Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

When Heinrich Böll died in 1985, Germany lost its most respected novelist, social critic, essayist, and translator. He was a Roman Catholic and an activist in the peace movement. Writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Franz Josef Gortz described him as “the ever-alert conscience of the State.” As Richard von Weizsacker, President of the Federal Republic of Germany, noted on the occasion of Böll’s death, “He caused offense and generated respect.”

The Safety Net was Böll’s fourteenth book, his fifth since he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972. Böll has been described as a Christian moralist, disturbed by the way that the Christian ideal has been corrupted by the industrial world of postwar Germany. At the age of sixty-four, when he wrote The Safety Net, Böll was obsessed by the atmosphere of defensive paranoia that had come to dominate Germany under the threat of terrorist violence. Other continuing concerns in his later fiction are the sanctity of the individual and the need for personal privacy.

The Safety Net effectively satirizes contemporary German life. The novel was criticized by Lothar Kahn in The New Leader for being “too genteel,” an unavoidable consequence of Böll’s focus on the civilized sensibility of Fritz Tolm, perhaps, but the novel also describes characters who are disenchanted (Rolf), corrupt (Bleibl), and pragmatic (Holzpuke). These characters are not particularly “genteel.”

Though the novel succeeds mainly as a meditation on postwar “divided loyalties, lost traditions,” and “desperate rebellions” and as a psychological narrative, it is also a borderline polemic. One review criticized Fritz Tolm’s last comment to his wife at the burial of the terrorist Beverloh: “You know I have always loved you. And there’s something else you must know.... That some form of socialism must come, must prevail....”

This affirmation of the Socialist cause has not been carefully anticipated by the psychological development of the novel, but it is consistent with Böll’s political orientation. In 1983, The New York Times reported that Böll “came out in support of the fledgling, iconoclastic Green Party, praising them for bringing ‘a new language into Parliament,’ and concluding, ‘The Greens are always my hope.’” If Böll had not moved that far to the left when he wrote The Safety Net, at least the tendency can clearly be seen.