Much of the significance of Heinrich Böll’s What’s to Become of the Boy? lies in the fact that it chronicles the author’s life during those critical years when he formulated his political and social views—views which would later run through both his fiction and nonfiction. Those four years were also the years during which he decided that his life’s career would have something to do with books.
In late 1945, after returning to Cologne from service in the army, Böll began writing novels, essays, and radio and stage plays. Most of his literary works were set in the Rhineland, often in the Cologne-Bonn area. They both chronicled and critiqued the resurrection of West Germany. His biting criticism of middle-class values, which he believed had survived the war and dominated the new Germany, won for him praise from Marxist critics and made his books the best-selling West German fiction in East Germany. In the Soviet Union and throughout the East European Communist bloc, he was the best-selling non-Soviet author.
Some critics questioned Böll’s harsh portrayal of politicians, police, and the hierarchy of the Catholic church in postwar West Germany. Nevertheless, Böll remained the foe of every form of institutionalized power. In 1972, he openly campaigned on behalf of the Social Democratic Party, but later he became disillusioned with them.
Critics see much that is autobiographical in Böll’s fictional works, but What’s to Become of the Boy? was his only formal autobiography. Why did he choose to limit it to a four-year period? Perhaps he, too, thought that those were the crucial years for the development of his values. What’s to Become of the Boy? is a key to the greater understanding and appreciation of the whole of Böll’s literary output.