Erich Kastner

Biografie şi Bibliografie

Erich Kästner (February 23, 1899 – July 29, 1974) was one of the most famous German authors, screenplay writers, and satirists of the 20th century. His popularity in Germany is primarily due to his humorous and perceptive children's literature and his often satirical poetry.


Dresden 1899 – 1919

Kästner was born in Dresden, Kingdom of Saxony. He grew up in the Königsbrücker Strasse of Dresden's Äussere Neustadt. Close by, the Erich Kästner Museum is located on the ground floor of Kästner's uncle Franz Augustin's former villa on Antonstraße next to the Albertplatz.

Kästner's father Emil was a master saddlemaker. His mother Ida, née Augustin, was a maidservant and housewife, and in her thirties trained to be a hairstylist in order to supplement her husband's income. Kästner had a particularly close relationship with his mother. While he lived in Leipzig and Berlin, he wrote her fairly intimate daily letters and postcards. His novels, too, seem to be pervaded by overbearing mothers. It was rumored that Erich Kästner's natural father was not Emil Kästner, but rather the Jewish family doctor, Emil Zimmermann (1864–1953). These rumors never were substantiated. Kästner wrote about his childhood in his 1957 autobiography When I Was a Little Boy. According to Kästner, he did not suffer from being an only child, had many friends, and was not lonely or over-indulged.

In 1913, Kästner entered a teacher training school in Dresden, but left the school in 1916 shortly before completing the courses that would have qualified him to teach at public schools. The German Empire was in turmoil. In 1914, when he was 15, World War I broke out. He later wrote about the event that it "brought an end to my childhood." Kästner was drafted in 1917 and became part of a heavy artillery company. The brutality of the training he underwent as a soldier impressed Kästner strongly; this and the slaughter of the war in general had a strong influence on his anti-militarist opinions. Moreover, the merciless drilling by Kästner's sergeant Waurich caused the author a life-long heart affliction. Kästner critiques the sergeant's character in his poem Sergeant Waurich. At the end of the war, Kästner returned to school and achieved the Abitur with distinction, earning a scholarship (Stipendium) from the city of Dresden.

Leipzig 1919 – 1927

German stamp honoring Emil and the Detectives

In the autumn of 1919, Kästner enrolled at the University of Leipzig to study history, philosophy, German language and literature and theatre. His studies took Kästner to Rostock and Berlin, and in 1925 he received a doctorate for a thesis on Frederick the Great and German literature. Kästner paid for his studies by working as a journalist and drama critic for the prestigious Neue Leipziger Zeitung newspaper. Kästner's increasingly critical reviews and the "frivolous" publication of his erotic poem Abendlied des Kammervirtuosen (Evening Song of the Chamber Virtuoso) - with illustrations by Erich Ohser - got him fired in 1927. The same year, Kästner moved to Berlin. He did, however, continue to write for the Neue Leipziger Zeitung under the pseudonym "Berthold Bürger" ("Bert Citizen") as a freelance correspondent. Kästner would later use several other pseudonyms, for example "Melchior Kurtz," "Peter Flint," and "Robert Neuner".

Berlin 1927 – 1933

Kästner's years in Berlin from 1927 until the end of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis in 1933 were his most productive. In just a few years, Kästner became one of the most important intellectual figures in the German capital. He published poems, newspaper columns, articles, and reviews in many of Berlin's important periodicals. Kästner was a regular contributor to different daily newspapers such as the Berliner Tageblatt and the Vossische Zeitung, as well as to the theater journal Die Weltbühne. In Kästner's Complete Works (published in German in 1998), editors Hans Sarkowicz and Franz Josef Görtz list over 350 articles from 1923 to 1933, but the actual number may be much higher. Much was lost when Kästner's flat burnt during a World War II bombing raid in February 1944.

In 1928 Kästner published his first book, Herz auf Taille, a collection of poems he wrote in Leipzig. Kästner published three more collections of poetry by 1933. His Gebrauchslyrik (Lyrics for Everyday Use) made him the leading figure of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, which focused on a sobering, distant and objective style employed to satirize contemporary society. Other major writers of the movement include Joseph Roth, Hermann Hesse, Carl Zuckmayer, Erich Maria Remarque, Thomas Mann, and Heinrich Mann.

In the autumn of 1928, Kästner published his best-known children's book, Emil und die Detektive (Emil and the Detectives). The owner of the Weltbühnen-Verlag publishing house, Edith Jacobsen, had suggested the detective story to Kästner. The book sold two million copies in Germany and has been translated into 59 languages, including English. The most unusual aspect of the novel, compared to existing children's literature at the time, was that it was realistically set in the centre of contemporary Berlin, not in a fantasy world; also that it refrained from all-too-obvious moralising, letting the characters' deeds speak for themselves. Its 1933 sequel Emil und die Drei Zwillinge (Emil and the Three Twins) was set on the shores of the Baltic.

The Emil books had an important role in popularising the sub-genre of "Children Detectives", later taken up by other writers of children's books such as Enid Blyton.

Kästner followed up on his success with Pünktchen und Anton (1931) and Das fliegende Klassenzimmer (1933). Walter Trier's illustration helped make the books as popular as they still are.

In 1932 he wrote The 35th of May, set in a fantasy land reached via a wardrobe (from which C S Lewis may have got the idea for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardobe, and which included futuristic features such as mobile phones.

Gerhard Lamprecht's 1931 film version of Emil und die Detektive was a great success. Kästner, however, was dissatisfied with the screenplay. This led him to work as a screenwriter for the Babelsberg film studios located just outside Berlin's Versailles-equivalent Potsdam.

Kästner's only adult novel of stature is Fabian (1931). Kästner wrote the novel in an almost cinematic style: Rapid cuts and montages are important stylistic elements. The novel is set in early 1930s Berlin. Kästner lets the unemployed German literary expert Fabian explain the uproarious quick pace of the times and the downfall of the Weimar Republic.

From 1927 until 1931, Kästner lived at Prager Straße 17 (today near no. 12) in Berlin–Wilmersdorf; after that until February 1944 he lived at Rocherstraße 16 in Berlin-Charlottenburg.

Berlin 1933 – 1945

Kästner was a pacifist and wrote for children because of his belief in the regenerating powers of youth. He was opposed to the Nazi regime in Germany that began January 30, 1933, but unlike many of his fellow authors critical of the dictatorship, Kästner did not emigrate. Kästner did travel to Merano and to Switzerland just after the Nazis assumed power, and he met with exiled fellow writers there. However, Kästner returned to Berlin, arguing that he could chronicle the times better from there. It is probable that Kästner also wanted to avoid abandoning his mother. His epigram Necessary Answer to Superfluous Questions (Notwendige Antwort auf überflüssige Fragen) in Kurz und Bündig explains Kästner's position:

    I'm a German from Dresden in Saxony
    My homeland won't let me go
    I'm like a tree that, grown in Germany,
    Will likely wither there also.

The Gestapo interrogated Kästner several times, and the writers' guild excluded him. Fanatic mobs burnt Kästner's books as "contrary to the German spirit" during the book burnings of 1933. Kästner witnessed the event in person. Kästner was denied entry into the new Nazi-controlled national writers' guild, the Reichsschrifttumskammer, because of what officials called the "culturally Bolshevist attitude in his writings predating 1933." This amounted to a gag order for Kästner throughout the Third Reich. Instead, Kästner published apolitical, entertaining novels such as Drei Männer im Schnee (Three Men in the Snow) (1934) in Switzerland. Kästner received an exemption to write the well-regarded screenplay Münchhausen under the pseudonym Berthold Bürger in 1942. Bombs destroyed Kästner's home in Berlin in 1944. In early 1945, Kästner and others faked a filming engagement in the remote Mayrhofen in Tyrol to avoid the brutal Soviet assault on Berlin. Kästner was in Mayrhofen when the war ended. He wrote about this time in a diary that he published in 1961 as Notabene 45.

Munich 1945 – 1974

After the end of World War II Kästner moved to Munich. There, he was the culture editor for the Neue Zeitung newspaper and published a magazine, Pinguin, aimed at children and teenagers. Kästner was also active in literary cabaret; he was involved in productions at the Schaubude (1945 - 1948) and Die kleine Freiheit (after 1951). Additionally, he worked for different radio networks. During this time, Kästner wrote a number of skits, songs, audio plays, speeches, and essays about National Socialism, World War II, and the stark realities of destroyed post-war Germany. These works include the Marschlied 1945, the Deutsches Ringelspiel, and the children's book Die Konferenz der Tiere, the latter made into an animated film by Curt Linda. He also renewed his collaboration with Edmund Nick whom he had met in Leipzig in 1929 where Nick, then Head of the Music Department at Radio Silesia, wrote the music to Kästner's very successful radio play Leben in dieser Zeit. Nick was now the Musical Director at the Schaubude and set more than 60 of Kästner's songs to music.

Kästner's optimism during the immediate post-war years gave way to resignation as the people of West Germany attempted to normalize their lives following the economic reforms of the early 1950s and the ensuing boom called the "economic miracle" ("Wirtschaftswunder"). His pacifism suffered further with the call by chancellor Konrad Adenauer and his realpolitik allies to remilitarize West Germany so that it could do its part in defending the democracies of Western Europe and the NATO against the Soviet dictatorships, including Communist Eastern Germany, which formed the Warsaw Pact under the leadership of the Soviet Union. Kästner remained a pacifist, speaking at the anti-militarist Ostermarsch demonstrations that protested the stationing of nuclear weapons in West Germany. He later also took a stand against the Vietnam War.

Kästner began publishing less and less, in part because of a growing alcoholism. He did not integrate into any of the post-war literary movements in West Germany and in the 1950s and 1960s was perceived mainly as an author of children's books. Kästner was not rediscovered as the serious writer of his work during the Weimar Republic until the 1970s.

His novel Fabian was made into a movie in 1980, as well as several of his children's books. At least in America the most famous adaptation was Das doppelte Lottchen, or Lottie and Lisa, which was made into The Parent Trap.

Nevertheless, Kästner was very successful. His children's books sold well and were translated into many different languages. Several of the novels were made into movies. Kästner received a number of prizes, including the Filmband in Gold for the best screenplay for the movie Das doppelte Lottchen in 1951, the prize in literature of the city of Munich in 1956, and the Georg Büchner Prize in 1957. The German government honored Kästner with its order of merit, the Bundesverdienstkreuz, in 1959. In 1960 Kästner received the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Prize and in 1968 the Lessing-Ring together with the Prize in Literature of the German Masonic Order.

In 1951, Kästner was elected president of the West German P.E.N. Center, and he remained in office until 1961. In 1965 he became the group's president emeritus. Kästner was also instrumental in the founding of Munich's Internationale Jugendbibliothek library.

Kästner never married. However, he wrote his last two children's books Der kleine Mann and Der kleine Mann und die kleine Miss for his son Thomas Kästner, who was born in 1957.

Kästner frequently read from his works. Already in the 1920s, he recorded his socio-critical poems. In movies based on his books, he often lent his voice to the narrator, as he did for the first audio production of Pünktchen und Anton. Other recordings for the Deutsche Grammophon include poems, epigrams, and his version of the folktale Till Eulenspiegel. Kästner also read in theatres like the Cuvilliés Theatre in Munich, and for the radio, such as Als ich ein kleiner Junge war (When I Was A Little Boy).

After his death in Munich's Neuperlach hospital on 29 July 1974, Kästner was buried in the St. George cemetery in the Bogenhausen district of Munich. Shortly after his death, the Bavarian Academy of Arts established a literary prize in his honor, appropriately named the Erich Kästner Prize.

Popularity in Israel

Hebrew is among the many languagues to which Kästner's works were translated, and they enjoyed enormous popularity in Israel during the 1950's and 1960's - a very exceptional phenomenon at the time, when there was among Israelis a very strong aversion to, and widespread boycotting of, all things German in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Even parents who were themselves Holocaust survivors are known to have bought Kästner books for their children. As a kind of unintentional "cultural ambassador", Kästner may have helped prepare the ground for the gradual rapprochement between Israeli Jews and Germans taking place since the middle 1960's.

It should be noted that in the Hebrew translation of Das doppelte Lottchen, the chapters taking place in the original at Munich were transferred to Zürich, apparently due to the translator and publisher's special aversion to the city where Hitler started his career, and generally to make the book "less German" (German films at the time were often presented in Israel as "Austrian films" for the same reason). His collection of short stories for children, Das Schwein beim Friseur (The Pig at the Barbershop) was renamed in Hebrew The Billy-Goat at the Barbershop to bypass a perceived Jewish sensitivity to the subject of pigs, traditionally anathema to Jews.

Kästner and the bombing of Dresden

In his 1945 diary, published many years later, Kästner describes his shock at arriving at Dresden shortly after its firebombing in February 1945 and finding it a pile of ruins, so much so that he could recognise none of the streets and landmarks among which he had spent his childhood and youth.

His autobiographical book When I Was a Little Boy begins with a lament for Dresden: "I was born in the most beautiful city in the world. Even if your father, child, was the richest man in the world, he could not take you to see it, because it does not exist any more. (...) In a thousand years was her beauty built, in one night was it utterly destroyed".

Translations of this book had the effect of making children aware of the Dresden bombing in countries where this aspect of the Second World War was obscured in school curricula.


A list of his works, by their German titles and publication dates:

    * Herz auf Taille, 1928
    * Emil und die Detektive, 1929; in English Emil and the Detectives; Hollywood film version produced in 1964 (IMDB link). Adapted into film in 1931, 1954, and 2001.
    * Lärm im Spiegel, 1929
    * Ein Mann gibt Auskunft, 1930
    * Pünktchen und Anton, 1931; in English, Anna Louise and Anton
    * Der 35. Mai, 1931; in English, The 35th of May, or Conrad's Ride to the South Seas
    * Fabian. Die Geschichte eines Moralisten, 1932; in English, Fabian, the Story of a Moralist
    * Gesang zwischen den Stühlen, 1932
    * Emil und die Drei Zwillinge (Emil and the Three Twins) 1933 (sequel of the 1929 book)
    * Das fliegende Klassenzimmer, 1933; in English, The Flying Classroom, adapted into film in 1954 by Kurt Hoffmann and in 2006 by Tomy Wigand.
    * Drei Männer im Schnee, 1934
    * Die verschwundene Miniatur, 1935
    * Doktor Erich Kästners Lyrische Hausapotheke, 1936; in English Doctor Erich Kästner's Lyrical Medicine Chest
    * Georg und die Zwischenfälle, (AKA Der kleine Grenzverkehr) 1938
    * Das doppelte Lottchen, 1949; in English, Lottie and Lisa, adapted into film as The Parent Trap in 1961 and 1998.
    * Die Konferenz der Tiere, 1949
    * Die dreizehn Monate, 1955
    * Als ich ein kleiner Junge war 1957; in English, When I Was a Little Boy, his autobiography.
    * Der kleine Mann 1963; in English, The Little Man
    * Der kleine Mann und die kleine Miss 1967

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