Authors: Heinrich Boll
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs
became the first German to win the Nobel Prize for literature since Thomas Mann in 1929. Born in Cologne, in 1917, Böll was reared in a liberal Catholic, pacifist family. Drafted into the Wehrmacht, he served on the Russian and French fronts and was wounded four times before he found himself in an American prison camp. After the war he enrolled at the University of Cologne, but dropped out to write about his shattering experiences as a soldier. His first novel,
The Train Was on Time
, was published in 1949, and he went on to become one of the most prolific and important of post-war German writers. His best-known novels include
Billiards at Half-Past Nine
Group Portrait with Lady
The Safety Net
(1979). Böll served for several years as the president of International P.E.N. and was a leading defender of the intellectual freedom of writers throughout the world. He died in June 1985.
is a columnist for the
, and the author of several books, including
Gulag: A History
, which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction as well as other awards. She has worked as the foreign and deputy editor of the
(London), as the Warsaw correspondent for the
, as well as for several British newspapers. Her work has also appeared in the
New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs
, and the
Wall Street Journal
, among many other publications.
The Safety Net
Billiards at Half-Past Nine
The Train Was on Time
Group Portrait with Lady
What’s to Become of the Boy? Or:
Something to Do with Books—A Memoir
The Collected Stories of Heinrich Böll
My warm thanks to my husband, William,
whose skill, knowledge, and patience have
contributed so much to this translation.
What’s to Become of the Boy?
Originally published in German as
Was soll aus dem
Jungen bloss werden?
by Lamuv Verlag, Bornheim 1981
Copyright © Lamuv Verlag GmbH., 1981
Copyright © Heinrich Böll and Leila Vennewitz, 1984
Introduction © Anne Applebaum, 2011
All rights reserved
First Melville House printing: October 2011
Melville House Publishing
145 Plymouth Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress.
by Anne Applebaum
This is a memoir of Heinrich Böll’s school years. Or rather, it is a memoir of the years 1933 to 1937, when the Nazi party was consolidating its grip on power in Germany, civil society was being dismantled, mass arrests were devastating the political class and, aside from all that, Heinrich Böll went to school in Cologne. “School? Oh yes, that too,” he writes at one point, before addressing another subject. “Yes, school—I assure you I’ll get back to that,” he adds later, before delving once again into stories of how his anti-Nazi family learned to live under Nazi rule.
This is not, in other words, a traditional German
, a memoir of childhood and youth. Though Böll makes glancing references to the bullies, girlfriends, eccentric teachers and other characters of the sort who usually loom large in recollections of adolescence, they are not his central focus. And when he does bring them up, they are inevitably colored by the historical moment. The child Böll dislikes is the one who joins the SS. The teacher he admires is the one who asks his pupils to correct the grammar in
—a task implicitly insulting to the author of
. In his Latin class he is captivated by the work of Juvenal, because his descriptions of “arbitrariness, despotism, depravity, corruption of political mores, the decline of the Republican idea” carry echoes of the world around him.
But the real drama of this autobiography lies not in school but elsewhere, in the story of how Böll, his parents and his siblings coped with the rise of a totalitarian regime. His parents were liberal Catholics. His mother hated Hitler from the beginning, and referred to him as “turniphead.” His father was a pacifist who had dodged Verdun by simulating an attack of appendicitis on the eve of the battle. Böll exempted himself from the Hitler Youth, and had to come to school every Saturday to carry out community service instead. He never asked the other boys what happened at the rallies he didn’t attend, because, he writes, he was too scared. He dealt with the political pressures of school by frequently playing truant. He wandered the streets of Cologne all day, with the tacit approval of his mother, who understood perfectly why he needed relief from school.
Böll’s family were not Nazis, but they were not heroes or resistance fighters, or even especially brave or defiant. In Hitler’s Germany, this middle line between collaboration and resistance was not so easy for ordinary people to walk. For refusing to join the regime, the family paid a high price, living at the edge of poverty, counting pennies and arguing over whether a pair of stockings could be considered a legitimate expense. But “material survival took priority over political survival,” and his parents went to great lengths to make sure the family could eat.
The family also knew its collective lack of enthusiasm was dangerous, particularly for Böll’s father, whose business—he was a cabinetmaker and sculptor—depended on government contracts. Feeling that at least one of them ought to toe the line, his parents appointed Böll’s brother Alois to join the Storm Troopers. Alois resented this for the rest of his life. “He suffered, he really suffered from those mob parades and route marches,” writes Böll, who once slipped Alois’s platoon leader a pack of cigarettes to persuade him to overlook his brother’s frequent absences.
These kinds of reluctant compromises were surely made by many Germans living under Hitler, far more than we usually assume. In most totalitarian societies, a small portion of people are enthusiastic fanatics, a small portion are brave opponents, and the vast majority want to make sure their children eat dinner every day and graduate from high school. Nazi Germany was no different. Quiet displays of Catholic faith were the only public form of rebellion the Böll family permitted themselves: “We ostentatiously took part in the penitent pilgrimages of the men of Cologne,” Böll writes, “tolerated by the Nazis and watched by informers.” In private, they cursed Hitler and his thuggish friends with what Böll describes as “arrogance,” mocking them and telling jokes.
What’s to Become of the Boy
ends when Böll finishes school—at last—on the eve of the outbreak of war. Afterwards, he went to work at a bookstore, but not for long. He was soon drafted, and spent six miserable years in the Wehrmacht before deserting in 1945. His first novel drew heavily on these military experiences, and won him instant fame. From the 1950s onwards, Böll was known as a writer of “Trümmerliteratur”—the “literature of the rubble”—because his writing focused on the war, the aftermath of the war, and the impact of the war on German society and the German psyche. In his lifetime, he was one of the most famous advocates of
, an ubiquitous German word which, roughly translated, means “coming to terms with the past.”
Yet this short description of the years preceding the war also contains many of the themes which Böll would explore in his later novels. The hypocrisy of public life, as opposed to the authenticity of private life; the stupidity of mobs, and of bureaucrats; even Böll’s dislike of the excesses of capitalism is evident here, in his almost nostalgic portrayal of the joys of life without money. His occasionally sanctimonious vision of himself as an “outsider,” someone who never fit into ordinary German life—whether Nazi Germany or postwar bourgeois Germany—is evident here too. So is his elegant, crisp and authoritative literary style.
In other words,
What’s to Become of the Boy
makes an ideal short introduction to Böll, the writer, as well as to Böll, the person. At the same time, it offers an unusual perspective on Hitler’s ascent to power: the rise of totalitarianism and the stultification of civil society, as seen through the eyes of a teenage boy.
WHAT’S TO BECOME OF THE BOY?
For Samay, Sara, and Boris
On January 30, 1933, I was fifteen years and six weeks old, and almost exactly four years later, on February 6, 1937, when I was nineteen years and seven weeks old, I graduated from high school with a “Certificate of Maturity.” This certificate contains two errors: my date of birth is incorrect, and my choice of career—“book trade”—was altered by the school principal, without consulting me, to “publishing,” I have no idea why. These two errors, which I cherish, justify me in regarding all the other particulars, including my grades, with some skepticism.
I didn’t discover either of these errors until two years later, when, as the 1939 university summer term was about to begin, I looked at the certificate before handing it in to the University of Cologne and discovered the incorrect birth date. It would never have occurred to me to have an error of that kind in such a solemn official document corrected: that error permits me to entertain a certain doubt as to whether I am really the person who is certified thereon as mature. Might the document refer to someone else? If so, to whom? This little game also allows me to consider the possibility that the entire document may be invalid.
There are a few further points that I must clarify. If it should be regarded as mandatory for German authors
to have “suffered” under the school system, I must once again appear to have failed in my duty. Of course I suffered (do I hear a voice: “Who, old or young, does not suffer”?), but not in school. I maintain that I never let things get that far. I dealt with each problem as it arose, as I so often did in later life, aware of the implications. How, is something I shall explain later. I did find the transition from elementary to high school briefly painful, but I was ten at the time, so this is not relevant to the period I wish to describe. I was sometimes bored in school, annoyed, chiefly by our religion teacher (and he, of course by me: such comments are to be interpreted bilaterally), but did I “suffer”? No. Further clarification: my unconquerable (and still unconquered) aversion to the Nazis was not revolt:
, repelled me on every level of my existence: conscious
political. To this day I have been unable to find any entertaining, let alone aesthetic, dimension to the Nazis and their era, a fact that makes me shudder when I see certain film and stage productions. I simply
join the Hitler Youth, I did not join it, and that was that.
A further clarification (there is yet another to come!): justifiable mistrust of my memory. All this happened forty-eight to forty-four years ago, and I have no notes or jottings to resort to; they were burned or blown to bits in an attic of 17 Karolinger-Ring in Cologne. Moreover, I am no longer sure of how some of my personal experiences synchronize with historical events. For example, I would have bet almost anything that it was in the fall of 1934 that Göring, in his capacity as Prime Minister of
Prussia, caused seven young Communists of Cologne to be beheaded with an ax. I would have lost that bet: it was the fall of 1933. And my memory doesn’t betray me when I recall that one morning a schoolmate of mine, a member of the black-uniformed S.S., exhausted yet with the hectic light of the chase still in his eyes, told me they had spent the night scouring the villas of Godesberg for the former cabinet minister Treviranus. Thank God (as I, not he, thought) without success. But when, to make quite sure, I proceed to look it up, I find that Treviranus had already emigrated by 1933; in 1933, the minimum age for membership in the S.S. was eighteen, though we were only sixteen then; thus, this memory cannot be placed earlier than 1935 or 1936. In other words, either Treviranus must have reentered the German Reich illegally in 1935 or 1936, or the S.S. must have been fed wrong information. The story itself—that strange blend of exhaustion and eyes shining with the light of the chase—I can vouch for, but I cannot place it.