Book Review: The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll

“Stop it before it grows! Look out, for Freedom of the Press is the core of everything: well-being, social progress, democracy, pluralism, diversity of opinions. And whoever attacks The Paper attacks us all.”

69880Read: 8th March 2018

Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes 27 Seconds. Contains 1890 words.

My Rating: 4 Stars

DescriptionIn an era in which journalists will stop at nothing to break a story, Henrich Böll’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum has taken on heightened relevance.

A young woman’s association with a hunted man makes her the target of a journalist determined to grab headlines by portraying her as an evil woman. As the attacks on her escalate and she becomes the victim of anonymous threats, Katharina sees only one way out of her nightmare.

Turning the mystery genre on its head, the novel begins with the confession of a crime, drawing the reader into a web of sensationalism, character assassination, and the unavoidable eruption of violence.

Note: I don’t know much about East Germany and West Germany, though in the past few days after reading and watching few fictional works, I did research few things and I have marked few things that I would read in the future about totalitarian society and cold war(I’m sure, I have studied about it in history class in 9th standard, yes I’m very sure), and all that goes along with these topics. But that will take some time. So, whatever I say here is what I learned by reading the articles available on the internet and watching movies. So, if I’m wrong somewhere in saying something then please consider it as a very innocent mistake on my part, though I don’t think there would be anything of that sort.

To begin with, I would say, I really didn’t enjoy the writing, for me, it was dry or at least something was odd about it or maybe it was just new for me. I never read anything written in this format, so quite possibly that is the reason. But that doesn’t mean, I didn’t enjoy the story, I really did.

Recently I watched a German movie called, The Lives of Others, it is based in 1984 East Germany, which was ruled by GDR(German Democratic Republic). I must say, it was a really interesting movie and I loved watching it, consider it one of my favorites. But let me tell you why I’m talking about it. In East Germany ruled by GDR, things were quite tight, there were no elections(or at least of no use) and no free speech. Artists worked and executed projects and lived in their own space and underground locations. And the ones who went against them were not treated really well. GDR applied wide censorship during their existence from 1949 to 1990. All the publications were governmentally controlled and potential publications would have to pass through multiple stages of censorship. Artists lost their inspiration because they were controlled, those who were thought to be going against the government were watched. Privacy of the citizens was exploited. Government surveillance affected people’s jobs, personal freedom, and basic aspects of their lives. The East German secret police had a file on almost everyone and it was said that a large portion of the population was an informant at one time or another. East Germans lived in fear under Stasi surveillance, it was the most hated and feared institution under East German Communist Government. There actually was a terribly claustrophobic atmosphere behind that wall, things were repressive and quite boring, only one thing, the life of the people was secured. This movie showed how important love, life, and freedom are. Though all of these basic aspects were controlled during that time. Now you must be thinking why I’m talking about all this anyway.

Well, during that time things were different on the other side of the wall and that was West Germany ruled by Federal Republic of Germany(FRG). Well, unlike East Germany, West Germany was really westernized and in many ways similar to the USA. And life was not as tough as it was in East Germany. Things were colorful on the side of West while grey on the side of East.

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, is based in 1974 West Germany(now you see where I’m going? no?…okay read on). I discussed that movie because that movie and this book are based on two contrasting situations, while both of them really deals with same problems. That is why I read this book, because it intrigued me, already the idea of life in East Germany was fermenting at the back of my mind and then I came across this book and I read about it and instantly I wanted to read it.

Now you may wonder why I only talked about, freedom of speech and nothing else. Well, I don’t know anything else, this is something I came across and I read it and I viewed it. So, it is only acceptable for me to talk about things I know. I’m not saying anything against East Germany, I literally typed, good things about East Germany and this popped up 8 Things that were better in East Germany. Neither did I live there nor was I born.

But you should also notice that freedom of speech is not the only thing I talked about, I also talked about life, love, and freedom. Only that one side of the wall was much stricter and the other more liberal. However; we can’t say it turned out any better(hold your horses, I understand it was better) at least in the case of Katharina Blum. However; things weren’t really as golden as they may seem and they are still not and it can be said for most of the parts of the world. The problems are not intricate to one country or one place but they prevail nearly everywhere.

Now, let me talk about the book.

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is not only a powerful story but also shows how people with power can really disturb and abuse a person.

The other question it raises is on freedom of the press and when this freedom can be too much. The book deals with political and social paradoxes that affects a person on a very personal level, by abusing them emotionally and depriving them of human dignity.

The writer also talks about how at that time journalists and police, had a lot of power in their hands, police was not afraid to turn violent and journalists were ruthless when it came to digging up information on someone and to come up with stories. And this was very well portrayed in the book.

Katherina is shown as a woman of strong convictions who really values her rights and makes her own decision for her life and also her sexuality. However; we can also see that men don’t really like her convictions and threaten her on every chance they get, there were few instances where they tried to dehumanize her or hurt her with the use of language and twisted words, whether on paper or in person.

When Katherina was questioned by Beizmenne for the first time, where he wanted to find out her relationship with the criminal, he started with asking her a controversial question.

Beizmenne allegedly asked the maddeningly composed Katharina as she leaned against her counter: “Well, did he fuck you?”

And only afterward he looked around for pieces of evidence that would give away some clues.

Similarly, when Tötges(the journalist who ruined her life with his irresponsible journalism) came to meet her near the end of the book, he entered her house and said:

‘Why do you look at me like that, Blumikins, as if you’re scared out of your wits? How about us having a bang for a start?’

Oh, he did get a bang, just not the one he wanted.

This story also plays out how violence develops and to what extent it can lead and how it can ruin the life of the person and people who are associated with that person. The story had this atmosphere of persistent underlying anxiety and the writer created that very well, or at least I felt anxious while reading it.

One thing that was very apparent in the story is that the media really didn’t care if she was innocent or not but only that she was now a story for them. How many times we come across stories that were really developed to destroy a person, for some people it’s business, it brings in more views. They use their rights to exploit the image of a person, they twist the language and sensationalize the whole thing. It happens even today, and what is more disappointing is people like that kind of news, humans are miserable creatures that way, we tend to find some kind of pleasure when we see the downfall of others and society never cease a chance to destroy a person.

“Man should not be in the service of society, society should be in the service of man. When the man is in the service of society, you have a monster state, and that’s what is threatening the world at this minute.” — Joseph Campbell

In the story, we see how people who preached about sociopolitical ethics and values started going after Katharina and also after people who were associated with her. I think the above quote really helps in understanding a very intricate point about individuals and society. I think society can make or break a man, but what I find funny is how when a child is born, he is conditioned with how things really work in the society and he is taught about right and wrong and what does it mean to be human. After spending so much time in the society one can at least expect people’s faith in them, and there is no question in saying that faith has the power to heal a person when he is broken, but during this time when the person needs that society to be on his/her side, society turns its back.

In our world, we have forgotten the true meaning of faith in it’s most fundamental form. We put our faith on institutions, rules, and ethics(which to be true have been made many times and destroyed many times) instead of ourselves. Now consider everyone in the society doing the same thing. We let the world dictate us(each one of us in some way or the other) of what is wrong and right without giving a thought about the agendas behind the organization or groups or individual who is informing us. People in masses turn against each other, in worst case turn against an individual, and together they label, judge and discriminate.

In the case of Katherina Blum, media made the false accusations against her, and they led people into believing that she was a communist, and twisted the comments made by her friends and family in a way that everything sounded against her. They provoked the society in a way that everyone turned against her, they acted irrationally, called her names, and made indecent remarks on her. She received threat letters and anonymous call, some for sex and others for threatening her. Everyone tried to tarnish her dignity and honor.

Freedom of Speech and Press is really important and I’m glad we have it, but freedom comes with a responsibility which I think everyone should take, and when an organization or a group has a social standing where they have a great impact on people, or have the power to influence people, then I think it’s really important that they take responsibility of everything they are letting out is true and not just some made up story and that they should not abuse the power they have by making intrusion into human privacy and by abusing an individual emotionally.

“Because we are human, in everything we do we have a choice. And that choice is to reduce ourselves to an animal in the jungle, or to elevate ourselves to the Creator that gave us life.” (I read it somewhere, I don’t know where.)

As for the book, in the end they did bring out the beast in her and there we witness the unavoidable eruption of violence. And that is one way we turn innocents into criminals, turn against them, destroy them and bring out the beast in them.

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