Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum; The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1974)
Oder: Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie führen kann
Or How violence develops and where it can lead
This short novel tells the story of a 27-year old working class woman, Katharina Blum, who becomes criminalised as a result of slander and persecution by the media. The title of the book alludes to Schiller’s short story Der Verbrecher aus verlorener Ehre; The Criminal of Lost Honour (1792). Indirectly, the book comments on the moral panic about left-wing extremism in West Germany in the early 1970s.
Katharina Blum works in the catering industry, and as a housekeeper for the successful lawyer Hubert Blorna and his wife Trude. Everyone who knows Katharina is impressed by her honesty, loyalty and moral integrity. One night during the carnival season, she goes to a party hosted by her godmother Else Woltersheim. At the party, she meets a stranger, Ludwig Götten, and takes him back to her apartment, where he explains that he is a deserter from the Bundeswehr, and that he is wanted by the police. Katharina helps Götten to escape by directing him to a secret passageway that she was shown by Trude Blorna, who works for the architectural company who designed her apartment block. The police and the media suspect her of belonging to a terrorist organisation, although there is absolutely no evidence to support this.
In chapter 18 Katharina struggles to correct inaccuracies in the transcript of her police interrogration. Details are leaked to the press and she becomes the target of a witch hunt by a tabloid newspaper, the ‘ZEITUNG’ (a reference to Axel Springer’s ‘Bild’-Zeitung).
Over the next four days, the journalist Werner Tötges publishes a series of slanderous, defamatory articles about Katharina based on inaccuracies and lies, thus destroying her reputation (on which her trade as a caterer and a housekeeper depends). Worse still, he ambushes Katharina’s mother who is in hospital undergoing treatment for cancer. Despite the chief doctor telling him that an interview is out of the question because the patient must have rest, Tötges disguises himself (or claims to have disguised himself) as a painter to gain access to the mother. Shortly after the interview, Katharina’s mother dies, and it seems likely that her death was hastened by the journalist’s intrusion.
Katharina offers Tötges an exclusive interview in her apartment, but she is armed with a pistol that she stole from her godmother’s boyfriend Konrad Beiters. Ironically, because Beiters is a former Nazi, he is not suspected by the police who are only searching for left-wingers (p. 133). Tötges shows up for the interview. Immediately he starts grabbing her clothes and trying to seduce her. She shoots him. Götten is also arrested and it is expected that both of them will serve eight to ten years in prison.
In an essay ‘Zehn Jahre später’ (Ten Years Later) published in 1984, Böll points out that the novel is not about terrorism at all, but about someone who is wrongly accused of terrorism. Böll describes the book as a ‘pamphlet’ or polemic, intended to criticise the negative influence of the Bild newspaper: ‘Inzwischen ist die Bild-Zeitung ja fast schon das regierungsamtliche Blatt’ (‘By now it has almost become the offical mouthpiece of the government’, p. 146).
Böll’s text portrays a web of complicity between police, politicians, industrialists and the media, showing police surveillance and phone tapping, policemen who leak details to the press, and rich businessmen (Lüding, Sträubleder) who use their connections to steer press reports. Both the prosecuting lawyer, Hach, and the defence lawyer, Blorna, are attracted to Katharina, and it seems very likely that Hach made sexual advances to her in the past. In this way, the judicial process against Katharina is controlled by men who are biased against her (except for Blorna, who is made to suffer for his loyalty towards Katharina).
Katharina is depicted as a woman who has escaped an unhappy marriage and who has worked hard to gain her own financial independence. It was particularly important for her to buy her own car, to avoid sexual advances from her employers’ friends (such as Hach) when they drive her home. In this way, the text eloquently exposes some of the sexual and political injustices of 1970s West Germany.
Heinrich Böll, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, trans. by Leila Vennewitz (London: Secker & Warburg, 1975)
Further Reading in English
Charlotte Armster, ‘Katharina Blum: Violence and the Exploitation of Sexuality’, Women in German Yearbook 4 (1988), 83-95
Donal McLaughlin, Heinrich Böll: Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 1988)
Thomas Meaney, ‘Bild, Merkel and the culture wars: the inside story of Germany’s biggest tabloid’, The Guardian, 16 July 2020
Jack Zipes, ‘The Political Dimensions of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum’, New German Critique 12 (Autumn 1977), 75-84