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Nazi Fairy Tales

If one is to write about Germany, there are two things one cannot avoid.  If one is Nazis, the second must be fairy tales.  The two of them are entwined in a number of strange and surprising ways.

The Brothers Grimm published their first book of folklore, collected from the villages and farms around the centre of the uncollected states that would become a unified Germany, in 1812.  “Children’s and Household Tales” contained the fairy tales we all grew up with:  Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel – plus a whole lot more that haven’t made it into a Disney film, and probably won’t.  The brothers saw themselves as “patriotic folklorists”, intent on preserving the oral tradition and culture of rural Germany.  They did not see themselves as children’s writers and it was only the Victorian advent of childhood that popularised – and sanitised – the tales.

But the Brothers Grimm aren’t the only game in town.  And as my story begins in 1880s Berlin, I wanted to know what influence fairy tales might have on my characters, as they move from colonial Germany to Weimar to the Third Reich.  There is a “Fairy Tale Road”, one of the oldest tourist routes in Germany, should you wish to visit the castles and woods that inspired the brothers, from the turrets and climbing roses of Sleeping Beauty’s Sababurg Castle to any number of wolf-filled woods.  I haven’t visited them and neither would my characters.  They are only in my mind’s eye and imagination, same as theirs.  They belong to newly industrial cities and to the Germany of its colonies, where surely the education of the idea of Germany would have been very important for children.  I can find no references to books on culture for German colonial children, but I would be very surprised if the Brothers Grimm hadn’t been tucked into many a trunk.  Either way, the Grimm Brothers set the stage for the fairy tale format for children around the world – especially German children.

After WWI the rapid changes to society and culture of the Weimar period brought a change to the fairy tale as well.  If the Grimm’s tales had “helped children to develop full personalities” through stories of good and evil, post-war fairy tales were anti-social and anti-family, in such collections as Hermann Hesse’s “Marchen”, in modern settings that were a world away from a fairy tale wood.  Where traditional fairy tales often saw children endangered by parents due to hunger, adversity, envy or coercion, post-war and Weimar tales see family itself as the enemy, the bourgeois and conservative force that must be pushed against and escaped.  Hesse’s tales continued to be romantic, with the all the idealism of the individual who triumphs against all odds due to curiosity and wit, while later Weimar tales were overtly pessimistic, dealing with the breakdown of society and family in a fast-moving world.  Collections such as Zur Muhlen’s “Fairy Tales for Worker’s Children” pointed at injustice, discrimination, and exploitation among the modern world’s economies and races.   With the rise of the Nazi party, both this romanticism and this pessimism would be crushed and the “innocent” folktale become an ideological weapon.  As one party official declared, “The German folktale shall become a most valuable means for us in the racial and political education of the young.”  For more information on Weimar fairy tales, read Jack Zipes’ marvellous “Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion.”  In fact, read any Zipes you can get your hands on.

Nazi stories were folktales, not fairy tales; they removed the literary “fairy” to focus on the Volk, marching together in solidarity behind one Fuhrer.  Dr. Albert Krebs wrote books for use in Nazi Germany’s schools.  He wrote that folk tales had a “healthy and organic” view of the world, while fairy tales were “artificial and decadent”, a leftover from “early Romantic writers … the product of a baroque and distorted view of reality … and should be kept off the children’s bookshelves.”  This didn’t stop the Nazis from appropriating classic fairy tales and rewriting them, however.  Googling about, I find numerous references to a Nazi “Cinderella” where the prince rejects the wicked step-mother for racial impurity and chooses the Nordic Cinderella as his bride, but I cannot find the source itself.  There are also numerous references to a swastika covered Little Red Riding Hood and the Nazi officer who knifes the wolf.

The Nazi party sought to invade every facet of a German life, altering history, culture, taste and language.  There was Nazi wallpaper for dollhouses, as above.  There were anti-semitic bedtime storybooks.  Nazi propaganda was itself a fairy tale told to a desperate Volk.  No happy endings there.  But, I suppose the good news is how little of it remains.  Germans can see through the Nazi invention of language.  It has made us all more suspicious of political jargon and words that seek to take the sting out of the situation.  None of the work created by Nazis is in circulation except for in museum collections, like the wonderful Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.  Nazis are only even rarely villains now and, more often, they are the butts of our jokes.  They have become their own fairy tale, perhaps, and haven’t remained the big bad wolf they hoped to be.  Is it because we have more wolves or worse wolves now?  Or is it because the story has been told so many times that we no longer fear it?  In the telling of Nazi tales, it must not do to be complacent.  There is much horror here.  One need only read the truth, not the fairy tales.  One must continue to look for all that was not left behind and know why it is gone.  One must always remember that this is not simply a story, even as one is writing it.  Of course.

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