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125th birthday of Erich Kästner

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125th birthday of Erich Kästner
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    Erich Kästner: “No one can stop the avalanche anymore.” © Georg Goebel/dpa

    He was a man who understood children. Erich Kästner’s books are famous and still popular today, and not just among children. In the year of his 125th birthday, he is present with completely different thoughts.

    Dresden/Munich – Erich Kästner, author of popular children’s books such as “Emil and the Detectives” or “The Flying Classroom”, is on everyone’s lips half a century after his death – in a completely different way.

    His conclusion on the Third Reich and its causes is currently widely quoted, in articles and online posts, by politicians to athletes and in demonstrations in many places in Germany, to stir up active resistance against the growing right-wing extremism. The bitter record of the writer, who was born in Dresden on February 23rd 125 years ago, is still explosive.

    “Crush the rolling snowball”

    “The events from 1933 to 1945 should have been combated by 1928 at the latest. Later it was too late,” said Kästner in a speech about the book burning in the PEN Club in 1958. The following warning can still be understood as an appeal today, says the Munich literary scholar Sven Hanuschek and continues: “You shouldn’t wait until the snowball has turned into an avalanche. You have to crush the rolling snowball. Nobody can stop the avalanche. She only rests when she has buried everything beneath her.”

    According to Hanuschek, who is considered an expert on Kästner’s work, the author, unlike the Weimar period, gave political speeches in the post-war years, attended demonstrations, and wrote essays and articles. “And these are the metaphors that are being quoted now.” He got involved and took to the streets. “He preferred to become active too often and quickly rather than be too reserved.” He protested against the Vietnam War or attended Easter marches.

    Kästner spent his childhood and youth in Dresden, wrote poems as a student and wanted to become a teacher. After a year of military service, he completed his high school diploma and then studied German, history, philosophy, newspaper studies and theater studies. To do this, he went to Leipzig in 1919, where he wrote his first newspaper articles, and later to Rostock and Berlin. In 1924, while still studying, he became an editor in the features section of the “Neue Leipziger Zeitung”. In 1926, he switched to the political department and, together with the illustrator Erich Ohser, was officially dismissed because of a poem – but remained a freelancer.

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    Years of balancing act under National Socialism

    In 1927 he went to Berlin and wrote feature articles for “Die Weltbühne” and “Vossische Zeitung”. In 1929 his novel for children “Emil and the Detectives” was published, which was made into a film two years later based on a screenplay by Billy Wilder. In 1933 he accidentally witnessed his books going up in flames on Berlin’s Opera Square. This was followed by years of balancing act under National Socialism for the popular writer. He stayed, also because of his mother, with whom he had a close bond throughout his life. Due to the publication ban, he was only able to publish in Germany under a pseudonym.

    At times he went into hiding, but then he regularly sat in a Berlin café, says Hanuschek. “That was also known.” The Gestapo arrested him twice. “There were also phases where he slept somewhere else every night.” He financially supported people in the underground “and tried to entice them to resist.”

    “He made compromises, had to make them, he wasn’t the Scholl siblings, not a hero in that sense.” But in his tabloid comedies you get to see “what it means not to know, what is what, where is what,” he says the literary scholar. Kästner’s books continued to be printed in German-speaking countries and were still distributed in Germany. And he was allowed to write the script for the film “Münchausen” under a different name. It wasn’t until 1943 that he was actually banned from working, and he lived on savings until the end of the war.

    Meanwhile, he collected for a novel, “a kind of moral history of the Third Reich,” says Hanuschek. There are only fragments – whispered jokes, comments on newspaper reports, descriptions of the adversities of everyday life. Because Kästner then realized that one could not write about it in view of the Holocaust, the dimensions of which only became apparent after the war. He quietly buried the project.

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    New successes

    The successful author then worked again as a journalist for the “Neue Zeitung” for two and a half years, tried to shed light on the Nazi era, was at the Nuremberg trials, and described “the absurd realities, the murderous nature of the Third Reich.” Later he returned to literary work and achieved his old popularity with children’s books such as “The Double Lottchen” and “The Conference of the Animals”.

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