Germans, Guilt, and the Second Threshold of Heinrich Boll: A Study of Three Non-Fictional Works

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Theodor Adorno and Jean Amery both praised Heinrich Boll (1917-1985) as a moral figure. Amery maintained that without him 'die Bundesrepublik Deutschland ein schwacher entwickeltes moralisches Bewusstsein hatte', that Boll knew the continuities of German history and actively opposed them. Writing in 1972, the year that Boll won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Amery had his significance as an author in mind. (1) Adorno, four years earlier, dealt more with Boll the man, praising his independence and integrity. As a Catholic, Adorno wrote, Boll was forever being tempted by the West German establishment to become an apologist for the political and social status quo. It took all of his 'geistig-moralischer Kraft' to resist. (2) Comments like these underline that in the Federal Republic of Germany Boll played a public role as 'the conscience of the nation', although he voiced misgivings about this label: 'Nein, nein, ich bin nicht das Gewissen der Nation. Mir graust vor einer lehrhaften Literatur.' (3)

Scholars and critics often characterize Boll as a moralist. The major tendency has been to use moral terms both for interpretation of his work and for admiration of him as a person. (4) The standard note of dissent has been that Boll oversimplified German politics and history into a struggle of good and evil. A recent book by Ernestine Schlant goes further, arguing that there was a specific limit to his moral view, a contradiction in his treatment of one issue. That issue was the Holocaust, and the contradiction was between his 'acute moral conscience' and his 'unconscious [...] prejudices against Jews'. (5)

Schlant's judgment is harsh. Her study also typifies an irony at the core of Boll criticism: while critics reduce interpretation to an assessment of moral character, the fiction itself is so marked by shifts in narrative perspective that a viewpoint of 'the author', of Boll himself or of some persona who inhabits the work, is hard to infer. (6) The crucial discussion by Rainer Nagele, published in 1976, widened critical interest in Boll by including reception in his approach, along with such technical issues as composition, use of detail and symbol, perspective, voice. Boll's reputation for simple moralizing was put in doubt. Questions of form and style, not reducible to 'character', were so central to Nagele's study that if Boll appeared to harbour a contradiction, it was as likely between moral or historical vision and literary means, as within the vision itself. (7) Personal or authorial point of view was no longer the pre-eminent issue. There was no illusion that Boll infused 'himself ' into all that he wrote. Schlant, by contrast, rivets the attention on Boll's moral outlook, maintaining that formal issues do not interfere, for Boll 'does not explore new modes of expression, and his narrative presentations follow traditional patterns' (p. 25). Her dubious claim supports her argument that in this case fiction is the straightforward exposition of an author's personal limits. This all seems too easy. Boll's was a complex and ambivalent moral vision; it was also mediated by structure and style.

Boll's public statements about the Holocaust belong to a culture of memory and mourning that began to develop in West Germany after about 1955. In this culture the crimes of National Socialism, the murder of Jews and others, and the guilt of Germans became matters of public speech. 'Silence' began to lift. The courts, the theatre, and the press were among the institutions that in part supported the new awareness. Historians of this process too often divide into defenders, who declare West German efforts a success without closely assessing them, and sceptics who rush to label them a failure. However, historical understanding has increased, based upon a growing body of solid research. It is apparent now that the late 1950s saw more openness about Nazi crimes, and more sympathy for Jewish victims, than were expressed in the first decade after the war. …