Heinrich Böll's career is, in its way, a German literary miracle. A novelist whose his chief novels include Bogner, Go Home, Children of the Dead, Where Were You, Adam?, and The Two Sacraments, is located in a very circumscribed area around Cologne. Yet, he is the most translated (into more than 20 languages), the most widely read, in the West as in the East (his USSR sales exceed a million) of any contemporary German. Obsessed by a single theme, the German problem, he is the first writer from his country since Thomas Mann in 1929 to have received one year ago, the highest international literary distinction—the Nobel Prize.
In 1974, reinforcing Jean-Paul Sartre in the international positions he took (and with his intervention in favor of Soviet intellectuals), Heinrich Böll personified a new conception of the committed writer, "Made in Germany." On the eve of giving up the international presidency of P.E.N. in order to devote himself once more entirely to his writing, Heinrich Böll discussed this new conception with Jean-Louis de Rambures.
Heinrich Böll: "The successor of Jean-Paul Sartre." You forget one thing. I didn't, I haven't refused the Nobel Prize. On the contrary, I am more delighted with every day that passes to have received it. Why? Oh, not from personal vanity. Simply because I am German.
There are certain things the French can permit themselves because they are a trifle spoiled. We can't. Whatever have been our past mistakes, we have never been spoiled. A French intellectual who commits himself has a long humanist tradition to lean upon. When we commit ourselves, there is always an underlying hidden fear; the fear of those who know how things can change from one day to another.
Jean-Louis de Rambures: Many of your compatriots pretend they didn't know what really went on during the Third Reich. Did you, Heinrich Böll, know?
HB: Let us understand one another. Not to see that Nazism was a terrorist regime, one would have had to be blind. What, on the other hand, I did not know was the systematic and bureaucratic elimination of millions of human beings, as practiced by the Third Reich. Apparently Albert Speer himself was completely unaware of this. It may seem crazy. But this is a fact, and will doubtless always remain inexplicable. Just once, however, I came near the truth. It was during a train journey. I was returning from the East, on leave. In the middle of the night our train stopped in a small unknown German railroad station. Suddenly, I saw an immense flock of shaved creatures invading the platform. A few raised their emaciated arms toward us travelers. We threw them bread and cigarettes out of the carriage windows. It was hallucinating. But I had no idea that this was genocide. It was only later, after the war, that I brought the two facts together; the little railroad station was Buchenwald.
JLR: Throughout your whole work, in all your characters, culpability returns as a leitmotif. Have you, yourself, felt guilty?
HB: I don't believe that an individual can be guilty just because he is born in one place rather than another. But neither is he for that reason innocent. That's the rub. Neither innocent, nor guilty, that's what we all are. The hardest thing for a German is to accept himself as such. By a wholly Germanic dialectic, it was by discovering what a malediction the fact of being German constitutes that I first became aware of belonging to this people. Let me explain. Until 1933, the question of my nationality had never bothered me. During the Third Reich, being against the regime, I did not feel myself concerned by the obligation imposed upon us to feel we were German.
It was in 1945, while I was a prisoner that a relationship, which I would say was quasi-metaphysical, was born in me vis-a-vis this people, which had been, as it were, foreign to me until then. Wherever we traveled, as prisoners, in France, in Belgium, the inhabitants spat in our faces, threw stones at us. Simply because we were Germans. This explosion of collective hate was an unforgettable lesson: because Germany was despised, I suddenly became aware that for nothing on earth would I have refused to be a part of it.
JLR: Did this traumatization play any part in your literary commitment?
HB: What is a committed writer? I don't much care for that qualification, which sounds as though one were carrying a flag. You have in France the expression "a man of letters." I much prefer that. That is the way I commit myself.
In its rhetoric and its formality, the French language constitutes a prop to thought. We German writers, we have every time to explore the territory before we set foot on it. That stems, above all, from the tabula rasa created by the Third Reich. It annihilated all our connections with tradition or with the natural and social environment. For authors of an earlier generation, Ernst Jünger or Friedrich Sieburg, there was always some way of finding in the depths of their libraries the forbidden authors. We often were even unaware of their names. Kafka, I discovered in 1946. Herman Hesse, Erich Kastner vaguely reminded me of something. Thomas Mann? I only knew Buddenbrooks, and that by chance. In short, then, in an extraordinary spirit of rediscovered liberty, Germany took up writing again. (Between 1945 and 1947 I published, I think, sixty stories in ten different magazines.) It had to start again from zero. Our new literature has dismissed what hitherto had been considered the very essence of Germany—interiority.
JLR: lf one can believe Ernst Jünger, by rejecting interiority, this new literature thereby lost some part of its soul?
HB: It was a necessary evolution. By dint of interiorization, we ended by giving up any capacity for political, social, or economic analysis. If Hitler was able to impose himself, it was owing to our habit of conceiving of history as an ineluctable fatality. I myself also had to make an effort to rid myself of this German distemper. Alas, we haven't come to the end of our capacity for interiorization. After 1945 this made us miss, I am quite sure, one of the greatest chances our history offered us. You must think back to what the situation of Germany was at that time: in a metropolis like Cologne, every inhabitant had become in fact a robber, in order to avoid dying of hunger or cold. In this immense indifference to private property, there was a nihilistic component which only needed to be mobilized.
JLR: The sociologist Alexander Mitscherlich considers that the Germans threw themselves desperately into the "economic miracle" to escape the unbearable idea of their culpability.
HB: That may have played a part. But for myself I am sure that the Germans (insofar as one can generalize) suffer from a fundamental trauma in the face of life. (Two total inflations one after another are enough to traumatize.) It is there that the real reason for our maniacal attachment to property must be looked for. Our irrational fear of Communism—oh, note well, not of Communism as a political system or a spiritual force, but only of Communism as an eventual menace to private property—this is the fear of a people that has always been poor throughout its history. Now that it possesses for the first time, it intends to profit from its goods without being bothered. It is a very human attitude.
What, on the other hand, I find unforgivable is the policy of the Christian Democrats for twenty years to feed this ambiant (surrounding) materialism and Adenauer's role in this. Was Adenauer particularly materialistic? I don't even think he was. But besides his fundamental dislike for human beings, he had also a bourgeois (in the bad sense of the word) mistrust of everything even faintly spiritual, critical, or merely intellectual. But perhaps one must be a German to understand the resistance of the intellectuals in the Federal Republic to the Christian Democrats in general and to Adenauer in particular. Your de Gaulle is no comparison. His action stemmed from a whole spiritual national tradition. We have nothing of the sort. That is why Adenauer was able to contribute to spreading materialism like a contagious sickness.
JLR: What surprising words in the mouth of a Catholic author!
HB: A Catholic writer? I challenge you to define such a creature! Materially speaking, I am made of Catholic stuff, like the potatoes that grow around Cologne. But that has only a purely sociological interest. That is to say: if it is already not easy for a German to be an intellectual, it is twice as uncomfortable for him also to be a Catholic. Here again France, a lay, perhaps even an atheist, country, but with a Catholic background, has an advantage over us. In Germany, where Catholics and Protestants are about equal in numbers, everyone resents his religion as a fate. If we have no specifically Catholic literature (except by converts like Gertrud von Le Fort) it is doubtless because, until 1945, the Catholic milieu was a major obstacle to any literary vocation. You must realize that my grandmother, and even my mother, would have made three signs of the cross over themselves at the very idea of having a novel of Zola's in their library! That's the background from which I come: one that had practically not changed since Bismarck's kulturkampf. No wonder that, to begin with, I envied the freedom of expression of your Péguy or Bernanos. Because I was Catholic, I suffered, even with my very first novel, terrible tensions and difficulties with the hierarchy (I never let myself be scared by those idiots) and also with my family, which often thought my attitude incomprehensible. Today, I have liberated myself. The militant consequences of the Reformation are, anyway, now beginning to fade. But, even there, I'm afraid our Catholic renaissance is limited to literature.
JLR: Do you still regard yourself as a Catholic?
HB: Fiscally, yes. The Vicar-General of the Diocese of Cologne has just reminded me of this by sending me a bill for my "Church tax." So that's how I have become baptized for a second time. It's a negative definition. But my beliefs (let's say I still believe in many things) are no one's business but my own. In fact, my problem is not religious, but political. You know there are two definitions of the Church: on the one hand, the institution (which I detest because of its tie-up with the bourgeoisie) and, on the other hand, the Mystical Body. I refuse to play the game of eternally justifying the first by invoking the second. Why then have I not left the bosom of the Church? That's a problem my wife and I often discuss. Perhaps, quite simply, because Catholicism was the major influence of my childhood. But when, for example, I hear that the Cardinal of Santiago participated in a Te Deum for the Chile putsch, I find that unbearable. I cannot, in fact, tell you how much longer I will remain a Catholic.
JLR: ln any case, you are a moralist. You have even been called "the conscience of the nation."
HB: What a horrible definition, so characteristic of German idealism! I do not consider myself the least bit as a moralist, but as a player. Essentially it is the game with forms, with personages, with situations, that pleases me in writing. I have a horror of didactic literature. If I appear to be a moralist, it is completely unconsciously. Perhaps it is because the Nazi terror has traumatized me so I instinctively avoid any description of violent scenes. But from this to call me the conscience of a nation! Germany has 62,000,000 inhabitants. To discover its conscience, one would need a computer as big as Cologne.
Believe me, what characterizes our postwar literary generation is the very simple fact that we intellectuals refuse to see ourselves as marked men. We are citizens of the German Federal Republic like everyone else. We have something to say, and the chance to be heard. This is an advantage of which we make use every time we consider it necessary.
[For more interviews from Commonweal, see our full list.]
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