The Malta Independent 30 March 2023, Thursday
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A small history of the German defeat in WW2

Noel Grima Tuesday, 3 January 2023, 13:19 Last update: about 4 months ago

‘Group Portrait with Lady’. Author: Heinrich Boll. Publisher: Penguin Books / 1976. Pages: 396pp

Heinrich Theodor Boll is considered as one of Germany's foremost post World War 2 writers. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972.

He was born in Cologne in what was still part of Prussia in 1917 to a Catholic and pacifist family that later opposed the rise of Nazism. The young Boll refused to join the Hitler Youth in the 1930s but he was nevertheless conscripted into the Wehrmacht and saw service in Poland, France, Romania and Russia. He was wounded four times and contracted typhoid. In April 1942 he was captured by US Army soldiers and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.


After the war he returned to Cologne and began working in the family's cabinet shop. Then for one year he worked in a municipal statistics office, an experience he did not like and from which he left to become a full-time writer at the age of 30.

His first novel, The Train was on time, was published in 1949 and considered to be the best novel presented in 1951.

Next came in swift succession 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 contents in his writings, there are some recurring patterns. Many of his novels describe intimate and personal lives struggling to sustain themselves against the wider background of war, terrorism, political divisions and profound economic and social transition. In a number of his books, such as the one being reviewed today, we find protagonists who are stubborn and eccentric individualists opposed to the mechanisms of the state or of public institutions.

Boll was a devoted pacifist because of his experiences during the war, making sure it never happened again: "Never war again."

The 1963 publication of The Clown was met with controversies in the press for its negative portrayal of the Catholic Church and the CDU party. Boll was a devoted Catholic but he was deeply critical of the July 1933 Concordat between the Vatican and the Nazis, signed by the future Pope Pius XII, which helped confer international legitimacy on the regime at this early stage of its development.

His liberal views on religion and social issues drew upon him the wrath of the conservatives in his country and he was wrongly and unfairly accused of sympathy with terrorism. During the Baader-Meinhof crisis his insistence on the importance of due process saw his house being raided by police amid a major press campaign against him.

But later, when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was expelled from Russia, he was welcomed in Boll's rural cottage.

In 1976, Boll publicly left the Catholic Church "without falling away from the faith".

He died in 1985 aged 67.

In the book being reviewed today the central character is Leni, an obstinate woman as seen through multiple descriptions by those who know her, through a series of interviews with witnesses who make up this huge "group portrait".

She is a very beautiful woman who becomes pregnant and later houses a foreigner when to do so could lead to arrest.

This works brilliantly as a parody of fashionable documentary; then by making the story resonate with overlapping echoes and finally by counterpointing these voices of the imagination with the terrible dead language of real documents of the Nazi bureaucracy.

It conveys, with concreteness and vitality, the detailed quality of ordinary life in the Hitler years and in the time of the catastrophic end of these years.

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