Heinrich Böll (1917-1985)

Heinrich Böll was one of the most prominent authors in West Germany. He was born in Cologne. His family were Roman Catholics and pacifists who opposed the rise of Nazism; Böll refused to join the Hitler Youth in the 1930s. He was conscripted and served in World War 2. He married Annemarie Cech in 1942 and became a writer in 1947. Many of his early short stories depict the desolation, deprivation and misery of the late 1940s, exemplifying the genre known as Trümmerliteratur (rubble literature). By the 1950s, Böll had become an incisive chronicler of West German society and its rapid economic growth. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972 for ‘his writing which through its combination of a broad perspective on his time and a sensitive skill in characterization has contributed to a renewal of German literature’.

Böll was a committed public intellectual. In 1968, during a meeting of the Christian Democratic party (CDU), a young woman, Beate Klarsfeld, slapped the face of the West German Chancellor, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a former Nazi who had been Hitler’s assistant director of foreign propaganda in France. Böll sent her fifty red roses to congratulate her (see article by David Mikics below). In 1972, he was involved in more controversy when he called for safe conduct for Ulrike Meinhof in an article in Der Spiegel news weekly. In consequence, Böll’s own house was searched by the police in June 1972. In the last years of his life, he supported the West German Green Party, which was founded in 1980.

Böll’s work focuses on the lives of ordinary working people, whose lives he depicts with great insight and humanity. His stories often criticise West Germany’s materialism and its inability to face up to the Nazi past.

His literary estate was stored in Cologne’s municipal archive, much of it was destroyed in 2009 when the building collapsed.

His works include:

Der Zug war pünktlich (1949); The Train was on Time

Das Brot der frühen Jahre (1955); The Bread of the Early Years

Billard um halb zehn (1959); Billiards at Half-past Nine

Ansichten eines Clowns (1963); The Clown

Gruppenbild mit Dame (1971); Group Portrait with Lady

Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (1974); The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum 

Further Reading in English

Michael Butler, The Narrative Fiction of Heinrich Böll: Social Conscience and Literary Achievement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Robert C. Conard, Understanding Heinrich Böll (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1992)

Frank Finlay, On the Rationality of Poetry: Heinrich Böll’s Aesthetic Thinking (Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1996)

Elisabeth Krimmer, The Representation of War in German Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), Chapter 9 on Böll

David Mikics, ‘A Slap in the Face’, Tablet, 20 March 2018

James H. Reid, Heinrich Böll: A German for His Time (Oxford: Berg, 1987)

Reinhard K. Zachau, Heinrich Böll: Forty Years of Criticism (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1994)

Web Link in English


Heinrich Böll Nobel Prize Lecture 1973

Web Link in German


Author website