Anti-racism activists have long sought to draw attention to the fact that in several German children’s books racist terms can still be found and are in urgent need of replacement. This discussion was revived in 2013 by a reader’s written comments, and finally resulted in real changes.
At the suggestion of his daughter Timnit, Mekonnen Mesghena – expert on migration and diversity at the Heinrich Böll Foundation – wrote the publisher Thienemann, urging them to revise the text of OtfriedPreussler’s “Die kleineHexe” (The Little Witch). This long-running children’s book contained several racist terms that Mesghena could not bring himself to read to his daughter. The publisher’s initial response was to agree that the book’s vocabulary was dated, but represented conventional usage at the time of its initial publication (1957). Following a second letter from Mesghena, the publisher contacted Preussler, who agreed to a revision of the problematic sections of his text. These revised versions have been in print since 2013.
There followed the intensification of a wider debate on how best to deal with racist content in children’s literature, and not only in Germany. Ten percent of Sweden’s libraries decided in the autumn of 2012 to stop lending Tintin in the Congo. A similar approach was considered with regard to books in the “PippiLongstocking”series. However, the majority population in Sweden objected openly to these proposals, forcing the libraries to modify their decision.
Defensive reactions of a similar kind arose within German public discourse in response to the revision of “Die kleineHexe”. Critics spoke of censorship, exaggerated political correctness, and the erosion of a “German cultural patrimony”, although at no point had the complete banning of books been proposed, merely the excision of racist and discriminatory words and passages therein. This wave of defensive reactions did however reveal that the power to define what can be considered racist versus innocuous does not yet rest in the hands of those who actually experience, in their daily lives, the humiliations of racism.