A New Wind Blowing from the Left: The Surge of Anti-Authoritarian Picturebooks in Germany after 1968

Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer (University of Tübingen)

In the wake of the 1968 student movement, German educationalists, authors, illustrators, and publishers turned towards children’s literature as a means to disseminate anti-authoritarian ideas. Between the years of 1968 and 1974 they produced a significant number of picturebooks, story books, theatre plays, and novels for children. Conceived as radically different to traditional children’s books, they advocated a novel children’s literature that should ignite the child’s imagination as well as provide them with the analytical tools to reason on the actual political, societal, and cultural climate in Germany.

Although these authors, illustrators, and publishers shared similar ideas on how to change society, they were far from a homogenous group. While some of them had been quite well-known authors and artists, such as Elisabeth Borchers, Heinz Edelmann, and Günter Herburger, others were amateurs or were part of a collective, creating books for children anonymously. Their purpose was to teach the child reader about possible policies when dealing with adult matters and taboo topics. In their view, children should be encouraged to pose questions, to enter into a dialogue with adults and representatives of public institutions by debating political, economic, social, and pedagogical issues.

In order to promote these new anti-authoritarian children’s books, militants founded new publishing houses, such as Basis Verlag and Oberbaumverlag (both in Berlin), März Verlag (Frankfurt), and Weismann Verlag (Munich). Some of these books had labels such as “The Red Children’s Book” or “Anti-Authoritarian Children’s Stories” printed on the front cover to emphasize their political attitude. The publisher Weismann even selected a radical children’s text by the German poet Joachim Ringelnatz as a motto: “Children, you should trust yourself! Do not allow to be lied to, and refuse beatings by adults. Consider this: Five children are sufficient to spank a grandmother!” (originally published in 1924; my translation).

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A typical example of the anti-authoritarian approach of these publishers is the picturebook Zwei Korken für Schlienz (Two Corks for Schlienz, Basis Verlag, 1972) with a text by the pedagogue Johannes Merkel and black-and-white photos by Christian Borngräber and Klaus Metschuk (Figure 1). The book title refers to the main protagonist Schlienz, who is about two meters tall and always wears corks in his nostrils. Due to his olfactory sense he is able to smell the most delicate odours. He is joined by a girl who can run faster than a car, a boy who has an almost incredible hearing and another man who has immeasurable strength and can pee over big distances. The intertextual reference to a well-known fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, “How Six Men Got on in the World”, is palpable. Although the number of characters has been reduced to four in the photobook, the magical capacities of the four companions explicitly refer to this story.

Figure 2

This quartet rents a flat in an apartment house. Their life style is reminiscent of the then popular communes of the hippie generation in big cities such as Berlin and Frankfurt (figure 2). After a while the landlord demands the payment of the rent. The group of four then realises that the landlord has deceived them with the rental contract, which demands an exorbitant rent. Menaced by the group, the landlord escapes by car. Due to their magic capabilities the four companions pursue the landlord, force him out of his car and tear up the rental contract (figure 3). As a result, the landlord stirs up the other house inhabitants and requests the police to clear the house. Despite heavy resistance, the quartet is finally arrested. Sitting in prison together, they muse about the mistakes they may have made and why nobody comes to their rescue. In contrast to the Grimm fairy tale, they could not achieve their goal of becoming economically independent. While they seem to be successful in the beginning, they finally end up in jail, expecting a miserable future.

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The book has an appendix with newspaper articles dealing with the protests against exorbitant rents in Frankfurt, the occupation of houses by homeless people, and the reluctant actions by the police (figure 4). Moreover, the book also includes a questionnaire with multiple choice questions that relate to the individual housing situations of the child readers; for instance, whether they have a room of their own or whether they are allowed to play in the living room, but also some queries about the book itself (figure 5). The publisher prompts the reader to resend the questionnaire in order to get a substantial feedback on how to potentially improve the book, which then appeared in two revised versions.

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The same publisher, Basis Verlag, launched another picturebook that attracted huge attention at that time: Fünf Finger sind eine Faust (Five Fingers Are a Fist, 1969), which was coauthored by a publisher’s collective, as the imprint informs. The illustrations have been created by the artist Brigitte Wengoborski, who had an atelier in Berlin-Kreuzberg and was later on responsible for the set design of the movie Liebe Mutter, mir geht es gut (Dear Mother, I am Fine, director: Christian Ziewer, 1972), which focuses on the social problems of the working class.

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The story of the picturebook centres on the fight between the blue and the green fingers. Since the blue fingers continuously struggle with each other and never agree on anything, the green fingers can easily defeat them (figure 6). In the end, the blue fingers decide to cooperate. By making a fist, they overcome the green fingers, who run away and never come back again (figure 7). The cover additionally highlights the meaning of this parable: The front cover shows a blue hand with outstretched fingers (figure 8), while the back cover depicts the same hand turned into a fist (figure 9). The simple drawings refer to contemporary political poster art and are in line with the ideological yet propagandistic message: People have to unite in order to change the unsatisfactory social and political conditions. The upward stretched fist as a symbol of the working class that fights against the capitalists and the upper-class bourgeoisie recurs regularly in anti-authoritarian German picturebooks of that time. It draws attention to the precarious situation of the working people as well as asks the child reader to sympathise with the working class’ fight for freedom, solidarity, and equal rights.

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Today these two picturebooks bear witness to a short but lively period within German children’s literature. Just a few anti-authoritarian children’s books, such as Christine Nöstlinger’s Wir pfeifen auf den Gurkenkönig (The Cucumber King, 1972) and Paul Maar’s Eine Woche voller Samstage (A Week Full of Saturdays, 1973) became modern children’s classics, while the majority totally fell in oblivion.

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