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What’s to Become of the Boy? appeared in English translation only one year before the 1972 Nobel laureate’s death. It was his first and only attempt to write a straight autobiography. Heinrich Böll had previously resisted pressures to write in that genre, believing that autobiographies had a natural inclination to distort the past by interpreting events with the benefit of hindsight.

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The book is written in a relaxed, conversational style, much as if the reader were sitting across the table from Böll, listening to him reminisce about his adolescent years. It covers the last four years of Böll’s formal education. Those years, from 1933 to 1937, parallel the first four years of Nazi rule in Germany. Böll portrays that time against the gloomy backdrop of the Nazi Party’s consolidation of its control over German society.

Böll clearly has not done any research into his past, nor is the narrative based upon any diaries, journals, or other documents. Böll is simply recalling, remembering, or reminiscing. Indeed, at the beginning of the book he warns the reader: “All this happened forty-eight to forty-four years ago, and I have no notes or jottings to resort to. . . . I am no longer sure of how some of my personal experiences synchronize with historical events.”

Böll gives several examples of his faulty memory. All of them are meant to impress upon the reader that Böll’s purpose is not merely to provide a sort of history of the young Heinrich Böll and his times but rather to re-create the mood of those four years as he felt and experienced it. “The mood and the situation I can vouch for, also the facts bound up with the moods and situations,” writes Böll, “but, confronted with verifiable historical facts, I cannot vouch for the synchronization.”

The conversational style of the book is evident in its format. It is a brief narrative, really only an extended essay. The paperback edition is only eighty-two pages long, approximately nineteen thousand words. There is no introduction or preface. The book simply begins with the statement, “On January 30, 1933, I was fifteen years and six weeks old.” From that inauspicious beginning, Böll’s memories flow forth unbroken until a date four years later, when he observes that he celebrated passing his final exams by drinking a glass of beer in a nearby tavern. There are no chapter headings, although the narrative is divided into eighteen numbered sections. There is no obvious reason for the subdivisions, unless it is to provide the reader with convenient points at which to stop reading and take a break.

Because the narrative is not based upon any research or documentation and because it does not attempt to give a history of the times, there are no index, bibliography, or footnotes. Also, there are no appendices or other attempts to place the memoir in its historical perspective. The account simply stops, without any conclusion. It is as if Böll, having finished reminiscing, got up from the table and left, leaving his audience to assign whatever meaning they wish to the memories he has just shared with them.

What's to Become of the Boy?

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Heinrich Böll, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, was the first German thus honored since Thomas Mann received the award in 1929. As Mann was then identified with the best that Germany’s Weimar Republic had made possible, Böll is now widely considered the most representative figure of West Germany’s postwar culture. In contrast to Mann, who liked to speak of himself as a born representative, Böll has always felt curiously ill at ease in the role of a semiofficial writer in residence, preferring to call himself at best an unrepresentative representative. Older than Günter Grass, Rolf Hochhuth, or Martin Walser by at least ten years, Böll occupies a unique position in the first generation of postwar writers. He, who was almost twenty-eight years old at the end of World War II, frankly admits that he was obviously old enough to know what had happened and in what he had, though unwillingly, participated. While clearly formulating his identity as a German writer within the continuity of his country’s unsavory history, Böll has become one of the most outspoken critics not only of Germany’s past but also of its specifically West German present.

When someone of Böll’s literary and public stature sits down to write his first autobiographical work, readers tend to expect a representative assessment. Even if one keeps in mind that Böll has chosen to write about only four years of his adolescence, the years on which he focuses—his last four years of high school, Adolf Hitler’s first four years in power—make the eighty-two small pages he offers in What’s to Become of the Boy? (published in Germany in 1981 as Was soll aus dem Jungen bloss werden?) seem a strangely offhanded, ineffectual appraisal. If this brief memoir at first glance looks unrepresentative, however, containing little more than the inconsequential reminiscences of an elderly celebrity, the reader must be cautioned that Böll has always cherished the deviously understated perspective of the atypical in his search for the typical in Germany’s past and present.

From the very beginning of the Nazi rule, the fifteen-year-old Böll and his family appear to have been equipped with an amazing political astuteness which resulted from a most atypical combination of heavyhearted fear and lighthearted irreverence. The political leadership of the Third Reich was judged with an instinctive horror as much as it was dismissed with an instinctive disrespect. Adolf Hitler, whom Böll’s mother recognized as a crazed warmonger from the day he came to power, was also caricatured by her as a turnip head. The debauched Hermann Göring, with his operatic craving for outlandish uniforms, was hated for his unashamed brutality but was relegated to the realm of farce rather than that of tragedy. At Ernst Röhm, the ravingly homosexual leader of the brown-shirted SA, the Bölls thumbed their noses with a dirty joke, while Baldur von Schirach, the head of the Hitler Youth Böll so adamantly refused to join, they ridiculed as a comically sentimental poetaster. Though the reign of terror these men unleashed on Germany was only too real and did not leave the Bölls unaffected, they recognized its power as arising from the crushing presence of “a howling void,” revealing a profound discrepancy between the magnitude of the deeds and the paltriness of the actors which alternately called for chilling silence or hysterical snickering from those watching the cruel spectacle.

With a similarly mocking nonchalance, Böll undercuts his recounting of events that are widely known for their political or symbolic significance. Hitler’s coming to power on January 30, 1933, Böll remembers as having surprised most people in Cologne, himself included; on that day, he was in bed, under the numbing influence of alcoholic remedies generously dispensed against the effects of an annual flu epidemic. The notorious book burnings of a few weeks later he recollects not for their cultural barbarity but for his discovery that books really do not burn well on command. Recollection of Hitler’s first open breach of international law, the occupation of the demilitarized Rhineland in 1936, brings to mind how Böll’s father responded to the imminent threat of war by reenacting for the benefit of the whole family his simulated attack of appendicitis which had cost him his appendix but had saved the rest of his body from being sent into the death mill of Verdun in World War I. Even where Böll’s recollections rise to the level of passionate indictment, he remains determined to wrest from them an unexpected perspective. The execution of seven young Communists in Cologne in the fall of 1934 reaches its most powerful evocation in the description of the young men’s reemerging religiosity as they faced death. The constant street terror imposed on the city by roving bands of storm troopers and Hitler Youths, a terror that threw such a pall over Böll’s temperament of the loafer, is seen in conjunction with the rigor with which such comparatively human institutions as black marketing and prostitution were eliminated in favor of an inhuman legality.

What is one to make of these disconcertingly idiosyncratic flashbacks into history? What do they tell about Böll, what about the continuity of German history with which he wants to identify? As Böll stressed in an interview with the French critic René Wintzen in 1975, growing up in Nazi Germany would not have been essentially different for him from growing up in a Germany in which the Nazis had not come to power. The Nazi temperament, Böll is convinced, has always existed and probably always will exist in Germany or, for that matter, in any other society. Much more important than any dramatic resurrection of the historical events, therefore, is for Böll to understand why he and his family proved so strangely immune to this temperament’s attractions even before total power manifested its full savagery.

Böll, first of all, does not want to have his memoir misunderstood as the self-congratulatory account of a political wunderkind. Never did it occur to him to consider himself either better or more courageous than his classmates. Still, one thing was certain at all times: his unconquerable aversion for everything related to the Nazi mentality. The Third Reich had established itself when he was sick—Böll takes this coincidence quite seriously—and it continued to make him sick, physically sick, as long as it lasted. A chronic sinus infection, which Böll in retrospect feels justified to diagnose as politically induced, plagued him for years with bouts of nausea and disappeared rather miraculously only at the end of the war.

The reason for Böll’s allergic reaction to everything smacking of Nazi style is probably best summarized by another coincidence which Böll refuses to acknowledge as such, an incident which he considers important enough to serve as an appropriate preface for all of his subsequent recollections. His high school diploma, in Germany officially known as a certificate of maturity, listed his date of birth incorrectly, giving Böll sufficient excuse to wonder about the validity of the whole document and the maturity it was supposed to witness. Böll, who proudly insists that he refused to do his German duty by suffering in school, cannot disguise the delight and comfort he still takes from the fact that he had the good fortune to belong to a family in which the much-praised middle-class maturity was almost totally lacking. More than the terror and tedium of the times, Böll ultimately intends to revive the seemingly un-German charm of his family as an effective antidote against all Fascist temptations, as the nucleus of a saner, if not always sensible, social alternative.

It is not easy to describe this family, because what made it special was precisely the indefinable social situation in which it found itself. The Bölls were simply too poor to live according to the middle-class values which they might otherwise have been tempted to espouse. At the same time, they were much too Catholic and too independent—Böll’s father owned his own modest carpenter’s shop—to feel at home in the arms of the proletariat. Thus firmly, though by no means comfortably, planted between the classes and their respective ideologies, the Bölls adopted “that explosive mixture of petty-bourgeois vestiges, Bohemian traits, and proletarian pride, not truly belonging to any class, yet arrogant rather than humble, in other words almost ’class conscious’ again.” This odd, almost anarchic position between the classes also kept the Bölls from experiencing Hitler’s much-heralded economic recovery. Living on the edge of insolvency, if not poverty, certainly added to the gulf which they saw widening between themselves and the organized mania around them. Though desperate and depressed, they refused to buckle under, remaining reckless and often not a little hysterical in their demands on life, even if this meant inducing euphoria by popping Pervitin pills at six pfennig apiece. In the end, their economic difficulties did for them what the prosperity around them did not manage to achieve: “in some non-sensible way they made us sensible.”

As much as Böll acknowledges his personal history to be unrepresentative of the prevailing mood, he nevertheless believes it to be representative of a larger, often neglected German tradition, the culture of the Catholic Rhineland. Cologne had always remained deeply suspicious of the typically Prussian devotion to order at all cost and shared the Bölls’ Bohemian distrust of all secular or ecclesiastical authority. How formative the Rhenish tradition of anticlerical religiosity and antibourgeois humanism was for the young Böll is also emphasized by the fact that the most unsettling problems of these years did not arise from his stance toward the Nazis but from a conflict within his native culture, his antagonism toward the Catholic Church. In school, all of his rebelliousness was reserved for his teacher of religion, whose middle-class version of Christianity Böll found utterly offensive. It did not take him long to recognize that this bourgeois variety of the provincial Catholicism of Cologne had the least trouble accommodating itself to the unholy system it should have resisted. Nationally, this modus vivendi found its most preposterous slogan in a motto which suggested that one should join the Nazis in order to Christianize them from within; internationally it was sanctioned as early as 1933 by the Vatican’s willingness to conclude a Reich Concordat with Hitler. What could have provided a better object lesson for Böll’s suspicion of all organizations than the formation of such incongruous alignments? Böll, in the end, could be a Catholic only in the way in which he wanted to be a German: in a highly unorganized form which gave itself the right to fuse a spontaneous loyalty toward ideals with an equally spontaneous disloyalty toward all institutions claiming to be in their service.

What, then, did become of the boy? While Böll’s memoir concludes with his choosing an apprenticeship in a bookstore, the reader knows better. Something to do with books soon led to Böll’s writing them. What this memoir, however, tells, more directly and succinctly than anything Böll has written before, is why he became the writer he did and why, to his chagrin, his particular German identity still relegates him to the role of an unrepresentative representative in his own country and culture. The irony of history decided that other men from Cologne were to become postwar Germany’s new political and spiritual leaders. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, former mayor of Cologne, and Joseph Frings, Cardinal of Cologne and leader of Germany’s Catholic Church, set about reshaping the new Germany in the image of its quickly recouping, feisty middle class. As the odd man out from Cologne, Böll cannot resist needling the bourgeois mind of the now so perfectly democratic society of West Germany with calls for a less orderly, less prosperous yet more perceptive, more flexible, and more liberated social environment. Surreptitiously linking past and present, work and life, this volume, on closer inspection, must be viewed as an important document, not only because it gives access to an autobiographical validation of Böll’s social vision, but also because it witnesses his continuing insubordination to the representative Germany of his old age.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 77

Adams, Phoebe-Lou. Review in The Atlantic. CCLIV (November, 1984), p. 148.

Barnet, Andrea. Review in Saturday Review. X (November/December, 1984), p. 81.

Craig, Gordon A. “Childhood of a Social Critic,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX (October 7, 1984), p. 3.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, August 1, 1984, p. 722.

Lehman, David. “In the Shadow of the Nazis,” in Newsweek. CIV (October 15, 1984), p. 100.

Library Journal. CIX, September 15, 1984, p. 1751.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 25, 1984, p. 6.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, August 17, 1984, p. 49.

Washington Post. November 16, 1984, p. C3.

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