Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin


Erich Kästner, the only writer whose works were banned by the Nazis and who then witnessed the books being burnt during the May 10, 1933 Bücherverbrennung at Opernplatz in Berlin, is mostly known as the author of fantastic, unforgettable books for children. But he was also a gifted journalist and poet.

His 1928 poem “Kennst du das Land wo die Kanonen blühen?” (Do you know the country where the cannons bloom?) is one of the most powerful images of German society in-between the world wars. It also turned out to be prophetic. Listen to Kästner read his own work for television in 1967: the German text and a very rough English translation (by yours truly) can be found below.




Kennst Du das Land, wo die Kanonen blühen?

Du kennst es nicht? Du wirst es kennenlernen!

Dort stehn die Prokuristen stolz und kühn

in den Büros, als wären es Kasernen.


Dort wachsen unterm Schlips Gefreitenknöpfe.

Und unsichtbare Helme trägt man dort.

Gesichter hat man dort, doch keine Köpfe.

Und wer zu Bett geht, pflanzt sich auch schon fort!


Wenn dort ein Vorgesetzter etwas will

– und es ist sein Beruf etwas zu wollen –

steht der Verstand erst stramm und zweitens still.

Die Augen rechts! Und mit dem Rückgrat rollen!


Die Kinder kommen dort mit kleinen Sporen

und mit gezognem Scheitel auf die Welt.

Dort wird man nicht als Zivilist geboren.

Dort wird befördert, wer die Schnauze hält.


Kennst Du das Land? Es könnte glücklich sein.

Es könnte glücklich sein und glücklich machen!

Dort gibt es Äcker, Kohle, Stahl und Stein

und Fleiß und Kraft und andre schöne Sachen.


Selbst Geist und Güte gibt’s dort dann und wann!

Und wahres Heldentum. Doch nicht bei vielen.

Dort steckt ein Kind in jedem zweiten Mann.

Das will mit Bleisoldaten spielen.


Dort reift die Freiheit nicht. Dort bleibt sie grün.

Was man auch baut – es werden stets Kasernen.

Kennst Du das Land, wo die Kanonen blühn?

Du kennst es nicht? Du wirst es kennenlernen!


Erich Kästner, 1928


English version:



Do you know the country where the cannons bloom?

You do not? Oh but you will get to know it!

Where boss stands proud and bold in an office room,

as if it the room were military barracks.


Army buttons grow there under every tie

And one wears helmets which you cannot see.

They might have faces there, but they have no heads.

One goes to bed to mate immediately.


When a superior wants something from you

– And it is his job to want things after all –

Your mind stands to attention and then goes idle, too.

Eyes to the right, on your four and roll!


The children there are born with tiny spurs on

and each sports perfect parting on its head

No civilians in this country can be born

And only those would be promoted, who shut their gob.


You know that country? It could be so good.

It could be happy and make you happy, too.

There, you find fields and coal and steel and wood

Hard work and strength and other good things, true.


Sometimes you´ll find there great hearts and great minds.

True heroes live there, too. But not too many.

A small child that every second man hides

Inside, wants to play with tin soldiers gladly.


Here, freedom never grows. It´ll be green till tomb.

And when they build, it´s all for army barracks fit.

Do you know that country where the cannons bloom?

You do not? Oh, but you will get to know it soon!


Erich Kästner,1928 (translated by notmsparker for


  1. Gary Costello
    May 10, 2017

    Oh, by the way, your English is excellent. Don’t sell yourself short. 😬

  2. Gary Costello
    May 10, 2017

    Two on one day, you spoil us! What can I say? Another eye opener for me, Kästner is not somebody that I was familiar with.
    He speaks the future, in the time of “total war” all of Germany was close to being a massive barracks where there was no room for civilians. Sad, in a land of Dichter und Denker.

  3. berlioz1935
    May 11, 2017

    Thank you for publishing this great poem. Kästner was a visionary who knew what was coming. He was also much maligned because he did not leave the country. Perhaps he wanted to suffer the same as the other Germans who did not support the regime.

    This was once the subject of a play at the Bimah

    we saw a few years ago, ” Eine unglaubliche Begegnung im Romanischen Cafe”.

    The theatre is still worth visiting. This year they have the play “Hollaender & Friends” in their program.

    • notmsparker
      May 11, 2017

      I have never been there myself yet. It is time I went to see their plays.


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