Emil and the book burners
The natural goodness of children cannot be destroyed, though some have tried
The Circling Fin
The young boy in Erich Kästner’s classic adventure from 1929, ‘Emil and the Detectives’, is one of the most memorable characters in children’s books, perhaps because he is, on the face of it, one of the most normal. The best characters in kids’ stories are generally larger than life by orders of magnitude.
You must have met many mad people in your life–counting your relatives alone–who hasn’t? But have you ever met anyone quite as mad as the White Witch of Narnia? Or Willy Wonka of the Chocolate Factory? Or the Cat in the Hat? Unhinged hatters all, and delightfully so.
Young Emil Tischbein, by contrast, is a timelessly normal boy, travelling from his mother’s house in a small country town to his aunt’s apartment in the big city. Along the way, despite his best precautions, a thief on the train manages to spirit away the valuable banknote he is bringing from one sister to the other. In Berlin, he is first lucky enough to spot and then brave enough to chase the thief. Spotted himself by a plucky troupe of boys on the lookout for adventure, Emil finds himself at the head of a fearsome band of ‘detectives’, who eventually foil the thief.
As a child I loved the book; as an adult, knowing that Emil’s story happened in Berlin, out of which, ten years hence, would emerge the biggest war in history, I can’t help wondering what would have happened to him and his friends.
We do know what happened the author, Erich Kästner: His books were burned by the Nazis and he himself was persecuted by the Gestapo for his pacifist beliefs.
By the law of averages, many of the young children of 1920s Berlin, perhaps most, would have ended up joining the Hitler Youth in the 1930s. Before the war ended, some of these kids might even have ended up close to the controls of the Third Reich’s death machine; some probably joined the SS, some the Army, Gestapo or civil service.
Some of them would join the mob tossing unapproved books onto burning pyres, among them the sequels to ‘Emil and the Detectives’, banned by Hitler’s government. Whenever books are being destroyed or suppressed, look out: people are usually next. (And that is one great thing about e-books: they don’t ignite too easily.)
But in the great stories of childhood – such as ‘Emil and the Detectives’ and, beyond that, the worlds of ‘The Railway Children’ and ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ and the Harry Potter series – the characters are forever children and we must believe in the fundamental goodness of their hearts, the same goodness that has, so far at least, meant that the book-burners, by the final chapter, cannot win.