Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1460
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 him. Indeed, the school’s authorities made it easy for him to avoid openly supporting the Nazis. For example, he was allowed to clean the school library rather than participate in the weekly “National Day” exercises.
Böll’s anticlericalism was linked to his antibourgeois bias, which in turn was linked to his family’s inability to determine to which class it belonged. Böll recalls that they “were neither true lower middle class nor conscious proletarians, and we had a strong streak of the Bohemian.” Their bohemianism caused them to loathe what they identified as middle-class values. Those values, they believed, characterized the Catholic church. Nevertheless, throughout the book one can see that Böll is troubled by the fact that his values, and those of his family, were also largely bourgeois.
The middle class is portrayed by Böll as apathetic, lacking the will to resist the Nazis. In a cowardly manner, they allowed themselves to be terrorized by Hermann Goring, a buffoonish figure who served as minister-president of Prussia during the years covered by Böll’s memoir. Böll and his family limited their resistance to remaining practicing Catholics. They showed their sympathies by displaying only a small Nazi flag on compulsory flag days, but display it they did. And when it became necessary to make a further compromise in order to avoid persecution, Böll recalls that a family council was held, at which it was decided that his brother, Alois, would join the Storm Troopers.
Heinrich Böll and his family, like much of the German middle class, lacked the will to resist the Nazis openly, or for that matter, even to leave Germany. At one point, Böll says that he was too much of a coward to risk passive resistance by becoming a conscientious objector. He was well aware of “the mute, stony-faced men released from concentration camps, the idea of possible torture.” As for emigrating, “such an idea was simply beyond the realm of our imagination.”
What was the cause of the apathy, the moral paralysis, that dominated the Catholic church, the middle class, and even infected Böll and his family? Böll identifies it as the “Hindenburg blindness,” using the term to characterize the outlook of the average, decent German. Like the principal of his school and his teachers, they tended to be World War I veterans, “patriotic, not nationalistic, certainly not Nazist.” Like the Bölls, they wanted to survive the Nazi era. Unlike the Bölls, however, they sought refuge in an exaggerated patriotism.
The Hindenburg blindness emphasized service to the Fatherland, not to the Nazis. Böll insists, however, that many a decent, patriotic German schoolteacher helped, unwittingly perhaps, make possible Stalingrad and Auschwitz. In effect, school was preparing German youth for death, not life. Böll refused to learn for the sake of dying; thus, he turned to the school of the streets.
Often, the young Böll left his books home and wandered the streets of Cologne. He says that it was the “overriding bourgeois element,” the Hindenburg blindness, of his teachers that drove him to the school of the streets. During the last three of the four years chronicled by the book, Böll actually went to school less than half the time. As he roamed the streets, he saw and heard evidence of the Nazis’ new order. “Who,” he asks, “was that woman screaming on Achter-Gasschen, who that man screaming on Landesberg-Strasse, who on Rosen-Strasse?” Those sounds, and the sight of bloodied towels, led him to conclude that it is in the streets that one learns the real lessons of life.
In the latter third of the narrative, which covers the last two years, 1936 and 1937, Böll notes that material survival became his family’s main preoccupation. They moved to cheaper lodgings, took in a boarder, or “furnished gentleman,” and sought whatever means possible to augment the meager family income. Economic problems, added to the ever-present Nazis, increased the feeling of gloom. Böll at one point looks ahead to inform the reader that the war eventually brought an end to the perpetual economic crisis by bringing with it a measure of prosperity. Nevertheless, it also increased the feeling of impending doom.
In the summer of 1936, Böll and his family began to take Pervitim, a stimulant that could be purchased over the counter at any local pharmacy. They used it to escape from the reality of their existence. It was cheaper than alcohol and “more spiritual.” Böll admits that his mother, his older sister, and he himself became addicted to the drug. He was able to kick the habit during the war, when he could no longer obtain it.
As his graduation drew near, the family became anxious about his future. “What’s to become of the boy?” was increasingly a matter of family concern. Someone, Böll cannot remember who, suggested that his future career should have “something to do with books.” Perhaps he would take an interest in theology they hoped. The narrative ends with Böll’s becoming an apprentice in a bookstore, one “not too big, and not even remotely Nazi.”