Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis

The conscience of a nation: Heinrich Boll

Michael Butler

Die Fahigkeit zu trauern: Schriften und Reden
1983-1985 318 pp.3 88977 0614. DM 29.80.
Heinrich Boll: Eine Biographie
288 pp. 3 88977 103 3. DM 29.80.
Bornheim-Merten: Lamuv.

Born in Wilhelmine Germany, growing up in the Weimar Republic, schooled in the Third Reich and surviving to become the Federal Republic's most relentless critic, Heinrich Boll's life can be seen as a paradigm of the bleak history of twentieth-century Germany.

The final collection of speeches and essays from the last two years of his life reveals an undiminished vigour, an appetite for polemic and a concern for his country and its future. Although he hated the label, Boll functioned as "the conscience of the nation" in that he persistently attacked public hypocrisy and his fellow countrymen's propensity for selective amnesia about the past. "An individual, a society without memory is a sick individual, a sick society", he comments.

Boll's unwelcome reminders of darker continuities were closely associated with his sympathy for contemporary victims: political refugees, the unemployed, dissidents and nonconformists of all kinds. His final writings, gathered in Die Fahigkeit zu trauern, are full of a sense of moral outrage and a humane scepticism towards authority which characterized his work from its beginnings in the immediate post-war years.

Gabriele Hoffmann's biography provides a useful companion volume to these occasional pieces. First published in 1977, it has now been brought up to date at the invitation of Lamuv Verlag, the publishing house founded by Boll's son Rene. The strength of the book lies in its sobriety of tone and uncluttered language. Hoffmann allows the facts to speak for themselves and offers little interpretation of the work itself, Although she had access to private papers, she is, however, oddly reticent abouther subject. She is able to throw light on numerous biographical details which have been woven into Boll's fiction, but the writer himself remains mysteriously vague. Nevertheless, Hoffmann succeeds in bringing out Boll's central concern the abject failure of State, Church and Home to protect the individual against the evil of Fascism.

The continual need to defend the individual and the family fired both Boll's creative energy and his trenchant criticism of politicians and journalists who seemed to care for neither. His solidarity with the young and the disadvantaged, his refusal to indulge in cold-war politics and his more recent presence at mass demonstrations in the Federal Republic against nuclear weapons brought him much public ridicule and detestation. The award of the Nobel Prize in 1972 was greeted in some quarters with undisguised dismay, and as recently as 1983 Boll was invited by the Kulturminister of Baden-Wurttemberg to consider emigration.

Hoffmann delineates this outward structure with careful honesty, but her method does not allow her to penetrate the complexities of this extraordinary man. However, we are given a glimpse of the intensely private individual behind the public person through the inclusion of a small selection of letters, dating mainly from the war years when Boll was shipped all over Europe as a hapless private in Hitler's Wehrmacht. These letters home to his mother and wife hint at a dark melancholy which is rarely encountered so directly in the writer's subsequent fiction. The loss of personality under barrack-room pressure, the conscript's hatred of an obtuse and arrogant authority, the fear and boredom of modern warfare all emerge surprisingly clearly, in view of military censorship. Only religious faith and love of family sustained him through such organized idiocy.

Since Heinrich Boll's death in 1985, seven schools and one of the finest squares in his native city of Cologne have been named after him. Yet there can have been few writers who have attracted in their lifetime more general odium. To explain this intriguing paradox would tax the combined ingenuity of the politicians.and other myth-makers assiduously contributing to the current junketings in Berlin.

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