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Heinrich Böll: Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum oder wie Gewalt enstehen und wohin sie führen kann (The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum: How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead)

This novel is Böll’s response to the Baader-Meinhof Group, the German terrorist group of the 1970s and, more particularly, to the press hysteria surrounding their activities. Katharina Blum is a twenty-seven year old divorced housekeeper, living alone. At a party she meets Ludwig Götten and she takes him back to her flat for the night. Götten, however, is wanted for suspected bank robbery. Police raid her flat in the morning but she has helped him get away. She is arrested on suspicion of being an accomplice and the newspaper Zeitung (which means newspaper in German but is clearly based on the tabloid Bild Zeitung, which Böll has confirmed), represented by a journalist called Werner Tötges, proceeds to do a hatchet job on her. Tötges contacts everyone who knew her, including her mother who is dying of cancer (his visit kills her) and her ex-husband. He then depicts her as a fervent accomplice of Götten, a terrorist and a communist. She agrees to do an interview with him but, of course, he distorts that too. She goes to confront him but cannot find him. He follows her to her home and suggests they have sex. She then pulls a gun out of her handbag and kills him and then turns herself in.

Böll does not hold back in his criticism of the paper. He and many others felt that Bild Zeitung was partially responsible for the climate of fear and repression created at the time of the Baader-Meinhof attacks and the paper has always taken a very conservative point of view on issues. In his original version of the story, Böll had Katharina killing herself but her murder of the journalist is much more effective. Böll is not, of course, condoning such a reaction but is making the point that such injustice can lead to violence and murder. Given the behaviour of the Bush administration towards alleged terrorists and the irresponsible attitude of the likes of Fox News, this book has remained timely well after the demise of the Baader-Meinhof Group.

Publishing history

First published 1974 by Kiepenheuer & Witsch
First English translation 1975 by McGraw-Hill