Book Burnings How the Nazis Ruined Erich Kästner's Career

Nearly 80 years ago, Nazi supporters burned German author Erich Kästner's work as smut. Unlike other condemned writers, he showed up to watch, and refused to leave the country during WWII. But he paid a price for this, ultimately giving in to self-censorship from which he never truly recovered.

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It was late and dark, and it was raining, but the students who had concocted this plan were undeterred. They didn't need Hitler or Goebbels to inspire them. It was their idea, and now they were standing there, hooting and carrying torches, only to realize that because of the rain they would need the fire department to pour a little gasoline on the books so that they would actually burn.

It was May 10, 1933, shortly before midnight, not exactly prime time.

But then Joseph Goebbels made an appearance after all, shouting: "The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character." This German man, he went on to say, would even "overcome the fear of death." This scene and these words, which Goebbels hurled at his audience like missiles, encapsulated everything that was yet to come: burning synagogues, Auschwitz, Stalingrad and firing squads on the Eastern Front. Goebbels had already thought of everything. All he needed was a few helpers.

During student elections in 1931, some 44.4 percent voted for the National Socialist German Students' League. In April 1933, the German Student Association conceived a campaign called the "Action against the Un-German Spirit," and on April 12, it published its "12 Theses," which argued: "A Jew can only think Jewish. If he writes in German, he is lying." This lie, the students continued, was to be "eradicated."

And now roughly 40,000 people were standing in the pouring rain at Opernplatz square in Berlin to see how this could be done. They included Erich Kästner, who would later call Goebbels a "little limping devil" and a "failed human being." Kästner had come to watch his own books being burned, especially "Fabian," which the Nazi Party newspaper Völkischer Beobachter called a "dirty tale," filled with "descriptions of subhuman orgies."

A Fateful German Figure

In "Fabian," Kästner, who is now chiefly known as a writer of children's books, did indeed describe quick sex, casual sex and lesbian sex, in addition to love bought and sold, desire and suicide, unfaithful spouses, the tender juggernaut of modernity, newspaper editorial offices full of opportunists, dance halls full of lunatics, and a city filled with beggars, brothels and chaos.

It wasn't quite the Nazis' cup of tea.

"Against class warfare and materialism, for the community of the people and an idealistic way of life! I deliver to the flames the writings of Marx and Kautsky," the first student at Opernplatz shouted with what they called a "flame verse."

"Against decadence and moral degeneracy, for decency and customs in family and government!" the second student shouted. "I deliver to the flames the works of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Glaeser and Erich Kästner!"

Near the top of the students' list was Kästner, the author of "Emil and the Detectives" and "Dot and Anton," and a theater critic, lyricist and humorist. He was even higher on the list than Sigmund Freud and his "soul-destroying glorification of the instinctual life," Theodor Wolff and his "alien journalism," Erich Maria Remarque and his "literary betrayal of the soldiers of the world war," Alfred Kerr and his "smug adulteration of the German language" and Tucholsky and Ossietzky and their "insolence and arrogance."

Many of these authors had already fled the country or were in prison, but Kästner chose to stand in the place where flames were consuming his books. He wanted to see what was happening, because he wanted to be a chronicler, and he still believed that this horrific episode would soon end and he would write a novel about it, perhaps even a humorous one. He couldn't have done anything else, because it was his nature. But then a woman shouted: "There's Kästner!" And he, the famous, ambivalent, good-natured and lost Kästner, a fateful German figure, decided it was better to leave.

Staying in Germany

His story reaches back to the Weimar period, and to understand how it all happened -- the book-burning 80 years ago and everything that followed, with the fanaticism, the cult of the masses, the German killing machine that culminated in its ultimate act of brutality on the Eastern Front -- it's important to look back to 1928, when Kästner began writing quickly and energetically, though in retrospect, by then it was already too late. First he wrote his "Monday poems," followed by the novel "Fabian," published in 1931 and burned in 1933 in Berlin, Munich, Greifswald, Göttingen, Heidelberg, Marburg, Kiel, Hanover and Dresden -- essentially every German university city. The students were nothing if not thorough.

But instead of fleeing the country, going into exile and being deprived of his citizenship, Kästner remained in Berlin after 1933. He tried in vain to be accepted into the compulsory Nazi writer's association, the Reichsverband deutscher Schriftsteller (RDS), but he did manage to publish a children's book, "The Flying Classroom." After an arson attack on the German parliament, the Reichstag, in February 1933, he wrote to his mother from the South Tyrol region of Austria: "Staying out of the country is out of the question. I have a good conscience, and if I left I would always blame myself for being a coward. It just isn't possible. Besides, I can only stand to be away for a few weeks at a time."

So he stayed, because he didn't want to abandon his mother, to whom he wrote a letter or a postcard every day. He also wanted to be a reporter at a dark time, and underestimated how long Germany's period of insanity would last, and how violent it would become. He was a gambler by nature, carefree and prepared to take risks, always a little insincere and probably somewhat arrogant. He remained that way for the rest of his life, even when the various women he had carefully juggled over the years suddenly began to make trouble for him. He began drinking even more heavily than before, and eventually the author Erich Kästner became "Erich Kästner, author," a shadow of the man he could have become if he hadn't made so many compromises. "He was cheeky and he was pleasant, but he was never courageous," German writer Fritz J. Raddatz wrote.

Submitting to Self-Censorship

Kästner paid a price for staying in Germany, where his books were burned and banned. Though only in his early 30s, productive and in his prime, he was crippled professionally. "It seems that I am not at all in favor, because Klaus Mann printed something from my works in his magazine abroad," he wrote to his mother in October 1934. "And now the authorities believe that I sent it to him! What lunacy!"

So he played tennis and amused himself with "a blonde, 20-year-old actress, who has read and loved me since she was 15," he wrote to his mother. He did work, albeit under a pseudonym, writing theater comedies and film scripts. He was almost arrested by the Gestapo, and yet "Germany's most hopeful pessimist," as his friend Marcel Reich-Ranicki called him in 1974, managed to escape arrest and kept on drinking with his friends, spending his nights in the bars and brothels he described in "Fabian." It was his most important work, and yet it was only available in a mutilated version.

Kästner had agreed to the cuts, the toxic mood in Berlin having prompted him to exercise self-censorship. "What was the point of staying in this town, in this box of bricks gone mad?" Kästner wrote about the antihero and procrastinator Jakob Fabian, a lover of women, a mama's boy and a man of words, just as he was.

"He could just as easily await Europe's downfall in the place where he was born. It was his own fault for fancying that the world would turn around him, as long as he observed it. That ridiculous need to be present! Others had a profession, forged ahead, married, let their wives have children and believed that it was the way it should be. And he had to stand behind the fence, of his own free will, of all things, watching and despairing by installments. Europe was in a great recess. The teachers were gone. The lesson plan had disappeared. The old Continent was not going to achieve the goals of the class."

Kästner had first wanted to become a teacher, but chose to be a celebrated journalist instead, first in Leipzig and then Berlin. He rushed and rattled along at the city's pace, writing features and having affairs, subletting an apartment and enjoying success, both with his children's books, which so many people loved, and his poems, which so many hated.

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