The Clearance of Pain: Selected Writings by Heinrich Böll, 1940-1985

Three years ago, when we first presented our project to the annual meeting of the project partners of the Böll Foundation in Tel Aviv, people looked at us as if we were from outer space. Obviously, they knew there was a foundation by the name of Heinrich Böll, yet many seemed blissfully unaware of the person behind that name and in particular what it stands for. To recap then, the Heinrich Böll Foundation is named after Heinrich Böll – the celebrated German author and Nobel Prize laureate – who made a name for himself in Israel mainly with his novels, among those in particular "The Clown", "Group Portrait with Lady" and "The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum".

Böll’s prose is written in a realistic style, depicting life in Germany during World War II and the post war period. Born in Cologne in 1917, just one year before the end of the First World War, he grew up in a Catholic working class family during the years of the democratic Weimar Republic. He served in the Wehrmacht from the very first day of the outbreak of the Second World War until he was captured by the Americans and sent to a prisoner war camp, where he stayed until the end of 1945.  While Böll successfully resisted joining the Hitler Jugend and the Nazi party, he was nevertheless not a resistant fighter. His main concern during the war years was rather with staying alive and getting through it in as easy a way as possible.

It was not until after the war that Böll begun to adopt a radical pacifist position, taking in particular a clear stance on the events of World War II which had left Europe in ruins and had claimed 50 Million dead. Böll directed his main critique at the perpetrators of war - the German people, who by voting for Hitler and complying with the new laws and rules of Nazi-Germany had ‘only’ let it happen. Böll not only target those who had actively participated, but in particular also those who had done nothing to prevent the catastrophe from happening. A perpetrator in Böll’s sense was not only an active member of the SS or the Gestapo.  In his view perpetrators were all those countless ordinary people who stood by idly - neighbors, who had turned a blind eye when fellow citizens  - Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, handicapped, and those who spoke out against the Nazi regime - were being harassed, humiliated and persecuted. Indeed he addressed all those who had remained silent and done nothing to help their neighbors or worse had even denounced them. These are recurring themes in Böll's prose.

Böll was not only the author of numerous novels and short stories, he also wrote and published non-fictional texts - political, historical, poetic, and autobiographical essays. This book, which was initiated by Jörn Böhme and published by HaKibbuz Hameuchad Publishing House, appears 25 years after Böll's death. It offers Israeli audiences for the first time the opportunity to get acquainted with Böll's rich and diverse non-fictional writings. We collated 19 pieces of writings by Böll, which we divided into six parts. The first part is devoted to the theme of war. The second, "Poetics of Humanism", contains poetic writings by Böll and the third one deals in various ways with the themes of German memory, responsibility, and guilt. The fourth part of the book focuses around the universal lessons to be drawn from the Holocaust, lessons that have been learnt – or not. The fifth and rather short part centers on Böll's relationship with Israel. The last part, which is of immense importance and highly relevant for contemporary Israeli society, deals with the struggle for human rights.
Most of the essays collected in the book deal with theoretical questions, such as for example the role of literature for the advancement of humanistic thought in the public sphere. This is highly relevant, since Böll considered writing as well as reading as political action.

Böll was an extremely active political person. His humanistic credo echoed all over Europe, and arguably there has not been until today another writer as radically committed to humanistic thought as he was. He spoke out every time he felt that human rights were infringed upon, and every time he perceived "ordinary people" to be victims of political and social injustice at the hand of politicians and/or business tycoons. Indeed, Böll took it upon himself to safeguard German democracy, to make sure that it remained a true democracy. He raised his finger immediately whenever he came across irregularities, corruption, exploitation or any kind of injustice. Böll, one notes, was also one of the first ecological thinkers of his time.

The texts collated in the present book deal in one or the other way with human rights issues since Böll tirelessly advocated the equality of all human beings. One would have thought that after the Second World War wisdom was no longer in need of advocating. But reality looked different and certainly in a state in which approximately 40% of ex-Nazis were still posing as active players in the political, judicial, and financial arena.

It has not been an easy task to trace the kind of material we had set out to find, in particular so as Böll had relentlessly voiced his opinion on every current event of his time, and his work had been published in numerous newspapers, radio channels and journals. The main idea of the book was to put together a collection of texts that highlight Böll’s concern with universal humanistic ideals. We wanted to draw attention to the timeless and hence universal messages of his work, and aimed to show that at least some of these messages are still relevant today. We believe that Böll’s work is highly relevant to contemporary Israeli society: Indeed he alerts us time and again not to blindly follow orders, showing us alternative ways of resistance to the evolution of violence, from subordination to blindly following orders. After all, he portrays his own life as the transformation of an indifferent soldier to a political activist, from narcissistic selfishness to responsibility towards others.  Böll despised opportunists, all those who do not stand up for their own convictions, and people who do not have convictions and let other people think for them. This is also Böll’s main criticism towards the mass media, which sometimes use the democratic principles of free speech and press in order to infringe upon the freedom of speech of those who criticize wrongs in society or by the government.

We would like to emphasize that by publishing this edited collection, the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation actually adheres to Böll's legacy: Not only should we consider writing and reading political acts, but also publishing.  In a sense, publishing may be seen as the more fundamental act, for it facilitates access to written texts. Moreover, a book, unlike for example a conference, presents ideas in an accessible and lasting form. Books may play a supportive and inspiring role in the process of searching for answers and universally applicable thoughts and ideas that may fit a unique political situation. This book in a way stands for the basics of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's agenda as well as the historical context for it’s coming into being in the first place. NGOs, whose projects are funded by the Böll Foundation, may find inspiration from the ideas compiled in this edition and base their projects on those very ideas and principles. More importantly, it may serve as a useful counterpart to the hectic and intense political climate prevalent in today’s Israeli society. Indeed, a book promulgating sound ideas as well as systematically developed thoughts and concepts that relate to contemporary problems, something that seems to be utterly lacking in Israel’s public sphere, may actually be an incentive for the Israeli public to take a fresh look at their society.

Therefore we would not only like to thank Jörn Böhme and Giora Rosen, the editor in chief of the series "Kav Adom Kehe" in Kibbutz Hameuchad, for having undertaken this project, but pledge for further projects of this kind to be funded in years to come. Germany has many important thinkers to offer, both past and present ones. And there are many more subjects waiting to be compiled in edited books, subjects that are worth being made more accessible to a wider audience, such as for example ideas relating to environmental issues. For example, one could put the following question to the Israeli public: what does it mean to be green in Israel?

Today, then, we are not only looking back to where we stood three years ago, confronted as we were with a puzzled audience who wondered about our seemingly outlandish project of editing a book on Heinrich Böll. Today we look forward into the future: we have now not only a foundation by the name of Böll, but also a Böll book, a book by and for the foundation.

The article was first published on