What's to Become of the Boy? Critical Essays

Heinrich Boll


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Heinrich Böll of What’s to Become of the Boy? was a young man in his mid-to late teens living something of a carefree, bohemian life in Cologne. As he watched the Nazis come to power and extend their control over every aspect of society, he, like his family, became preoccupied with surviving the Nazi tenure. At first, they believed that the Nazis would soon pass away like other short-lived governments before them. It soon became apparent, however, that the Nazis would remain in power. Böll found a refuge in school—a Roman Catholic school, for he came from a middle-class Catholic family. Although he believed that he learned more from the “school of the streets,” he understood clearly that so long as he remained enrolled in school he could avoid being “organized” (compelled to join some Nazi organization). Catholic schools still enjoyed a measure of independence during the late 1930’s, which worked to Böll’s advantage. His teachers suffered more from what Böll called the “Hindenburg blindness,” the unquestioning patriotism of the interwar era, than from any genuine Nazi sympathies.

Böll developed a love-hate relationship with the Catholic church during those years. Indeed, anticlericalism remained a constant theme in his writings after the war. Nevertheless, he did not formally leave the Catholic church until 1976; even then his action was more a rejection of institutionalized middle-class Catholicism than a rejection of Christianity. Most critics agree that Böll remained a moral Christian throughout his life.

Böll’s anticlericalism arose from his belief that the Catholic church’s actions during the Nazi era were morally bankrupt and opportunistic. Prior to 1933, the Church in Germany had been a focal point of resistance to Nazism. The Nazi Party made its least electoral gains in areas that were predominantly Catholic. In 1933, after Adolf Hitler came to power, the Church, however, signed a covenant with the Nazi government, making peace with it and according the Nazis their first major international recognition.

The Bölls saw the move as a betrayal by the church establishment. Heinrich Böll recalls that some of his family, himself included, considered leaving the Church in protest; yet they did not. After the March, 1933, elections, it had become fashionable for many Germans to leave the Church and join the Nazi Party. The Bölls chose not to leave the Church for fear that such action “might have been misconstrued as homage to the Nazis” rather than as a protest of the church hierarchy’s moral failure.

Throughout the book there is a mood of despair, an apathetic tendency to surrender to forces beyond one’s control. Böll writes that he found the Church “insufferable” and “disgusting.” Yet he was forced by circumstances not only to remain in the Church but also to identify with it openly. Not only did he remain in his Catholic school, because “that school,” being Catholic, was an effective “hiding place,” but also he continued to wear in his lapel the insignia of the Catholic Youth Movement. He did so, he says, not out of any genuine sentiment for the movement, or what it stood for, but because it was a way of defying the Nazis with a minimum of risk to himself.

Böll did not encounter any real persecution because of his quiet protests. From time to time, he had an argument with a classmate or a teacher, but no one ever tried to convert him. He could make “occasional flippant remarks about Hitler and other Nazi bigwigs,” and no one ever reported...

(The entire section is 1460 words.)