Heinrich Böll (1917 – 1985) is not a name that non-German readers will associate with other 20th century German literary bigs: Franz Kafka¹, Bertold Brecht, Thomas Mann, Günter Grass. He was, however, one of the most widely known of the Gruppe 47 following WWII of which Grass and others, such as Wolfgang Borchert, Hans Werner Richter and Alfred Andersch were members. Böll won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972
Like others of his generation he was preoccupied with German experience of WWII, Nazism, and peoples complicity or resistance to it.
Most of Böll’s novels and short-stories are marvelous multi-windowed vantage points to see very normal people’s thoughts, emotions and behavior during and after a cataclysmic decade. Though soldiers figure in many of them, at the front, during bombardments and under machine gun fire, none are heroes, anxious to win glory or implausibly taking a hill. They smoke, they talk of home, they are spattered with comrade’s gore. Others are returned from the war, wounded, looking for work and hope, finding friendship or love almost by accident. Civilians also get much of his attention. With few exceptions, such as The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum, about tabloid reputation destruction (and which was made into a film of the same name) Boll concentrated on the Nazi years, the war and its aftermath.
Though many of his novels are translated and available to English readers, one good way to enter his work is through his short-stories.
Children are Civilians, Too is a 1995 re-issue of earlier translations by Leila Vennowitz, one of Boll’s favored translators. Of the twenty-six stories only one does not have reference to the war. Not surprisingly, it is the most amusing of all.
Böll himself, though coming from a Catholic, pacifist family and having refused to join the Hitler Youth in 1930, was conscripted and fought in the Wehrmacht, on the Eastern Front, which is to say Romania, Hungary and the Soviet Union. He was wounded four times (as well as contracting typhoid fever) before being captured by Americans in April 1945 and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.
We suspect so from his writing
“The Ration Runners” (1950 ) is about war, combat and the wounded, one of several about moving into the after-life. An arc of lights slowly falls. When the last one hits, nearby, an explosion:
“Part of the earth wall in front of our foxhole now rested on my head and shoulders, and the breath of the grenade sill smoldered in the black and silent air.”
After recovering and having a short a smoke with the man next to him, he is told:
“You’d better get going, and don’t forget to take him with you, he’s lying up there by the old Flak emplacement.” Then he added: “There’s only half of him, you know, in a groundsheet.”
We bent down, and [four] of us grasped a corner of the groundsheet; then the dispatch runner said: “Let’s go,” and we lifted the bundle and trudged off, toward the outskirts of the village…..
Every dead man is as heavy as the whole earth, but this half-a-dead-man was as heavy as the world. It was as if he had absorbed the sum of all the pain and all the burdens of the entire universe. We panted and groaned and, by tacit consent, set down our load after a couple of dozen yards.
…as we went on and on, always a dozen yards or so at a time lugging the burden of the world toward the outskirts of the village I almost lost consciousness under the impact of the appalling fear that flowed from that steadily growing bundle, and filled my veins like poison. I saw no more, I heard nothing and yet was aware of every detail of what happened…”
Several stories have wounded soldiers passing into the next world, a nurse holding an outstretched hand, a girl at the end of an avenue whose memory must not be spoken of. When the soldier can no longer not talk about her, and does, a grenade explodes in their trench. The two set off down the avenue to meet her.
Another soldier is on a few days leave. Almost wordlessly he accompanies a young woman to her bedroom. In the morning they wake. He has lost his pack.
“We walked down a silent street leading to a station. All streets lead to stations, and from stations you go off to war. … I shall never see her again. I have to catch that train, go off to that war … it is easier to be carrying nothing when you are once more walking slowly but unsteadily toward the edge of an abyss over which, at a given second, you are going to plunge down, down to where we shall meet again…”
In “My Expensive Leg,” Böll whets his knife of irony. A wounded man is offered a job shining shoes. He refuses, saying that he should get a full pension because of his disability. The interviewer calculates how much that would cost over his likely 40 years of life and tries to get him to realize that is very expensive for merely a leg. The man replies that, to the contrary, many, of high rank, were saved because, while lying there wounded, he passed the word and the others “all scrammed. The funny part is … they were in such a hurry they forgot to take me along.”
In one of the most telling, “Business is Business” begins
“My black marketeer is an honest citizen, these days….” “The terrible thing is I have no profession. For you have to have a profession. That’s what they tell you. There was a time when they used to say that was unnecessary, all we needed was soldiers. … They say you are lazy when you don’t have a profession. But that’s not so. I’m not lazy but the jobs they give me are jobs I don’t want to do. Clearing rubble and carrying rocks, and things like that…”
As so often, he turns up the irony in an image so unexpected and so immediate we are left gaping.
“…when they came home they got out of the war as if they were getting out of a streetcar that happened to slow down just where they lived, and they jumped off without paying the fare. They turned aside, went indoors, and lo and behold: the dresser was still standing, there was a little dust on the bookshelves, your wife had potatoes stored in the cellar, and some preserves; you embraced her a bit, as was right and proper, and next morning you went off to find out whether your job was still open: the job was still open. Everything was fine, your medical insurance was still okay, you had yourself denazified a bit–they way you go to a barber and get rid of that tiresome beard–you chatted about your decorations, wounds, acts of heroism, and came to the conclusion that you were a pretty fine fellow after all: you had simply done your duty. There were weekly streetcar passes again, the best sign that everything was back to normal.”
In a Kafka-like story, a man is arrested for not smiling, as that is the law, and concerned less he be thrown back into prison from which he was just released — for not smiling.
And for man, as here a sister, or a wife,
“Memory seemed to be lacerating her with a thousand swords. I knew then that the war would never be over, never, as long as somewhere a wound it had inflicted was still bleeding.”
Along with the vast corpus of novels, journals, memoirs and history about the glory and the sacrifice war is another, not so well-known, in which courage is not the terror-courage of taking a hill, or standing up under fire, but the quiet, enduring courage of facing tomorrow, without an arm, without a job, without a help-mate. The super-saturated comradeship of men in the company of death returns to the monthly and yearly ties of long-enduring, often tested, friendship. Böll is one of the masters of this genre, and well worth the time spent with him. If more would, more would understand where the pre-war cheering always leads.
(1) Kafka — by language, not nationality which was Austro-Hungarian-Prague (Czech)-Jewish