, and Totges’ murder. As a responsible journalist, the narrator carefully identifies the sources of his “report”: “doctored” transcripts of police interrogations and the testimony of Hubert Blorna, an attorney, and Peter Hach, the public prosecutor. In the course of his narrative, he also quotes extensively from stories in the News, which bears a strong resemblance to the Bild-Zeitung, a German mass-circulation tabloid with which Böll had feuded about journalistic practices.
After listing his sources and explaining his narrative method, the narrator presents the brutal “facts”: Four days after meeting Ludwig Gotten, Katharina killed Totges in her apartment and turned herself in to Walter Moeding, the crime commissioner. The balance of the novel concerns not the murder, the “lowest of all levels,” but the “higher planes” of motivation and meaning that transform a so-called political murder into an act of integrity.
The story begins with Katharina’s attendance at a carnival party at the home of her friend Else Woltersheim; there she meets Ludwig, the subject of police surveillance and, after dancing exclusively with him, takes him to her condominium, where they spend the night.
The next morning, the police storm her apartment and when they cannot find Ludwig, they interrogate her, search the apartment, and take her to the police station for further questioning. As she leaves with the police, a photographer from the News takes several pictures of her (the least flattering and most suggestive of her “criminality” is the one subsequently printed in the News), and the narrator uses the occasion to introduce the recurrent theme of collaboration between the press and the police.
After making her statement and being interrogated by the police, Katharina is escorted to her apartment by a sympathetic Moeding, who cautions her not to use the telephone (it has obviously been “bugged”) or to look at the news (or the News). His warning proves justified; her later conversation with Ludwig is tapped, and the News indicts and convicts her of being Ludwig’s mistress and accomplice, though Ludwig has not yet been convicted of a crime. By distorting Hubert Blorna’s answers to seemingly innocuous questions and by using innuendos about Katharina’s gentlemen visitors and the purchase price of her condominium, the News successfully converts Katharina’s virtues—her desire to protect Alois Straubleder, a wealthy industrialist, and her diligence and thrift—to vices.
When Katharina returns for more interrogation, the police commissioner, Erwin Beizmenne, confronts her with two tangential items gleaned from an exhaustive search of her apartment: inordinately large gasoline receipts, which she dismisses accurately but unconvincingly as having been the result of aimless driving, and an expensive ruby ring, which she refuses to identify (it is a gift from Straubleder, who is pursuing Katharina unsuccessfully). Beizmenne also interrogates Else Woltersheim and some of her guests at the Wednesday night party.
While there is no official police case against Katharina, police collaboration with the press provides an unofficial case against her. The News tries her in the press, convicts her, and, as Hubert’s wife, Trude Blorna, predicted,ruins her life.
Totges visits Katharina’s sick mother, manufactures damaging statements, and quite possibly causes the old woman’s death, which the News ironically blames on Katharina’s behavior. The unscrupulous and resourceful Totges also uses derogatory comments from Katharina’s loutish ex-husband to defame her further.
Because, as Katharina states, everyone reads the News, the events that follow the lurid newspaper accounts are predictable: She receives obscene calls and letters, some of which allude to her Communist views, and she is shunned by her neighbors. In response, Katharina proceeds, methodically, to smash the contents of her immaculate apartment, a symbol of her life which has now been invaded and destroyed by the press. The Blornas, her friends, also suffer from the News’s coverage of Katharina because they refuse to abandon her. Trude, known as “the Red” because of her hair, is referred to as “Trude the Red,” with Communist implications; Hubert, a lawyer for Straubleder’s companies, loses money, prestige, and position because he and Trude support Katharina and because Trude insults Straubleder.
The police, who have traced Ludwig’s call to Katharina, finish interrogating her and capture Ludwig at Straubleder’s resort home, where he has been hiding. (Katharina gave him the key that Straubleder had given her.) Nevertheless, Katharina becomes more composed. When she meets the Blornas in the afternoon, they unsuccessfully attempt to dissuade her from going through with her planned Sunday interview with Totges. Unfortunately for Totges, Katharina reads his Sunday News story, which blames Katharina for her mother’s death. The story triggers Katharina’s decision to get a gun and to find Totges. When she cannot find him, she returns to her apartment and waits. He enters, calls her “Blumikins,” and asks for a “bang”; she pulls out the pistol and repeatedly shoots him, ironically giving him the “bang” he has requested.
Böll’s novel, which begins with an “objective” murder, concludes appropriately with Katharina’s first-person subjective account of her emotions, attitudes, and motives at the time of the violent crime. The violence of Katharina’s act is not, however, the only violence suggested by Böll’s subtitle, though her violence certainly does have both personal and political repercussions. The “violence” to which Böll alludes also refers to Totges’ attack on Katharina, for his persecution of her effectively destroys her “honor” in almost a sexual sense: He “penetrates” the innocent Katharina psychologically and emotionally, and when he attempts to make his metaphorical rape literal, his violent action leads to his own destruction.