Erich Kästner

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This article is about the author. For other uses, see Erich Kästner (disambiguation).
Erich Kästner
Erich Kästner, 1933
Born (1899-02-23)23 February 1899
Dresden, Saxony, German Empire
Died 29 July 1974(1974-07-29) (aged 75)
Munich, West Germany
Occupation Writer
Nationality German
Period 1928–1969
Genre Children's literature, poetry, satire, screenplays
Notable awards Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing
Partner Luiselotte Enderle
Children Thomas Kästner


Emil Erich Kästner (German: [ˈʔeːʁɪç ˈkɛstnɐ]; 23 February 1899 – 29 July 1974) was a German author, poet, screenwriter and satirist, known primarily for his humorous, socially astute poetry and for children's books including Emil and the Detectives. He received the international Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1960 for his autobiography Als ich ein kleiner Junge war.[1][2]


Dresden 1899–1919[edit]

Kästner was born in Dresden, Saxony. He grew up in the Königsbrücker Straße of Dresden's Äußere Neustadt. Today, the Erich Kästner Museum is located nearby, on the ground floor of Kästner's uncle Franz Augustin's former villa on Antonstraße.

Kästner's father Emil was a master saddlemaker. His mother Ida, née Augustin, was a maidservant and housewife. When in her thirties she trained as 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 letters and postcards on a daily basis; interestingly, in his writing, overbearing mothers make a regular appearance. It was rumored that Erich Kästner's natural father was the Jewish family doctor, Emil Zimmermann (1864–1953). These rumors have never been substantiated.[3] 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. However, he dropped out in 1916 shortly before completing the exams 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 that this "brought an end to my childhood." Kästner was drafted in 1917 and was stationed with a heavy artillery company. The brutality of the military training and the slaughter of the war had a strong influence on his future antimilitarism. The merciless drilling Kästner was subjected to by his training officer, Sergeant Waurich, caused a lifelong heart condition. Kästner portrays this in his poem Sergeant Waurich. After the end of the war, Kästner went back to school and passed the Abitur exam with distinction, earning a scholarship from the city of Dresden.

Leipzig 1919–1927[edit]

In the autumn of 1919, Kästner enrolled at the University of Leipzig to study history, philosophy, German studies, 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 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 1927–1931[edit]

Kästner's years in Berlin from 1927 until the end of the Weimar Republic were his most productive. He published poems, newspaper columns, articles, and reviews in many of Berlin's important periodicals. Kästner was a regular contributor to dailies such as the Berliner Tageblatt and the Vossische Zeitung, as well as to Die Weltbühne. In Kästner's Complete Works (published in 1998), editors Hans Sarkowicz and Franz Josef Görtz list over 350 articles written between 1923 and 1933, however the actual numbers may exceed this. Many texts were lost when Kästner's flat burnt during a bombing raid in February 1944.

In 1928 Kästner published his first book of poems, Herz auf Taille. Until 1933, he published three more collections of poetry. His Gebrauchslyrik (Lyrics for Everyday Use) made him one of the leading figure of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, which focused on a sobering, distant and objective style employed to satirise contemporary society. Other major writers of the movement include Joseph Roth, Irmgard Keun, Carl Zuckmayer, Erich Maria Remarque, and Anna Seghers. In the autumn of 1928, Kästner published his best-known children's book, Emil und die Detektive, illustrated by Walter Trier. The owner of the Weltbühne publishing house, Edith Jacobsen, had suggested the detective story to Kästner. The book sold two million copies in Germany alone and has been translated into 59 languages. The novel was unusual in that, in contrast to most children's literature of the period, it is set in contemporary Berlin and not in a fairy-tale world; in it Kästner also refrained from overt moralising, letting the characters' actions speak for themselves. Its 1933 sequel Emil und die Drei Zwillinge (Emil and the Three Twins) takes place on the shores of the Baltic.

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

Kästner followed up on this success with Pünktchen und Anton (1931) and Das fliegende Klassenzimmer (1933). Walter Trier's illustration helped to make these books very popular.

In 1932 he wrote Der 35. Mai (The 35th of May), set in a fantasy land accessed via a wardrobe, and which includes 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, a fact that made him become a screenwriter for the Babelsberg film studios.

Kästner's only major adult novel Fabian was published in 1931. Kästner wrote this novel in an almost cinematic style: Rapid cuts and montages are important stylistic elements. It is set in early 1930s Berlin. In it the unemployed literary expert Fabian experiences the uproariously fast pace of the times as well as the downfall of the Weimar Republic. Other than his poetry, Fabian is regarded as Kästner's finest literary achievement and as a major work of Neue Sachlichkeit.

From 1927 until 1931, Kästner lived at Prager Straße 17 (today near no. 12) in Berlin–Wilmersdorf and after that, until February 1945, at Roscherstraße 16 in Berlin-Charlottenburg.

Berlin 1933–1945[edit]

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 and was one of the signatories to the Urgent Call for Unity. However, unlike many of his fellow authors critical of the dictatorship, Kästner did not go into exile. After the Nazis rise to power, Kästner did travel to Meran and to Switzerland and met with exiled fellow writers, yet he returned to Berlin, arguing that there he would be better able to chronicle events. 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 national writers' guild expelled him. The Nazis burnt Kästner's books as "contrary to the German spirit" during the infamous book burnings of 10 May 1933, instigated by Joseph Goebbels. Kästner witnessed the event in person and later wrote about it. Kästner was denied membership of the new Nazi-controlled national writers' guild, the Reichsschrifttumskammer, because of what officials called the "culturally Bolshevist attitude in his writings prior to 1933." This amounted to a publication ban. During the Third Reich, Kästner published apolitical, popular novels such as Drei Männer im Schnee (Three Men in the Snow) (1934) in Switzerland. In 1942, he received a special exemption to write the well-regarded screenplay Münchhausen, using the pseudonym Berthold Bürger. The film was Ufa Studios prestigious project to celebrate its 25th anniversary, an enterprise backed by Joseph Goebbels. Despite the special exemption granted to Kästner, his name (and pseudonym) were not mentioned in the original film credits.

In 1944, Kästner's Berlin home was destroyed by bombs. In early 1945, in order to leave war-torn Berlin, Kästner and others pretended they had to travel to the rural community of Mayrhofen in Tyrol for location shooting for a (nonexistent) film project titled Das falsche Gesicht (The Wrong Face). The actual object of this journey was to avoid the final Soviet assault on Berlin. Kästner was in Mayrhofen when the war ended. He wrote about this period in a diary published in 1961 under the title Notabene 45. Another edition, closer to Kästner's original notation, was published in 2006 under the title Das Blaue Buch (The Blue Book).

Munich 1945–1974[edit]

After the end of World War II Kästner moved to Munich where he became culture editor for the Neue Zeitung newspaper and publisher of Pinguin, a magazine for children and youths. 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 radio. 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 life in post-war Germany. Most notable among these works were Marschlied 1945 and Deutsches Ringelspiel. He also continued to write children's books, namely Die Konferenz der Tiere (The Animals' Conference), a pacifist satire in which the world's animals unite to successfully force humans to disarm and make peace; this picture book was 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 of the immediate post-war era gave way to resignation as West Germans attempted to normalize their lives following the economic reforms of the early 1950s and the ensuing "economic miracle" ("Wirtschaftswunder"), a period during which reconstruction and personal gain sidelined any debate about the recent past. He became further disillusioned, as chancellor Konrad Adenauers remilitarized West Germany, made it a member of NATO, and rearmed it for possible military conflict with the Warsaw Pact. Through this time, Kästner remained a pacifist and spoke out at antimilitarist Ostermarsch (de) demonstrations against the stationing of nuclear weapons in West Germany. Later, he also took a stand against the Vietnam War.

Kästner began to publish less and less, partly because of his increasing alcoholism. He did not join 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 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 a film twice: in 1961 and in 1998.

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. In 1960 he received the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Als ich ein kleiner Junge war (When I Was a Little Boy), an autobiography.[1][2] The 1959 English-language When I Was a Little Boy, translated by the prolific Florence and Isabel McHugh, was named to the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award list in 1961.

Erich Kästner (left) in the English Garden, Munich, 1968

Kästner received several other awards, 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 West German government honored Kästner with its order of merit, the Bundesverdienstkreuz, in 1959. In 1968 he received 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).

Kästner died of esophageal cancer on 29 July 1974 in Munich's Neuperlach hospital and 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.

Kästner and the bombing of Dresden[edit]

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".


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

  • Herz auf Taille, 1928
  • Emil und die Detektive, 1929 (Emil and the Detectives) Hollywood film version produced in 1964 (Emil and the Detectives (1964) at the Internet Movie Database); adapted into film in 1931,1935(UK), 1954, and 2001.
  • Lärm im Spiegel, 1929
  • Ein Mann gibt Auskunft, 1930
  • Pünktchen und Anton, 1931 (Anna Louise and Anton)
  • Der 35. Mai, 1931 (The 35th of May, or Conrad's Ride to the South Seas)
  • Fabian. Die Geschichte eines Moralisten, 1932 (Fabian, the Story of a Moralist). Republished in English as Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist by New York Review Books Classics, November 6, 2012, ISBN 9781590175842
  • 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 (The Flying Classroom), adapted into film in 1954 by Kurt Hoffmann and in 1973 by Werner Jacobs
  • Drei Männer im Schnee, 1934
  • Die verschwundene Miniatur, 1935
  • Doktor Erich Kästners Lyrische Hausapotheke, 1936 (Doctor Erich Kästner's Lyrical Medicine Chest)
  • Georg und die Zwischenfälle, (aka Der kleine Grenzverkehr) 1938
  • Das doppelte Lottchen, 1949 (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 (When I Was a Little Boy), his autobiography
  • Der kleine Mann 1963 (The Little Man)
  • Der kleine Mann und die kleine Miss 1967
  • Mein Onkel Franz 1969

Selected filmography[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Hans Christian Andersen Awards". International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY). Retrieved 2013-08-05.
  2. ^ a b "Erich Kästner" (pp. 26–27, by Eva Glistrup).
    "Half a Century of the Hans Christian Andersen Awards" (pp. 14–21). Eva Glistrup.
    The Hans Christian Andersen Awards, 1956–2002. IBBY. Gyldendal. 2002. Hosted by Austrian Literature Online. Retrieved 2013-08-05.
  3. ^ Hanuschek, Sven (1999). Keiner blickt dir hinter das Gesicht. Das Leben Erich Kästners. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag. p. 46. ISBN 3-423-30871-0. 


  • Volker Ladenthin (de), "Erich Kästner, the Innovator: Modern Books for Modern Kids", Volker Ladenthin and Susanne Hucklenbroich-Ley, eds., Erich Kästner Jahrbuch vol. 3, Würzburg 2004, pp. 19–26

External links[edit]