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  • Moral Despair and the Child as Symbol of Hope in Pre-World War II Berlin
  • J. D. Stahl (bio)

Fictional portrayals of children in the Berlin of the 1920s and 1930s suggest that, for fascists and antifascists alike, the child was a symbol of redemption and hope for the future. As moral and social symbol of a possible future, the child could embody contradictory visions; he or she could represent both the hopes of innocent individuals and the collective drives and fears of a desperate society.

During the social upheaval of the Weimar Republic, people looked for the causes of chaos and insecurity in theories of moral decay and social decline. On every side, hopes for a gradual improvement of the human lot were replaced by a sense of apocalyptic urgency. Some foresaw revolution; others, like Spengler, the total collapse of society; some simply retreated into a private world of self-protective resignation. Because the customary patterns of social action seemed threatened or inadequate, literature became important as a means of delineating intolerable conditions and exploring possible changes or avenues of escape. But increasingly those who looked for a fundamental transformation of society began to think of literature as nothing more than potential propaganda to hasten the attainment of that goal.

In this historical context, literature for children took on a particular importance because of its heuristic function. The Hitler Youth novels of Karl Aloys Schenzinger clearly exemplify the messianic purpose of their author; yet even literature that sought to avoid topical issues, such as the children's novels of Schenzinger's contemporary Erich Kästner, provide a reflection of the contemporary situation. I hope to show by my discussion of the works of Kästner and Schenzinger that the idealism evoked by the image of childhood as human potential in German literature of the late 1920s and early 1930s could be used for humane or purely literary ends, but also demagogically, as a constituent of propaganda. I hope to show, more controversially, that literary skill could serve both purposes and that the child-figure portrayed in the novels of these authors [End Page 83] became a catalyst of sharply contrasting views of the rapidly approaching fascist state.

Berlin during the late Weimar Republic was the nervecenter and microcosm of the German nation, center stage of its political dramas, harbinger of its future. To many of us, its symbol is a dance on the volcano. Thanks to films such as Cabaret , The Serpent's Egg , and, most recently, Fassbinder's epic film version of Berlin Alexanderplatz , images of decadence and perversion and a mood of apocalyptic anxiety fill our minds, with an ominous marching of brownshirts in the background. An urbane capital of sparkling if mordant wits, unemployment lines, political chaos and personal resignation, book-burnings, and emigrants packing for every train : this is how many of us think of Berlin in the late Weimar Republic.

But how did Germans of the time see their own city? What moral vision had Berliners of their apocalyptic metropolis? What kind of life did authors envision for the younger generation in the face of the cataclysmic conditions of German society? As we shall see in the following examination of the writings of Kästner and Schenzinger, the child was an attractive symbol of hope in the future and a means of making a moral commentary on the present; but, as a symbol, the child had hidden limitations and dangerous ambiguities.

Erich Kästner, an antifascist, and Karl Aloys Schenzinger, a profascist, each portrayed the roaring, restless city of Berlin in a children's novel as well as a novel for adults. Erich Kästner wrote Emil und die Detektive (1928) and Fabian (1930); Karl Aloys Schenzinger was the author of Man will uns kündigen (1931), translated as Fired (1932), and Hitlerjunge Quex (1932) or "Hitlerboy Quex."1 Schenzinger's and Kästner's versions of Berlin during the decline of the Weimar Republic and the rise of National Socialism not only offer vivid insights into the social and political turmoil of Germany's capital; they yield a complex analysis of the moral and philosophical conflicts animating the German people at that time...


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pp. 83-104
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