Heinrich Böll

THE LAUREATE: Heinrich Böll was born in 1917 in Cologne and was wounded four times in World War II. He was, as one of the characters in The Casualty puts it, a child of both wars. He refused to join the Hitler Youth, and when the Nazi party took control of Cologne’s government, he felt like an exile in his own home. After the war, Böll became a full-time writer, one of many trying to help Germans get their lives together after they realized what they did. Böll died in 1985.

WHAT I’M READING: The Casualty, a collection of stories about Germans during and after World War II.

REVIEW: We Americans have a nasty tendency to think that our narratives are the only ones that matter. It’s why, for instance, we were totally baffled when 9/11 happened. Who would do this to us? (Spoiler: the orphaned kids whose fathers went through the meat grinder of the Iraq-Iran war so we could keep Saddam Hussein in power, stabilizing the region and keeping gas prices down.) Likewise, those of us born after World War 2 have been raised on stories about how the Germans were soulless killing machines. It’s part of America’s historical narrative: we swooped into Europe in the nick of time to save it from the grinding mechanism of the Nazi advance. Forget Russia, the real main front that left five million corpses on the ground. Forget Hitler’s incompetence and descent into madness. Forget our own questionable decisions (Japanese concentration camps, anyone?) And most importantly, forget that not all Germans were the same German, not all Nazis are the brutish caricature we’ve had beaten into us. A few years back, the National Holocaust Museum in DC had an exhibit of photos taken by soldiers on leave from Auschwitz. They have picnics, they play games, they dance with local girls. Mere miles away, their coworkers are shoveling corpses out of the showers and into the mass graves. Fortunately, The Casualty is not this. The soldiers are sick of fighting, fed up with the nonsense their commanding officers are spewing on them, tired of the hypocrisy they’re supporting. In one story, a pair of men are in a rainy trench and see their CO black-out drunk in his tent with the lamp on, so he cracks the tent open right before the Russian patrol bomber flies overhead. In another, a too-old-for-this-shit sentry tells a newcomer to calm down, then gets overrun by Russians because their drunkenness ruse was a distaction. The post-war stories are all about how hard it is to wake up and keep going after losing a war. A man travels to a strange town four years after the end to tell another man’s wife that he died, then leaves when he hears her having sex. In another, a German boy throws himself off a bridge when he loses his family’s ration cards, but an American saves him and is baffled by how hard the Germans have it.

RECOMENDED?: Absolutely. I’ll be reading more by him. You should too.

WHAT’S NEXT: Eyvind Johnson’s gritty reboot of The Odyssey. Aww yeah.


3 comments on “Heinrich Böll

  1. symuun says:

    You might like “Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum”. It’s about a hysterical press culture and a government obsessed with fighting terrorism. Not bad for 1974.

    • allthenobels says:

      It seems like that’s one of Boll’s themes, that the government is pretty much insane and we’re even worse for believing them.

      • symuun says:

        I think German literature in general has had an anti-authoritarian streak ever since about 1945. Go figure. But Boll is a definite figurehead. “Das Brot der fruhen Jahre” was my first ever set text at university, and I’m *told* there was a good reason for that. Not that I can give you a personal reason for that; if I actually did read it, I don’t remember anything about it.

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