The Nazis Burned His Books. Now Erich Kästner’s Uncensored Work Receives New Life

The renowned author’s 1931 book 'Fabian' so shocked his publisher that it was heavily censored. Now the full version, with its prescient warnings about decaying society, is available for a new audience

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Erich Kastner. A powerful satirical sketch of the joyful hedonistic revelry in Berlin during the twilight years of the Weimar Republic.
Erich Käster. A powerful satirical sketch of the joyful hedonistic revelry in Berlin during the twilight years of the Weimar Republic.Credit: Goebel / DPA/AFP
Avner Shapira
Avner Shapira

“The near future had made up its mind to mince me into sausage-meat … I was sitting in a great waiting-room and its name was Europe. The train was due to leave in a week. I knew that. But no one could tell me where I was going or what would become of me. And now we are again seated in the waiting-room, and against is name is Europe! And again we do not know what will happen.” (From “Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist,” by Erich Kästner, translation: Cyrus Brooks).

On the night of May 10, 1933, the children’s author Erich Kästner left his Berlin home and watched as his books were burned by the Nazis.

The weather was “funereal,” he described his impression of that night in the Opernplatz. He was the only one of the 200 writers whose works were being burned to be present at the event.

Standing near the spitting bonfire, he heard the speeches condemning the banned authors, poets and philosophers. At one point he observed a student throwing two of his works into the flames, stating that they demonstrated “decadence and moral decay.” A young woman in the square recognized the author and a commotion began but he weathered the incident unscathed, unlike his books.

The book-burner wouldn’t have known that one of the works that outraged them, the adult novel “Fabian,” was actually a watered-down version of an original manuscript that had been substantially censored by Kästner’s publisher. The book, published in German in 1931, is a powerful satirical sketch of the joyful hedonistic revelry in Berlin during the twilight years of the Weimar Republic, a blink of an eye before it fell into the depths of Nazi tyranny.

Burning books in Nazi Germany, May 10, 1933Credit: Pahl, Georg / German Federal Archive

Although already a renowned writer, Kästner reluctantly accepted the changes the publisher demanded, which included the name of the book, and removing erotic depictions and volatile political scenes.

It was this censored version that was translated into numerous languages; produced for the stage and cinema; and published in multiple editions. Kästner chose not to publish his uncensored manuscript before he died. But the text was preserved as part of his estate and in 2013, the German philologist Sven Hanuschek – who researched and also wrote a biography of the author – decided to publish the full work. He also restored the book’s original name: “Der Gang vor die Hunde,” a colorful German folk saying borrowed from the world of hunting that is impossible to translate. It means to deteriorate, to fall apart.

Even though the full, uncensored book has only been published so far in German and French, it has now also come out in Hebrew, called “El Ha’avdon” (“Towards Doom”), wonderfully translated by Ilana Hammerman.

Sven HanschukCredit: Andreas Weinhold

Reading it, one can clearly hear Kästner’s warning about the political, moral and cultural deterioration of Germany and Europe and the dangers he saw lurking on the path ahead. 

Its release provides an opportunity to examine Kästner’s works for adults, which aren’t as well known as his classic works for children, like “Emil and the Detectives” or "Lottie and Lisa" ("Das doppelte Lottchen"), which was adapted into many films, including Disney's 1961 movie "The Parent Trap," starring Hayley Mills and Maureen O'Hara, which was remade years later with Lindsay Lohan playing both sisters.

It is an opportunity to learn about his personal history and his public involvement in his homeland’s three different regimes: the Weimar Republic, under which he began his literary career, the Nazi dictatorship (he remained in Germany although his works were banned), and in the end, the German Federal Republic (West Germany) after World War II.

Warning of social degeneration

Ilana HammermanCredit: Olivier Fitoussi

Born on February 23, 1899 in Dresden, Kästner served in the Germany army towards the end of World War I. He studied in the University of Leipzig and after completing a doctorate on Frederick the Great, moved to Berlin. He worked as a journalist and critic for a left-wing magazine and started to publish poems.

In 1928, he came out with his first children’s book, “Emil and the Detectives,” which was a huge success. “Fabian,” published three years later, was his first novel for adults and his best known in this genre.

The protagonist, Jacob Fabian, lives in a rented room in Berlin and works as a copywriter for a cigarette company until getting fired, forcing him to join the widening circle of unemployed in the early 1930s. He and his good friend Labude, who also has a doctorate in literature, wander together in Berlin, taking in the city’s lively, lewd nightlife, hopping between clubs, cabarets, and other venues of entertainment where they encounter Nazis and communists, homosexuals, bigtime and smalltime criminals, artists, beggars, weirdos, and men and women engaged in all varieties of prostitution.

The two, who see themselves as homeless vagabonds (“we still don’t have a steady job, a steady income, a steady purpose or even a steady girlfriend”), debate the gloomy future of the degenerating society and the chances of it healing itself.

Erich Käster. Encounters with Nazis and communists, homosexuals, artists, beggars, weirdos, and men and women engaged in all varieties of prostitution.Credit: Votava / Imagno / APA-PictureDes

There is practically no record of the publisher’s discussions with Kästner over the changes he demanded, says Hanuschek. “Most of the publisher’s archive was lost during World War II,” he told Haaretz in an interview from the University of Munich, where he teaches. “There is almost no correspondence from the publisher’s archives, they are all war losses. All that is documented is that Kästner discussed the title with the first publisher. He wrote to his mother that he was annoyed about the changes requested, without any details. The fact that he did not publish this version himself after the war could be due to the fact that he did not know about its existence for a long time (it survived in his mother’s estate).”

For her part, Hammerman says she had wanted to translate the original book, “The censorship, which was done even before the Nazi era, moderated the subversive nature of this lovely work and undermined its special combination of humor and sadness, frivolity and misery. Kästner was forced to delete erotic details and expressions, and even to totally remove two key plot elements, which forced him to change the structure of the book. In one Fabian’s manager undresses in front of him and another employee to show them the ugly scar in his lower body following the removal of his cecum. This brilliant, grotesque scene had to be removed because was offensive to the dignity of the executive class. The thing is, that the censor thereby erased one of the heights of the book’s main message, which was to protest the trampling of the dignity of workers,” she says.

The second scene deleted from the original is where Fabian and Labude ride a bus through Berlin and start distorting, as if innocently, the names of cultural, religious and national monuments that are the pride of the city, stunning the other passengers. “I burst out laughing! And I saw myself, in my imagination, going through my city, Jerusalem, passing the arrogant university citadel on Mount Scopus or through the Western Wall Plaza and daring to do the same thing,” Hammerman says.

After the event

The first publisher also rejected two versions of an afterword that Kästner wrote for the novel. These short texts together with two appendices added to the editions of the book that were published after the war appear in the uncensored edition, giving us a glimpse at how Kästner interpreted his own work.

Berlin cabaret, 1929Credit: Atelier Jacobi / ullstein bild v

They show that after the war, he became more of a skeptic. While he could justifiably stress that he had warned in advance of “the devastation to which Germany and with it all of Europe” reached, he says that just as they didn’t heed him or understand his book then, now too, after 12 years of brainwashing, “They certainly won’t understand it better … the younger generation almost can’t even conceive that a person can formulate his own opinion.”

There are autobiographical elements in the fictional Fabian. Both Kästner and his creation were Dresden natives who moved to Berlin, they were the same age, and had the same social and academic backgrounds. Even Fabian’s mother, who visits him in the big city, bringing food and clean laundry, is a literary image of Ida Kästner, the author’s beloved mother, who herself, or women like her, appear in many of his works. In real life, Ida continued washing and ironing Erich’s clothes and sending them in the mail even during the war.

His close relationship with his mother was one of the reasons Kästner remained in Nazi Germany despite his leftist view and the ban on publication of his work. Nevertheless, he was allowed to publish with a Swiss publisher and he also earned money by writing screenplays for the German film industry under an assumed name.

The cover of the Hebrew translation of Käster's book: 'El HaAvadon'Credit: David Benarroch / Hakibbutz Hameuchad

Hanuschek says the three adult novels that Kästner published in Switzerland during this period don’t hold a candle to “Going to the Dogs.” All three aim mainly to entertain; he wrote them during the Nazi era, employing skillful, elegant, boulevard comedy structures that sought to ignore the circumstances of time and politics in order to earn some money, with mixed success, Hanuschek says.

Meeting a concentration camp survivor

Despite the leeway he was granted, his relationship with the regime was tense. When his apartment was destroyed in an air raid and his manuscripts went up in flames, he received no compensation on grounds that he was a banned author and his lost writings had no value. Toward the end of the war, hearing that the S.S. was planning to kill him, he fled Berlin.

Aside from his sense that he wouldn’t be able to strike roots in a foreign country, there was another reason Kästner remained in Germany. While many prominent writers left the country when Hitler rose to power and continued to write about the country from their distant lands of refuge, he wanted to observe his country closely, identify the processes it was going through and collect material for a lengthy novel he planned to write about the Third Reich. Only after the war did he realize that, “The German Thousand-Year Reich was not material for a great novel … The task of architecturally untangling the limbs of the millions of victims and hangmen that had piled up over 12 years was impossible. You can’t set statistics to music,” as he wrote in his book Notabene 1945, which brings together a small part of the diary he kept during the war years.

A more comprehensive edition of Käster’s war diaries were published in German in 2018 under the title “Das Blue Buch,” (“The Blue Book”), after the book with the blue cover and empty pages in which the author hid his original writings, which were written in code.

Hanuschek, who is one of the edition’s editors, explains: “The diaries are important to understand his errors: He thought (like so many others) that Hitler was just going to be a short-lived nightmare and, like many Weimar Chancellors before, would be gone after a year at most. “The Blue Book” is a transcript of the war reports, the propaganda media of the ‘Third Reich’, and the attempt to understand the real news behind, to penetrate the propaganda.

“Finally, at the end of the diary, he has to realize that his whole life plan - to remain in the dictatorship, to take notes, to be a contemporary witness – has failed. He realizes this when he meets a concentration camp survivor in July 1945, who tells him in great detail about the processes in the extermination camps; he makes a careful note of all this – and with this entry breaks off his recordings.”

After the Nazis’ defeat, Kästner moved to Munich, and resumed his literary activity in West Germany. However: “After the war, he did not stand out in the literary scene and did not become part of the new trends in German literature that were represented by Gruppe 47,” Hammerman says. “His children’s books continued to sell, new editions of them were published as well as a few editions of all his writings, and he was highly respected, but it was mainly for his past achievements.”

But he stepped up his political involvement. “In the Weimar Republic, even as a young journalist, he wrote political commentaries for newspapers, and his poems and ‘Der Gang vor die Hunde’ are indeed very political texts with a clear conception in the background. He was ‘leftish’ without being involved in any particular party and he did not take to the streets. His political acts were his written works,” Hanuschek says. “After the war and after the mass murder of European Jews, he found that wrong, too little. He is one of the few authors who changed his political demeanor significantly after the dictatorship - he was involved in PEN, he protested with students against the nuclear armament of the Bundeswehr and against the Vietnam war on the streets. Other writers did too at the time, but they were at least one generation younger.”

In his final years, Kastner all but abandoned literary writing. He died at age 75 of esophageal cancer on July 29, 1974, and was buried in Munich.

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