Anti-intellectualism and the burning of books

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Sven Hanuschek: “Keiner blickt dir hinter das Gesicht” – Das Leben Erich Kästners ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ISBN 978-3-423-30871-7 Erich Kästner: Über das Verbrennen von Büchern ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ISBN 978-3-85535-389-7 Erich Kästner was besides Enid Blyton one of the writers that marked my childhood reading. I have read “Emil and the Detectives” and “Emil and the Three Twins” countless times and admired the author for his ability to “sell” a moral lesson or two wrapped in attractive gift paper. The easy-going language, the slightly old-fashioned touch – both books were written before World War II – made reading an adventure and a wonderful pastime.

A legend in shatters

I held Kästner in unreserved esteem until I was about 15. By chance I borrowed Kästner’s own attempt at a biography “Als ich ein kleiner Junge war” (When I was a young boy) from the school library, and I was struck by the the way how Kästner sanctified and adulated his mother. His overly nostalgic look back upon his childhood in Dresden, his exclusive relationship to his mother, the total absence of his father and any friends from his peer group disconcerted me. I was for the first time confronted with the Kästner’s exceptional gift to showcase himself.

Sven Hanuschek paints a highly critical picture of the young boy’s family and Kästner’s fixation on his mother for several decades, he destroys the legends that Kästner and his later girl friend Luiselotte Enderle built around the writer’s person – hence the title of Hanuschek’s book: Nobody looks behind your face. Kästner was an enigmatic and complex person and the polished surface of his literary works may be misleading. “All is not well. I doubt some foul play”,  Hamlet would say.

Witnessing the Nazis’ rise

Kästner’s world-wide success as a childbook author obscures his political thinking, reflected in innumerable cabaret pieces, poems and his adult novel “Fabian – The Story of a Moralist”. Kästner was a keen observer of his time, abhorred the  militarism firmly rooted in German society and feared for the survival of the Weimar Republic. “Fabian” served its purpose – from its publication on, Kästner was branded as an enemy by the conservative political parties and foremost by the National Socialists.

In 1933, Kästner’s books and those of many others were burned in public by university students that had succumbed to Joseph Goebbels anti-intellectual propaganda. While many German writers, researchers, actors and musicians fled Germany after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Kästner decided to stay on and continue to observe the rise and fall of the “Third Reich”.

Moral choices

Hanuschek’s biography recounts in a detailed way the personal evolution of Kästner as a writer, as a womanizer, as a colleague eager to help whenever he could. He also sheds a light on Kästner’s difficult moral choices during the Nazi time. He was an eye-witness of the burning of his books, but he did not speak out. Hanuschek has analysed Kästner’s letters and diaries and says that Kästner did not see any purpose of speaking out at the time. It was already too late. The Nazis had grabbed the power and a single opposing voice would have led him into a concentration camp and changed nothing.

Ethical questions of another nature – linked to the women he had attracted into his orbit and the son he would not officially recognize as such – troubled Kästner after World War II. Germany’s enthusiastic moralist was confronted with moral choices he was afraid to make. This slowed his literary production and encourage him to drink. Kästner died in 1974 from a combination of alcoholism, cancer and desperation. No happy end here.

Productive – undercover

As Kästner stayed in Germany during World War II, he witnessed the catastrophic consequences of Hitler’s politics. He did not write anything political. However he wrote movie scenarios, inoffensive poems often under an assumed name as the Nazis’ cultural bureaucracy had forbidden him to publish anything in the German Reich or Switzerland. Kästner’s earlier works continued to be printed abroad and circulated inside Germany despite the official ban. But Kästner didn’t engage in any rebellious act. He waited until the end of the war and then he told his story: What he had seen, what he had experienced – the abyss of human depravation.

And a few years after World War II, his books were again burned – this time by overzealous Christian students who saw some of his works as opposed to Christian morality. The book “Über das Verbrennen von Büchern” is a collection of speeches Kästner gave in 1947, 1953, 1958 and 1965 about what the burning of books stands for – the negation of culture, of rationalism, of human intelligence.

Diatribes and autocratic rule

Kästner’s biography and his idea about the burning of books – you cannot destroy the influence of a book as long as someone is willing to read it – is a highly fascinating read in a time when in democratic societies  a growing part of the population is cheering at populist politicians and rejecting the deemed elites, in a time when violent emotions and foul language in public triumph over rationalism and civility. I found striking parallels between the climate in Germany in the 20s and 30s and today’s voices in social networks and the diatribes of the US president. Erich Kästner has seen how such a climate may encourage violence and lead to the destruction of societies. He has also seen that it might be too late to act once populist leaders with autocratic tendencies are at the helm of governments. Will we learn from him?

Kästner’s favourite piece of music was a march composed for the movie adaption of Richard Strauss’ opera “Der Rosenkavalier”, but György Kurtag’s set of 19 movements called “Signs, Games and Messages” seems much more appropriate to illustrate this book review – a meditation and a warning:

On terror, fear, symbols and music