A Timeline of Heinrich Böll's Life


Heinrich Böll was one of the most significant writers in post-war Germany. In this timeline, we remember his life, writing, and political interventions.

Heinrich Böll

Heinrich Böll's courageous and unerring intervention influenced political culture in Germany. Throughout his life, Heinrich Böll transcended ideological boundaries in his committed support of persecuted colleagues, civil rights activists, and political prisoners. These qualities once earned him the mocking title of "Warden of the Dissident Wayfarers" in an East German magazine.

His books and essays portray the first 40 years of German democracy following the Nazi dictatorship. In the following timeline, we recall an important and artist and intellectual whose work continues to resonate with audiences today.

1917- 1937: Between two wars - childhood and adolescence


Heinrich Böll, the sixth child of Viktor Böll, master carpenter and woodcarver, and his wife Maria, is born in Cologne on 21 December, when wartime hunger is at its worst.


The family moves from the southern part of the old city to the more outlying district of Raderberg.  Heinrich attends elementary school in Köln-Raderthal.

1924 - 1928

He enters the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gymnasium, a classical grammar school in Cologne.


The great depression leads to the collapse of the small bank for craftsmen in which Viktor Böll has invested.  The Bölls have to sell their house in Raderberg and move back to the south city district of Cologne. In the years that follow they are not much better off then the rest of the three million unemployed.  Visits to pawnbrokers, bailiffs on the doorstep and the seizure of household goods become part of everyday life.

1933 - 1936

On January 30, 1933 Hitler is appointed Chancellor.  The Nazi terror spreads in Cologne, too.  The Böll family discusses political events frequently and openly, on Hitler's election Heinrich's mother comments, "This means war!" Dated manuscripts in Böll's literary remains, short stories and poems, show that he started writing in 1936.


Heinrich obtains his school-leaving certificate and begins an apprenticeship with the bookseller Math. Lemperz in Bonn, but leaves soon afterwards.


Böll is called up for "labour service". In the summer he matriculates at Cologne University.

1939 - 1945

In autumn, with the outbreak of WW II, he is called up for military service. He is stationed at a training camp in Osnabrück (till May 1940); in Poland (May and June 1940); in France (June to September 1940); in Germany (September 1940 to May 1942); again in France (May 1942 to October 1943); in Russia, the Crimea and Odessa (October 1943 to February 1944); finally at various places on German territory until taken prisoner. Almost every day he writes a letter to his family and to his fiancée Annemarie Cech, whom he marries in 1942. In 1944 his mother dies of a heart attack, following an air raid. Throughout the war, Böll who did not want to be promoted to officer rank, avoided active service.  At first he put in applications to obtain leave to study; later he reported sick or forged leave passes; he was wounded for times.  On April 8, 1945, Cologne was liberated by the American army.

1944 - 1945

Heinrich Böll lives through the the end of the war in the Rhineland where he temporarily deserts and goes into hiding with his wife. Then, fearing to be picked up as a deserter and being shot he rejoins the army at the end of February 1945. Shortly afterwards he is captured by American troops.  He is a POW until September 1945. The same year his son Christoph is born but dies shortly afterwards.

1945 - 1952: Beginnings of a literary career


The Böll's return to Cologne and, for a short period, live in a half-destroyed house.  Heinrich enrolls again at Cologne University in order to obtain a ration card; he works as an assistant in the carpentry workshop now run by his brother, Alois.  Annemarie has a teaching job at a secondary school and is thus able to provide for the family. The same year Böll takes up writing regularly. Initial works are novels such as the unpublished "Kreuz ohne Liebe" (Cross Without Love) and "Der Engel schwieg" (The Silent Angel), published posthumously in 1992, as well as numerous short stories, fragmentary plays, essays and poems. Many of these works draw upon his experience of the Nazi era, the war, and the post-war period.


In March Böll submits his first short stories to magazines and newspapers. On May, 3 one of them "Vor der Eskaladierwand" (Before the Escalading Wall) is published, much abridged, in the "Rheinischer Merkur" under the title "Aus der Vorzeit" (From Pre-Historic Times). Böll's son Raimund born.


Böll's son René born.


Böll's first publishing contract; publication of "Der Zug war pünktlich" (The Train was on Time).  The family is in financial straits; fees from publications are insufficient. Böll seeks a staff position in radio or publishing and thinks of giving up writing.


Son Vincent born.  For the 1950 census, Böll takes a temporary job with the Cologne city government.  A volume of short stories is published "Wanderer, kommst Du nach Spa..." (Stranger, Bear Word to the Spartans We...).


Böll is invited to a meeting of West Germany's most important literary forum, Gruppe 47 and is awarded their prize for the short story "Black Sheep".  Publication of the novel "Adam, Where Art Thou?".


Heinrich Böll's work focuses increasingly on the current problems of the Federal Republic.  He writes essays expressing his views on the political situation, suggesting that moral standards are being sacrificed to economic, social and political concerns.

1960 - 1969: Art and commitment


Death of Böll's father


After the building of the Berlin Wall on August, 13 a heated controversy erupts over the role of writers as "the conscience of a nation". Together with 22 other authors, Böll appeals to the UN to move their headquarters to Berlin - East as well as West.


Publication of the two stories "When the War Broke Out" and "When the War was Over". Böll's first trip to the Soviet Union.


"The Clown" published.  Böll's output in essays and journalism is on the increase.


Publication of the programmatic story "Absent Without Leave".


In a number of articles Böll defends East German writer and singer Wolf Biermann against attacks by the East German media.


Publication of the novella "End of a Mission".


Böll is awarded Germany's most prestigious literary price, the Georg-Büchner-Preis.  He is taken seriously ill with hepatitis and diabetes.


In May Böll addresses some 70,000 demonstrators in Bonn during a rally against the passing of new emergency laws. The Czech Authors' Association invites Böll along with Aragon and Sartre to visit Czechoslovakia.  Böll goes to Prague in August where he witnesses the country's invasion by Warsaw Pact troops bringing to an end Dubcek's attempt at democratisation. Böll acquires an old cottage in Langenbroich, a village near Düren in the Eifel hills.


At the inaugural meeting of the Association of German Writers (VS) Böll delivers a speech on "The End of Modesty".  The new coalition government of social democrats and liberals leads Böll to hope for a policy based on morals, especially regarding relations with Eastern Europe. During the 1972 elections he comes out in support of the social democrats. The political situation in West Germany becomes increasingly tense as a result of the emergent terrorism and the government's overreaction to it. Many conservative politicians and newspapers term Böll and other intellectuals "foster-fathers of terrorism".

1970 - 1980: The meddlesome Nobel laureate


Böll is elected president of West Germany's PEN.


Publication of "Group Portrait with Lady". At the 38th meeting of the International PEN Club in Dublin, Böll is elected president. He organises a public campaign appealing to the US government to drop proceedings against civil rights activist Angela Davis.


Heinrich Böll is awarded the Nobel Price for Literature.


"Group Portrait with Lady" is selected as book of the month in the USA. In reaction to the increasing persecution of writers and intellectuals world-wide, Böll appeals to politicians in East and West alike to "finally abandon the hypocritical concept of non-intervention into other countries' domestic affairs."


Alexander Solzhenitsyn is arrested by Soviet authorities and, following international protests, expatriated from the Soviet Union. He comes to Germany where he stays with Böll.  Publication of The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum.


1982 - 1985: The aesthetics of resistence


Böll's first major autobiographical work is published "What's to Become of the Boy?" On 10 October, Böll addresses up to 300,000 people at a peace rally in Bonn.


Böll campaigns against the conditions in Poland after the military coup. The Böll family moves to Merten, near Cologne; Böll's son Raimund dies.  Böll is awarded honorary citizenship of Cologne.


In an open letter to the Soviet authorities, Böll demands the release of Andrej Sacharov.  Together with other writers he campaigns against the US government's attempts to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.  Despite poor health, Böll takes part in the blockade of US barracks in Germany in protest against NATO's plans to station new nuclear missiles.  In the run-up to the West German elections, Böll comes out in support of the Green Party.


The French minister for culture, Jack Lang, makes Heinrich Böll a "Commandeur" in the "Ordre des Arts et des Lettres." Böll is awarded the Danish Jens Bjørneboe Price and donates the price money to a German committee of emergeny physicians.


On the 40th anniversary of the capitulation of the Wehrmacht, Böll's "Letter to my Sons - or Four Bicycles" is published. Publication of his last novel Women in a River Landscape. In early July Böll has to undergo surgery. He is released from hospital on the 15th of July, yet knows that he will have to have another operation. On the morning of July 16 Böll dies in his house in Langenbroich (Eifel). He is buried on the 19th of July in Bornheim-Merten near Cologne.