The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum

pieces for books

This is the introduction to an edition of Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, published by Penguin Classics in 2009.


When this novel was first published, I was a college sophomore, riveted by news coverage of the young kidnapped-heiress-turned-revolutionary-robber Patty Hearst, and the only student enrolled in a course on “the literature of revolution” taught by a visiting West German professor. Thus I discovered Heinrich Böll, the great bien-pensant voice of West Germany. Upon reading the book now, a third of a century later, my first, very parochial American impulse was to wonder why the U.S. had never produced any real equivalent to Böll.

Sure, the vast majority of fiction writers (and storytellers and artists in every medium) are men and women of the liberal left, like Böll. But no one in the first rank of American literature’s Greatest Generation devoted so much of his or her work to depicting and deconstructing contemporary America from a particular ideological angle, and then extended those politics into real life as a premier spokesperson. Norman Mailer’s sheer perversity disqualifies him. Don DeLillo writes splendid socio-political fiction (Americana, White Noise), but he’s nearly Thomas Pynchonesque in his reclusive silence on the issues of the day. Interestingly, it’s three women — Joan Didion, Susan Sontag and Toni Morrison — who probably come closest to being America’s Bölls. But despite Didion’s laconic, realistic novels about contemporary politics and policy (A Book of Common Prayer, Democracy, The Last Thing He Wanted), her profound disinclination to making public pronouncements is entirely un-Böll-like. None of Susan Sontag’s novels are politicized chronicles of the way we live now. And given the mainly historical settings of Toni Morrison’s fiction, as well as her tight focus on African-Americans and tendency to magical realism (our Günter Grass, maybe?), she’s no Böll, either. Philip Roth has written plenty of political fiction (I Married A Communist, The Plot Against America), but he has never been much for real-world commentary. And in the Roth novel most relevant to this one, American Pastoral, he takes an unambiguously horrified view of the violent New Left radicals with whom Böll was a liberal quasi-sympathizer. Indeed, among America’s best-known serious novelists who were born between the world wars, a majority made political noise mainly for being illiberal after the 60s — Mailer and John Updike (and Roth) as alleged misogynists and/or anti-feminists, Saul Bellow and Tom Wolfe as bona fide conservatives. And talent and subject matter and style aside, no younger novelist can emerge as the American Böll because the career slot he occupied — first-class fiction writer as household name and galvanizing national voice — has long since ceased to exist in the U.S. “Art is always a good hiding-place,” Böll said upon accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973, a year before publishing The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, “for intellectual explosives and social time bombs.” Such a declaration by a novelist today, at least in the United States, would be an act of fantastic, self-dramatizing hubris. But back in the day in West Germany it was actually true.

In this country Böll is more famous than any of his individual books, but Katharina Blum is surely the best-known – thanks in part to its brevity, its straightforwardness, and its publication during that brief moment (circa 1970-85) when educated Americans were obliged to have a passing familiarity with important new non-English-language novels and films. Volker Schlöndorff’s movie adaptation, released just after the book’s English translation appeared, also helped.

It’s no wonder the book instantly became a film. (Actually, two films: it was also the basis for an American TV movie, The Lost Honor of Kathryn Beck, starring Marlo Thomas and Kris Kristofferson.) Böll’s narrative hops around chronologically to keep things interesting, but the simple story (true love, oppressed heroine, good versus evil) takes place mainly over the course of a few days, and is told in the familiar form of the police procedural — something like Law and Order: Special Political Victims Unit. And there’s also a venerable cinematic history involving lovable crooks (The Outlaw, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid) and officially persecuted innocents (The Wrong Man, Billy Budd).

The late critic D.J. Enright, who admired Böll, once wrote that “there are three categories of characters in Böll’s fictions: the misused or unlucky near-saint; the rascal, good at heart, given to venial if not commendable misdemeanors; and the unvarnished villain, more commonly a bully or hypocrite, greedy, gross, corrupt, than a monster of evil.” And so it is here, in this story is set in “a certain city,” apparently Cologne, in 1974. Katharina is the misused and unlucky near-saint, a working-class divorcée in her 20s who works as a housekeeper and runs a catering business on the side — a woman the book describes as a “nice, smart, virtually blameless person,” “extremely attractive” but “almost prudish, in sexual matters.” (The secondary near-saints are her employers, the liberal corporate lawyer Hubert Blorna and his architect wife Trude.) Katharina happens to attend a Carnival party at her godmother’s apartment, where she falls head over heels for Ludwig Götten, a stranger about her age. Ludwig is the book’s good-at-heart rascal, and beginning the morning after their 12-hour affair, Katharina is smeared by police and a hysterically reactionary tabloid newspaper as his co-conspirator and long-time lover. The Porsche-driving tabloid reporter on the story, Werner Tötges — Töt means “kill” — is the book’s main villain: a gross, corrupt bully.

Since (spoiler alert) Katharina confesses to homicide on the third page of the novel, the unfolding narrative mysteries concern only how much she knew of Ludwig’s identity, whether and how she helped him elude capture, to what hideous lengths the tabloid press will go to besmirch her, and the nature of her involvement with Alois Sträubleder, a rich businessman client of Hubert Blorna’s. The narrator, although never identified, is no omniscient construct but an actual (fictional) person who knows the principal characters personally. And given lines like these — “Too much is happening in this story. To an embarrassing, almost ungovernable degree, it is almost pregnant with action” — the narrator seems to be a fiction writer…maybe, say, Heinrich Böll. The deliberately pedantic subtitle — How Violence Can Develop and Where It Can Lead — promotes the conceit that this is a nonfiction chronicle drawn from police documents and conversations with lawyers involved in the case. And yet for all his just-the-facts approach, the narrator is also an incorrigible ironist, such as when he notes, in an aside about wiretap surveillance, that we all ought to “telephone more often…since we can never know who may derive pleasure from such a call.” By portraying its hero’s sudden nightmarish descent with both a smirky casualness and a studious neutrality, the book is reminiscent of an earlier 20th century German-language writer: Katharina Blum is something like Böll’s social-realist Gregor Samsa or Josef K.

A description of her interrogation by police and prosecutors is typical: “At about 5:00 P.M. she had actually been induced to accept another pot of tea and a sandwich (ham).” Concerning the Böll novel immediately preceding Katharina Blum, D.J. Enright wrote, “One difficulty is to establish, whatever the occasion, whether or not Böll is being gratuitously bureaucratic, wantonly tongue-in-cheek, supererogatorily documentary.” But is that really a difficulty? He is clearly being all three most of the time, and the effect of those mixed motives is to save this novel from being either a generic fairy tale or over-earnest agitprop. And it’s simply in the nature of Böll’s writerly voice. He was German, after all, and he has more than a bit of the detail-crazy precisionist in him — which he knows, and self-consciously mocks, even as he’s indulging himself. Consider, for instance, these three sentences near the beginning of his Nobel lecture: “The table upon which I am writing this is 76.5 cm high, its top is 69.5 by 111 cm.

It has turned legs, a drawer, seems to be seventy to eighty years old, was a possession of a great-aunt of my mother’s, who, after her husband had died in a madhouse and she herself had moved into a smaller flat, sold it to her brother, my wife’s grandfather. And so, after my wife’s grandfather had died, it came into our possession, a despised and rather despicable piece of furniture of no value, knocking around somewhere, no one knows exactly where, until it surfaced during a move and proved to have been damaged by a bomb: somewhere, at some time or other, a piece of shrapnel had bored a hole through its top during the Second World War.”

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is a very contemporary novel — its ripped-from-the-headlines documentary approach, its liberal-left critique of sinister powers-that-be — but even more striking are its extremely old-fashioned qualities. When the author/narrator addresses the reader directly (“Warning: there is worse to come” or “We now return contritely to the foreground”), the asides seem premodern as much as postmodern. The novel is a moralizing melodrama, with its aforementioned villains and heroes, and also an old-school love story in which the lovemaking is not depicted. Chaste Katharina’s faith in romantic destiny — “he was simply the One who was to come, and I would have married and had children with him” – as well as her victimization seem downright Victorian. The recherché phrase in the book’s title, “lost honor,” is Katharina’s own, and her act of violence is a spontaneous retaliation for a man’s unbearable ungentlemanliness.

Of course, the early-70s way of describing sweet old-fashioned Katharina’s breaking point would be to say she was “radicalized” by the dehumanizing mob anger incited against her by the military-industrial-media complex. And indeed, when her protector Hubert Blorna finally starts to make a Molotov cocktail “to throw into the editorial offices of the News,” his wife Trude stops him, calling his impulse “spontaneous petit-bourgeois romantic anarchism.” It’s accurate, but it’s also a joke by Böll on generation-of-’68 yuppies. In this novel Böll doesn’t explicitly sympathize with left-wing radicalism — Ludwig’s crimes in the end have no apparent political motive — but rather with the good-hearted liberals (the Blornas) and apoliticals (Katharina) tyrannized by the reactionaries.

The novel’s cool, fussy, pseudo-nonfictional narrative voice works especially well because it’s in such strong counterpoint to the manic fabulism of the newspaper articles and headlines that drive the action. (It’s analogous to the comedy that derived, a decade later, from the contrast between the deadpan mock-documentary style of This Is Spinal Tap and the over-the-top absurdity of its subject.) There have been other unscrupulously fast-and-loose newspapers in fiction (The Daily Beast and The Daily Brute in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, The City Light in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfires of the Vanities) and, even more, in film (The Front Page, Meet John Doe, Ace In the Hole), but probably none as powerful or as egregious as The News in Katharina Blum. By means of screaming front-page headlines (OUTLAW’S SWEETHEART and MURDERER’S MOLL) and grotesque distortions and fabrications, a young woman’s dreamy night of love is recast as the prearranged meeting of a sociopathic left-wing Bonnie and Clyde. Hubert Blorna tells a News reporter that Katharina is “intelligent, cool, and level-headed,” a description rendered in the paper as “ice-cold and calculating.” And Blorna’s reply to a News reporter about her possible criminality — “I know that all kinds of people are capable of committing a crime….Katharina? Out of the question” — becomes “Katharina is entirely capable of committing a crime.” When Tötges uses a disguise to interview Katharina’s sick mother in her hospital bed, Mrs. Blum’s rhetorical question — “[W]hy did it have to come to this?” — becomes, in his article, “It was bound to come to this.” That’s because, the reporter explains, part of his job is “helping simple people to express themselves more clearly.”

Böll’s News — Zietung in German — is only nominally fictitious, barely even that. At the beginning of the novel, he gives his own winkingly disingenuous version of the standard disclaimer: “The characters and action in this story are purely fictitious. Should the description of certain journalistic practices result in a resemblance to the practices of the Bild-Zeitung, such resemblance is neither intentional nor fortuitous, but unavoidable.” Europe has always had its sensationalist, irresponsible “boulevard press” — what the British and Americans call tabloids — but Germany’s right-wing Bild-Zeitung is the modern apotheosis of the type, given its size and influence. Since shortly after its founding in 1952 it has been the biggest-selling newspaper in Europe; it’s circulation in Germany is proportionately ten times as large as the largest national papers in the U.S.

Naturally, when the ultra-left-wing Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) formed in 1970 and began its campaign of political violence, the Bild-Zeitung went to town. Popularly known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, after the names of two of its leaders, in one week in May 1970 RAF squads led by Ulrike Meinhof bombed the Hamburg headquarters of Bild-Zeitung’s parent company and broke Andreas Baader out of jail, after which the spiral of violence and reaction went into a mad overdrive that lasted for years.

On the one hand, there was plenty to discomfit West German liberals and the fair-minded of all political persuasions, such as the Bild-Zeitung’s demonization of a university professor accused of lending an apartment to Baader-Meinhof members in 1970 (the episode that Böll says inspired Katharina Blum), and the government’s 1972 “anti-radical decrees” banning people with questionable politics from teaching and other public-sector jobs. After Böll published an essay in 1972 suggesting that press coverage of the RAF had made a fair trial for Meinhof problematic, the Bild-Zeitung called him a terrorist fellow traveler, and police searched his country house. Given the paper’s fanatical coverage of Baader-Meinhof, Böll declared, its M.O. wasn’t merely “cryptofascist anymore, not fascistoid, but naked fascism, agitation, lies and dirt.”

On the other hand, the movement comprising Baader-Meinhof and kindred groups, unlike its small and comparatively ethical Weathermen counterparts in America, posed a serious threat. According to the West German government at the time, the RAF had 1,200 members and 6,000 active supporters in a country less than a third the size of the U.S. In just one month in the spring of 1972, they carried out six bombings — once again of the Bild-Zeitung’s corporate headquarters, of police and prosecutors’ offices, and of two U.S. military installations. In all, the RAF killed 34 people, several of them in kidnappings and targeted assassinations.

Into the middle of this maelstrom, 56-year-old Heinrich Böll tossed his stick of social dynamite, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, Or: How Violence Can Develop and Where It Can Lead. It became a bestseller, and once more, of course, his political opponents accused him of being an apologist for terrorism, even though he had been punctilious in the novel about criticizing anti-terrorist hysteria rather than defending the politics or tactics of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. And when RAF members assassinated the highest-ranking judge in West Berlin a few months after the book came out, Böll condemned the killing. In response, the imprisoned RAF leaders, including Baader and Meinhof, issued a statement calling his liberal bluff: “What else did Böll mean in his Katharina Blum, if not that the shooting of a representative of the ruling power apparatus is morally justifiable?” At last, the right and the far left were in agreement: in his fiction, they both insisted, he had effectively legitimized and even glorified politically correct murder. Nevertheless, in his next novel, The Safety Net, Böll stayed with the subjects of left-wing political violence, morally bankrupt Establishment media, and the self-perpetuating cycles of paranoia and security overreach.

A few years ago, the Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of the work of the painter Gerhard Richter — another German cultural god of a certain age for whom the spectacle of the Red Army Faction became an irresistible subject. The exhibit included Richter’s blurry black-and-white photo-based portraits of Baader and Meinhof. He calls the series “October 18, 1977,” after the date on which Baader and two comrades committed suicide in prison. (Meinhof killed herself in prison in1976.) There was some predictable tsk-tsking among conservative American critics over this elegiac depiction of anti-American, anti-capitalist guerillas, but given that the MoMA show opened in New York City only a few months after the 9/11 attacks, it was surprising how little brouhaha it generated, even in the tabloid Post, New York’s own Bild-Zeitung.

However, America’s panicky overreactions to the Al Qaeda attacks — the USA Patriot Act, the warrantless wiretapping, the demonization of public intellectuals such as Susan Sontag, the White House press secretary warning commentators that “you have to be careful what you say” — inevitably brought to mind West Germany’s Katharina Blum moment in the 1970s. The fact that three of the 9/11 ringleaders had studied together in Germany — indeed, in Hamburg, where the RAF had bombed the Bild-Zeitung’s corporate headquarters — only added to the sense of twisted flashback.

Fortunately for us, back in the late 60s and early 70s, when the U.S. endured its own minor-league flurry of New Left bombings by William Ayres and company, there was no politicized American tabloid press, no Rupert Murdochian New York Post, no Rush Limbaugh, no Fox News. We did get our taste of that kind of willful, damn-the-facts fear-mongering during the 2008 presidential election, when Barack Obama’s opponents portrayed the candidate as a crypto-socialist Weatherman sleeper agent, a man who dared (in Governor Palin’s phrase) to “pal around with terrorists.” These transatlantic then-and-now resonances recall Karl Marx’s famous line about history repeating, the idea that “historical facts and personages occur…twice…the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

Although in the links between Katharina Blum and 21st century America there’s also at least one instance where it was farce the first time and tragedy the second: to read Böll’s fictional Zeitung screed concerning Katharina’s treatment by police — “Can it be denied that our methods of interrogation are too mild? Are we to continue to treat with humanity those who commit inhuman acts?” — one can’t help but think of the Bush Administration’s ongoing justifications for its torture of captured Al Qaeda operatives. And so maybe even better in this context than Marx is his American contemporary’s take on historical recurrences. “History doesn’t repeat itself,” Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “but it rhymes.”