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The German Friend

Gisela Holfter

German writer Heinrich Böll was born in December 1917, one hundred years ago. Such anniversaries are a popular time to take stock, but not always the best way to gauge the ongoing impact and legacy of a writer. Likewise, to ask questions ‑ such as what would Böll have thought about reunification (which happened four years after his death), the Greens in government or even Trump and Brexit does not take us very far: we will never know. We do know of course what Böll thought about events and institutions during his lifetime; in fact he declared to be himself “passionately of his time”.

Given that he has been dead for more than thirty years one might suspect that he is now forgotten or has largely lost any significance for us today. But is that so? Which aspects of his work could have a particular relevance today, and which have never really been acknowledged? How can we understand and approach the person, the writer and the public figure? Böll’s apparent multiple personas have often been perceived very differently in Germany and internationally. For many people outside his home country he embodied “the other Germany”, the one that people could trust again after fascism. He was an author for whom morality and aesthetics went together. German critics on the other hand at times dismissed his writing as political literature – and parts of the conservative media opened a witch-hunt against him when he attempted to bestow a sense of proportion to sensitive discussions on terrorism and war. As a Nobel Prize winner in literature, one of the key writers in German of the second half of the twentieth century, his name is still widely known ‑ but who was he and where did he come from? And what about his special relationship with Ireland?

I would argue Böll was a writer, first and foremost a writer. The urge to write was there early. Reading – and the influences of other writing – came even before that. In Böll’s case, his first reading experiences consisted of Irish fairy tales and later Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Both left traces in his unpublished writing from before the war. He also enjoyed Sean O’Faoláin and Frank O’Connor, Liam O’Flaherty and William Butler Yeats, and later, Flann O’Brien, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett among others. He reviewed or wrote about Brendan Behan, Francis Stuart, Sean O’Casey and John Millington Synge. And on his first trip to Ireland he took along Joyce’s Ulysses, using it as a structure for his own seminal writing about Ireland, the Irish Journal – an influence discovered only decades later.

The relationship with Ireland was also built on the experiences of his wife Annemarie Böll from early on. She is often forgotten, but especially in the context of Böll’s relationship with Ireland, her role is crucial (and not only there – she was also the first reader of all his works and helped with editing) and merits more recognition than is usually given. Annemarie Čech was born in 1910 in Pilsen, Bohemia, now Plzeň in the Czech Republic, and for the first few years of her life she spoke both German and Czech equally well. After the early death of her parents she moved to Cologne and was brought up by her grandparents. She studied German and English literature and trained to become a teacher. Having met Böll’s older sister during her studies she become a member of the circle of friends of the Böll family in 1933. In 1935 she went to England as an au pair at an English boarding school, run by a Catholic order and with a number of nuns and teachers hailing from Ireland, one of them becoming a lifelong friend of the Böll family (and more than likely an inspiration for the figure of Leen in Böll’s 1954 novel Haus ohne Hüter (translated in 1957 as Tomorrow and Yesterday) which predated Böll’s first trip to Ireland). Annemarie and Heinrich got married during the war, in March 1942. After the war, it was Annemarie who earned the family income as a teacher, letting Heinrich focus on writing and developing his literary career. This undertaking advanced considerably in 1951 when he was awarded the annual prize of the influential group of contemporary German authors Gruppe 47, both an acknowledgement of his writing and of great importance for his national profile. But apart from his own writing, he also worked together with Annemarie (who did the lion’s share) on translations.

As Böll acknowledged in his Frankfurt lectures, he realised “that the German literature of the postwar period in its entirety is a literature in search of a language, and then I knew why I often prefer to translate than to write myself: to carry something from foreign terrain into the territory of one’s own language is a way of finding ground under one’s feet”. Accordingly, it can be argued that the basis of his own writing was once again created to a large extent by Irish literature as the Bölls can be counted among the key translators of Irish authors. They introduced or reacquainted German readers to the works of Flann O’Brien, Tomás O’Crohan, James Plunkett and John Millington Synge and half a dozen or more books by Brendan Behan, Eilís Dillon and George Bernard Shaw. Altogether, the translation of Irish literature accounted for approximately one third of the Bölls’ translation work, which encompassed some seventy books.

Apart from his early love of literature, Böll’s religious background and his experiences in the war fundamentally shaped the man and his writing. The Böll family was Catholic and, they believed, had originally hailed from England, leaving in the sixteenth century in order to keep their religion. Deep belief was coupled with charity for those in need, even if the close-knit family suffered themselves during and after the Great Depression. There was also a critical  perspective on clericalism and pompous church institutions. This is already obvious in many of Böll’s early texts, where the marginalised, such as the poor and prostitutes, are centre-staged and double standards exposed. The critical engagement with the Catholic church and clericalism remained a feature throughout his life and culminated in the Bölls’ decision to leave the church in 1976, in a stand against the German system of state collection of taxes on behalf of the churches, in their eyes an intolerable combination of faith and money.

Scepticism towards authority and power was also confirmed in the political sphere when Hitler came to power. Böll was drafted into the army as soon as the war broke out in 1939. He experienced war as a terrible waste. His six-year encounter with savagery, boredom and death left a lifelong mark on his literary oeuvre, which was an ongoing contribution to the memory of war and inhumanity – and of too little resistance. He became a writer passionately of his time, keenly engaged in contemporary socio-political and religious topics, practising and encouraging confrontation with injustice. In this regard, Böll saw himself in the tradition of the universal intellectual who uses his medium, language, to openly critique the misuse of power. At the same time, his works had to be – above all – pieces of art. There was no contradiction for him in this: he spoke of the aesthetics of humanity. Likewise, fact and fiction were not opposites for him; he claimed early on in his writing career that one needed imagination to understand reality, and neither were sense and sensibility separable. What fascinated him were the in-between spaces, the “rest of unpredictability” that could be found in the most rational and calculated of places such as bridge building and bread baking. He explored these spaces not only in short stories, novels and political essays, for which he is mostly known, but also in satires, radio plays, poems and reviews. He engaged in political discourse, with newspaper articles and speeches – and did not shy away from taking up positions like the presidency of the writers group German PEN, and later of International PEN. Again and again, he spoke up against discrimination and abuse of human rights, predominantly in Germany but increasingly internationally too. This role derived from his unique standing internationally among German writers after the Second World War. Crucially though, his status was achieved through his literary works (which were honoured with the Nobel Prize for literature in 1972).

This year a number of anniversary activities are taking place across Germany and specifically in Cologne, the city where Böll grew up and where he was based for most of his life. “Einmischung erwünscht” (interference/engagement desired) was the title of a Berlin event of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, aligned to the German Green party, held in June this year, commemorating the man whose name their foundation carries. Organised especially for the students and alumni who had been awarded scholarships of the foundation (in all disciplines ‑ interestingly only very few in literary studies) there was huge interest in both the writer and person of Heinrich Böll. To my surprise, no one there seemed to have read Böll in school (which was obligatory in my generation) but despite this (or possibly because of this?) they were greatly interested in his writing. In fact, two scholarship holders there, studying law and science respectively, proudly presented a self-selected collection of his writing, a project started years previously and not with an eye to his anniversary. Alumni in their mid- to late twenties who had become artists and journalists expressed how inspired they were by Böll and his works. Not entirely surprising, you might say – look where this took place! But the Böll Foundation, it has to be said, pays surprisingly little attention to either the man or the writer, seeing itself first and foremost as the Greens’ political foundation. Its website betrays not the slightest trace of Böll, apart from the name. Its programme – apart from in this anniversary year – is resolutely based on ecological, political and human rights questions (in fairness, topics which were also of interest to Heinrich Böll – though his writing, as art, always remained his core interest).

In contrast to the once-off events in Germany, in Ireland there has been a long tradition of annual Heinrich Böll weekends on Achill Island, normally during the first long weekend in May. The eclectic mix of events at these weekends goes beyond focusing only on Heinrich Böll, though literary contributions in the form of readings, lectures and writing workshops by Irish, German and international writers are core aspects every year. But added to that is a wonderful mixture of guided archaeological walks, art exhibitions, music and engagement with local topics such as the Achill Mission or male and female artists connected to Achill. It is a very special event in beautiful surroundings, with local people at its heart, which speaks volumes – both about the writer and the people behind it on Achill. The cottage that the Böll family bought in Dugort in 1958 continues to be used as a popular artists’ retreat where two-week residencies can be enjoyed by writers or artists lucky enough to be selected. The scheme is funded through revenue grants on an annual basis from Mayo County Council and the Arts Council of Ireland, with occasional support from the Goethe Institut Dublin. The local community in turn benefits when the cottage residents visit schools or community organisations, or give public readings from their work during their stay at the cottage.

From Heinrich Böll’s perspective there is no doubt that his relationship with Ireland was the most important one he had throughout his life with any foreign country. It was at once an intellectual affinity, an experience of actually living at the western edge of Europe, and a retreat. The specific way of life attracted him and his family: an easily misunderstood appreciation of a simple way of life and his encounters with Irish people, especially on Achill Island. Böll’s Irisches Tagebuch has played a central role in shaping German perceptions of Ireland ever since it first appeared sixty years ago in 1957. The carefully crafted volume containing impressions from Böll’s first three visits has now sold more than two million copies and continues to be among his best-selling works. For centuries Germans had viewed Ireland through English eyes: the triangle of Germany, Ireland and Great Britain remained influential in any German comment on the country until Böll’s portrayal of everyday encounters in Ireland opened up a direct link to Ireland, leaving her larger neighbour (and a large part of Irish history, as well as Northern Ireland) by the wayside.

In Ireland the impact and legacy of Böll goes beyond Achill (even if it is said on Achill, perhaps rightly: “We here in Achill claim his heart.”). As Eda Sagarra wrote, he could be called the “father of German tourism in Ireland”. Both travel groups and journalists from Germany still come to Ireland because of his Irisches Tagebuch (a fact that has not escaped the notice of Tourism Ireland). Even from the Irish side it has even been claimed as an expression of Irish art and culture. It was chosen as the entry for 1957 (when it appeared in German) for the “Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks” project by The Irish Times and the Royal Irish Academy. At the time of publication in Ireland the book did not find the near universal approval which it received in Germany – though there was nothing like the controversy that raged for weeks after Böll’s film about Ireland, Children of Eire, was broadcast in 1965, this even leading to a request for an apology from the West German government. But both the book and the film are now perceived as interesting historical insights from the Irish perspective.

Where does this leave us? Now is as good a time as any to go back to Böll’s writing and to see which of his works has relevance for each of us. Reading Böll in German has become a far more informed exercise since the “Kölner Ausgabe” (Cologne edition) of his complete works appeared between 2002 and 2010 with many instructive editorial notes, collected in twenty-seven volumes, including previously unpublished writings, dating from before the war and his postwar novel Kreuz ohne Liebe (Cross without Love). In English, the translations still read adequately, even if a new translation of the Irisches Tagebuch, once rights for that are available, might make it more attractive again here as well. There is of course also Böll’s impact on a good number of German writers, and also on Ireland-based writers such as Swiss author Gabrielle Alioth and Irish-German author Hugo Hamilton, as well as on international writers such as Ian McEwan and Richard Flanagan, who have acknowledged his influence. Keeping Böll’s civic engagement in mind – standing up for one’s beliefs, accepting responsibility for the world around us and combing that with a certain playfulness – might also yield interesting results. Or something else altogether? “Have you found your own Böll yet?” was one of the session titles at the Berlin event.


Gisela Holfter is senior lecturer in German and joint director of the Centre for Irish-German Studies at the University of Limerick. She studied in Cologne, Cambridge and St Louis; before her appointment in Limerick she worked in Dunedin (NZ) and Belfast. Anyone wanting to engage further with Heinrich Böll, his works and his relationship with Ireland, and especially Achill, might be interested in the upcoming conference of the Centre for Irish-German Studies, University of Limerick, “Between Böll and Brexit – Irish-German relations 20 years on”, September 14th-16th, 2017. See http://www.ulsites.ul.ie/irishgerman/upcoming-events



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