When I Was a Boy Essay - Critical Context

Erich Kästner

Critical Context

When I Was a Boy shows the roots of the political and moral convictions that Kästner held throughout his career. Working as a journalist from 1920, he established himself as a writer for adults with several collections of poetry in the late 1920’s. In these poems, as in his autobiography, he criticizes militarism and social narrow-mindedness.

Kästner’s politics seem to be aimed at a private level, which in part explains why he did not leave Germany during World War II even though his books were burned by the Nazis in 1933 and he was no longer allowed to publish in Germany. He continued to publish abroad. In fact, he owed his first international success to his first children’s book, Emil und die Detektive (1928; Emil and the Detectives, 1930). After the end of the war in 1945, Kästner contributed to Germany’s reconstruction by writing for political cabarets and by editing, among other publications, a children’s magazine. In 1960, he was given the Hans Christian Andersen Award for his lifetime contribution to children’s literature.

His experience of and opposition to war also shape his autobiography: Kästner turned fifteen and stopped being a little boy when World War I broke out in 1914. In an aside, he shares his thoughts about the night during World War II when “eight hundred planes rained down” bombs that wiped out his hometown, Dresden— a scenario that has also been brought to American literature by Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

The passages in which Kästner talks about politics and ethics are written in terms appropriate for young readers, making the book more accessible to those ten years of age or older. In general, Kästner presents an acceptance of life that allowed him to live with difficult experiences as well as to enjoy the good times.