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Heinrich Böll
Böll in 1981
Böll in 1981
Born Heinrich Theodor Böll
(1917-12-21)21 December 1917
Cologne, Prussia, German Empire
Died 16 July 1985(1985-07-16) (aged 67)
Langenbroich, West Germany
Notable awards Georg Büchner Prize
Nobel Prize in Literature


Heinrich Theodor Böll (German: Script error: No such module "IPA".; 21 December 1917 – 16 July 1985) was a German writer. Considered one of Germany's foremost post-World War II writers, Böll is a recipient of the Georg Büchner Prize (1967) and the Nobel Prize for Literature (1972).


Böll was born in Cologne, Germany, to a Roman Catholic and pacifist family that later opposed the rise of Nazism. Böll refused to join the Hitler Youth during the 1930s. He was apprenticed to a bookseller before studying German studies and classics at the University of Cologne.

Conscripted into the Wehrmacht, he served in Poland, France, Romania, Hungary and the Soviet Union.

In 1942, Böll married Annemarie Cech, with whom he had three sons; she later collaborated with him on a number of different translations into German of English language literature.

During his war service, Böll was wounded four times and contracted typhoid. He was captured by US Army soldiers in April 1945 and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.

After the war he returned to Cologne and began working in his family's cabinet shop and, for one year, worked in a municipal statistical bureau, an experience which he did not enjoy and which he left in order to take the risk of becoming a writer instead.

Böll became a full-time writer at the age of 30. His first novel, Der Zug war pünktlich (The Train Was on Time), was published in 1949. He was invited to the 1949 meeting of the Group 47 circle of German authors and his work was deemed to be the best presented in 1951.

Many other novels, short stories, radio plays and essay collections followed.

Awards, honours and appointments

Böll was extremely successful and was lauded on a number of occasions. In 1953 he was awarded the Culture Prize of German Industry, the Southern German Radio Prize and the German Critics' Prize. In 1954 he received the prize of the Tribune de Paris. In 1955 he was given the French prize for the best foreign novel. In 1958 he gained the Eduard von der Heydt prize of the city of Wuppertal and the prize of the Bayerische Akademie der Schönen Künste (Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts). In 1959 he was given the Great Art Prize of the State of North-Rhine-Westphalia, the Literature Prize of the city of Cologne, and was elected to the Academy of Science and the Arts in Mainz.

In 1960 he became a member of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts and gained the Charles Veillon Prize.

In 1967 he was given the Georg Büchner Prize.

In 1972 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature "for his writing which through its combination of a broad perspective on his time and a sensitive skill in characterization has contributed to a renewal of German literature".

He was given a number of honorary awards up to his death, such as the membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1974, and the Ossietzky Medal of 1974 (the latter for his defence of and contribution to global human rights).

Böll was President of PEN International, the worldwide association of writers, from 1971 to 1973.

Böll was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1983 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1984.


His work has been translated into more than 30 languages, and he remains one of Germany's most widely read authors. His best-known works are Billiards at Half-past Nine (1959), And Never Said a Word (1953), The Bread of Those Early Years (1955), The Clown (1963), Group Portrait with Lady (1971), The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1974), and The Safety Net (1979).

Despite the variety of themes and content in his work, there are certain recurring patterns: many of his novels and stories describe intimate and personal life struggling to sustain itself against the wider background of war, terrorism, political divisions, and profound economic and social transition. In a number of his books there are protagonists who are stubborn and eccentric individualists opposed to the mechanisms of the state or of public institutions.

Böll was a devoted pacifist because of his experiences during WWII. All of his writing and novels during the post-war years had to do with the war and making sure it never happened again. He encapsulated it in the phrase "never war again".


Böll was deeply rooted in his hometown of Cologne, with its strong Roman Catholicism and its rather rough and drastic sense of humour. In the immediate post-war period, he was preoccupied with memories of the War and the effect it had—materially and psychologically—on the lives of ordinary people. He made them the heroes in his writing. His Catholicism was important to his work in ways that can be compared to writers such as Graham Greene and Georges Bernanos though, as noted earlier, his perspective was a critical and challenging one towards Catholicism rather than a merely passive one.

He was deeply affected by the Nazi takeover of Cologne, as they essentially exiled him in his own town. Additionally, the destruction of Cologne as a result of the Allied bombing during World War II scarred him for life; he described the aftermath of the bombing in The Silent Angel. Architecturally, the newly-rebuilt Cologne, prosperous once more, left him indifferent. (Böll seems to have been an admirer of William Morris – he let it be known that he would have preferred Cologne Cathedral to have been left unfinished, with the 14th-century wooden crane at the top, as it had stood in 1848). Throughout his life, he remained in close contact with the citizens of Cologne, rich and poor. When he was in hospital, the nurses often complained about the "low-life" people who came to see their friend Heinrich Böll.

Böll had a great fondness for Ireland, holidaying with his wife at their second home there, on the west coast. Given this connection, it is tempting to see resonances between Böll's work – specifically, his surreal play A Mouthful of Earth – and that of his esoteric contemporary Samuel Beckett. Böll's concern about damage to the environment, so evident from his play, was a driving force behind the establishment of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Böll's villains are the figures of authority in government, business, the mainstream media, and in the Church, whom he castigates, sometimes humorously, sometimes acidly, for what he perceived as their conformism, lack of courage, self-satisfied attitude and abuse of power.

The newspapers in his books have no qualms with lying about the characters or destroying their lives, much like what Böll himself experienced when he was accused of harboring and defending anarchists.

Legacy and influence

Böll's memory lives on, among other places, at the Heinrich Böll Foundation. A special Heinrich Böll Archive was set up in the Cologne Library to house his personal papers, bought from his family, but much of the material was damaged, possibly irreparably, when the building collapsed in March 2009.

His cottage in Ireland has been used as a residency for writers since 1992.

Eric Anderson composed a set of musical compositions based upon the books of Böll: Silent Angel: Fire and Ashes of Heinrich Böll (2017) Meyer Records.


Murdoch, Brian, (1982), Sisyphean Labours, which includes a review of The Safety Net, in Cencrastus No. 9, Summer 1982, p. 46, ISSN 0264-0856

See also

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