Bambi: cute, lovable, vulnerable … or dark parable of Nazi antisemitic terror?

Lee Heidhues 12.25.2021

Sad Surprises never stop. Even on Christmas Day.

I always believed Bambi to be a benign story about kind animals which was brought to life on the big screen by Walt Disney in the classic cartoon.

Now this fantasy story line has gone a glimmering and the story of Bambi will be put before the world in its originally intended fashion. A novel published nearly 100 years ago portrayed the Bambi tale in a more sobering dark light.

Excerpted from The Guardian 12.25.2021

A new translation of Felix Salten’s 1923 novel reasserts its original message that warns of Jewish persecution

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It’s a saccharine sweet story about a young deer who finds love and friendship in a forest. But the original tale of Bambiadapted by Disney in 1942, has much darker beginnings as an existential novel about persecution and antisemitism in 1920s Austria.

Now, a new translation seeks to reassert the rightful place of Felix Salten’s 1923 masterpiece in adult literature and shine a light on how Salten was trying to warn the world that Jews would be terrorised, dehumanised and murdered in the years to come.

“Bambi does not survive well, at the end. He is alone, totally alone … It is a tragic story about the loneliness and solitude of Jews and other minority groups,” said Jack Zipes, professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota and translator of the forthcoming book.

Far from being a children’s story, Bambi was actually a parable about the inhumane treatment and dangerous precariousness of Jews and other minorities in what was then an increasingly fascist world, the new translation will show.

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Nazi Germany book burning – 1935

In 1935, the book was banned by the Nazis, who saw it as a political allegory on the treatment of Jews in Europe and burned it as Jewish propaganda. “The darker side of Bambi has always been there,” said Professor Zipes.

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“But what happens to Bambi at the end of the novel has been concealed, to a certain extent, by the Disney corporation taking over the book and making it into a pathetic, almost stupid film about a prince and a bourgeois family.”

Salten’s novel, Bambi, a Life in the Woods, is completely different he said. “It is a book about survival in your own home.” From the moment he is born, Bambi is under constant threat from hunters who invade the forest and attack indiscriminately. “They kill whatever animal they want.”

It soon becomes apparent that the forest animals are living out their lives in fear and that puts the reader constantly “on edge”: “All the animals have been persecuted. And I think what shakes the reader is that there are also some animals who are traitors, who help the hunters kill.”

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After Bambi’s mother is murdered, so is his beloved cousin Gobo, who had been led to believe he was special and the hunters would be “kind” to him. Bambi is shot too, but survives thanks to the old prince, a majestic stag who treats him like a son (and may well be his father). But then, sadly, the old prince also dies, leaving Bambi utterly bereft.