The struggle for power and control comes in many forms. Throughout history, humankind has built nations, established religions, and started wars. Though various reasons are often given for these events, the main cause usually comes back to the desire to gain control and assert power over the people around them in an effort to shape the dominant culture. While war can be used to force the will of one group of people onto another group, culture can be shaped in a less aggressive and more subtle way – through the use of common experiences and beliefs. This was the path taken by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Finding themselves with little political or military influence, but with great literary opportunities, the Brothers Grimm used their position and giftedness to create a book of fairy tales with the intent to develop a unified German culture.
Having grown up in Germany during the Napoleonic era, the Grimms understood the importance of having a unified culture. Though it had waxed and waned over time, the Christian missionary zeal that existed in Europe during the debate of the sixteenth-century that questioned (among other things) if American Indians had souls, was still prevalent during the time of Napoleon and the Grimms (Woolf 79). During this time, Europeans further developed the idea of their own superiority. This attitude allowed for the justification of exploiting the rest of the world. Additionally, Europeans began to believe that their way of living should be a model to the world (Woolf 74-5).
Due to their Hessian ethnicity, the brothers knew that they would never rise to any kind of political or military power, but they found their purpose in influencing culture through educating children. This culture would give voice to the type of nationalism and exclusionary thinking under which the Grimms were raised (Zorando 73-5). This fact was better explained by Jack Zipes when he said:
“In seeking to establish its rightful and “righteous” position in German society, the bourgeoisie, due to its lack of actual military power and unified economic power, used its “culture” as a weapon to push through its demands and needs. In the process, the middle classes mediated between the peasants and the aristocracy and later between the aristocracy/high bourgeoisie and workers through institutions that were their own making and served their interests. One mode used by the bourgeoisie to create its own institutions and conventions was that of appropriation—taking over and assuming the property, goods, and cultural forms of lower classes and refining them to suit the sensibility and wants of bourgeois culture…. Such institutionalization was not really possible until the bourgeoisie needed it and had created the technology and other supporting institutions that would make the fairy tale a vital component in the socialization of children through literature” (Zipes 21-23).
This socialization would take the form of nationalism and would be an extension of culture that existed in the brothers’ home during their upbringing. It was a strict, domineering home life not unlike that of other German children of the time (Zornado 78).
The Grimm’s strict protestant upbringing played a vital role in their attitude toward children and family life. They were raised in a time and place that believed strongly in the idea of original sin and that children were born evil and in need of correction. This correction started young and included great force. The child was seen as having a desire to usurp the power and authority of the parents. Since the Grimm family was raised in the tradition of the Reform Calvinist Church, they held to a high moral and religious standard. These ideas were so strong within the family that they viewed others outside of their tradition as unenlightened and deviant. This later carried over into their attitude toward the fatherland of Germany and is an important thing to remember when considering the type of tales that the brothers compiled in their work that was geared toward children (Zornado 78-9).
Their devotion to the Fatherland was later demonstrated through various letters. In a lecture at Gottingen, Jackob wrote: “The love for the Fatherland is so godlike and so deeply impressed a feeling in every human breast that it is not weakened but rather strengthened by the sorrows and misfortunes that happen to us in the land of our birth” (Snyder 210-11). This devotion influenced all of his work which he confessed was meant to be political in nature. He was dedicated to the strength and freedom of Germany stating that, “the peace and salvation of the whole continent will rest upon [it]” (Snyder 211).
Following the lead of the early Romantics, the Grimm’s stated goal was to present the stories and traditional tales of the German folks. They emphasized the language and customs of the everyday people (Snyder 212). The first edition of Hausrndrchen appeared around Christmas of 1812 and was wildly successful. With this edition, the Grimm’s established a standardized version of the fairy tales of their culture. These tales were clearly written and easily understood by children (Snyder 213).
As we move through the Grimm’s tales, we notice a consistent theme that exists throughout – the terror that many of the children experience. This is common in the Grimm’s stories and plays into the theory of child rearing of the day. The goal of the adult was to instill obedience in their children and they did this by any means necessary. This could range from harsh words, to physical punishment, to scary tales (Zornado 84). During this time, it became very important to educate and guide the children in morality. This is when we began to see the rise of the educational system and the expansion of literature written for children (Shavit 326).
When the brothers introduced their tale called “Little Red Riding Hood” it was easy to see the difference between it and earlier versions. It had been greatly altered to focus on its new audience. Not only does this version cut out some of the explicit imagery of earlier versions, but it also cuts out any idea that the girl could handle the wolf on her own or find her own way back home (Grimm 147). Though this tale, as is common with fairy tales, has a happy ending, we also see the harsh elements common in the Grimm’s tales – elements designed to discipline the naturally wicked child. In ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, the child is warned about going off the path and instructed to go directly to the grandmother’s house, but she was not given any real instructions on how to handle the danger that the wolf would present. All alone, she was expected to complete a dangerous task and suffered the consequences for not being able to do it successfully.
The brothers wrote, “No sooner had Little Red Riding Hood set foot in the forest than she met the wolf. Little Red Riding Hood had no idea what a wicked beast he was, and so she wasn’t in the least bit afraid of him” (Grimm 149). In light of what we know about the Grimm’s upbringing, this is a very telling statement. We can easily see how this would serve as a warning to the youth of Germany that danger exists in the outside world and going away from the known world and beliefs of your homeland can lead to your destruction. This tale has been interpreted in many ways. We even see Nazi ideologues using this tale as an example of what happens when an innocent German comes in contact with a Jew (Grimm 148). While there is no evidence to suggest that the brothers intended this tale to be read that way, the Grimms did include other, more explicitly anti-Semitic tales. Still, we see that their primary focus was on encouraging order and the rule of law.
In another tale, The Sole, the Grimms demonstrate the need for order and the purpose of the ruler. This tale gives examples of the chaos that exists in a world where individuals go their own way and have not rules or laws set out for them to follow. We read:
“The fishes had for a long time been discontented because no order prevailed in their kingdom. None of them turned aside for the others, but all swam to the right or left as they fancied, or darted between those who wanted to stay together, or got into their way; and a strong one gave a weak one a blow with its tail, and drove it away, or else swallowed it up without more ado. “How delightful it would be,” said they, “if we had a king who enforced law and justice among us!” and they met together to choose for their ruler the one who would cleave through the water most quickly, and give help to the weak ones” (Snyder 215).
This is the Grimms way to extend their ideas about childhood that existed throughout the protestant world at the time and still today – children are at best negligent and at worst evil and must be corrected constantly in order that their souls may be saved from hell (Zornado 84). This type of ideology, once engrained in the culture, leads to the belief that the authority figure is always right and that those who are different are a threat. This has the ability to manifest itself in violent ways towards those in the culture who are of different backgrounds or beliefs. This is exactly the case, as we see, in the rise of anti-Semitic attitudes in much of Germany (Zornado 90). These attitudes did not appear overnight and did not start with one man.
Since the Protestant Reformation, evangelicalism has grown, changed, and splintered. There are so many denominations that it is hard to count. At the heart of the reformation, however, and much of Protestantism are the writings of Martin Luther. Since 1517 when he first published his Ninety-Five Theses, Luther has had a great influence on the Christian world. His writings are important. He is greatly respected and followed. It is somewhat shocking, then, when we find out that some of the fairy tales written during the time of the Nazis (Trust No Fox in His Green Heath and No Jew in His Oath) actually took inspiration from Luther’s writings (Peters 46). It is even more shocking when we read these writings.
In On the Jews and Their Lies, Martin Luther argued that since the Jews suffered so much, that it is clear that God does not love them and they are no longer his people. Luther quotes Hosea 1:9, “Call his name Not my people for you are not my people and I am not your God” (Luther 44). This is a significant statement that would likely have had great impact and influence on the Christian community – especially those as devout as the Grimm family. Luther further advises Christians not to engage with Jews saying that they, “have been so nurtured with venom and rancor against our Lord that there is no hope until they reach the point where their misery finally makes them pliable and they are forced to confess that the Messiah has come” (Luther 51). Additionally, Luther noted that God could not reform the Pharaoh with the many plagues and that ultimately, he let him drown in the sea (Luther 57). With the influence that Luther enjoyed among Protestants, we can easily see how this kind of statement would lead the devout to develop a dangerous attitude toward the Jewish people.
In the same vein as Luther’s work, the Brothers Grimm had two tales included in their Compact Edition that contained anti-Semitic messages (Grimm 397). While the tale The Good Bargain does not single out the Jew for unusual punishment, it paints all Jews in the same way – as opportunists bent on deceiving those around them. In this tale, we read: “What a Jew says is always a lie. No true word ever comes out of his mouth” (The Good Bargain). Since these tales were written for young readers, it is easy to see the goal was to influence their perception of those who are different – specifically the Jews. The Grimms go a bit father in another tale that they included in this edition.
In a tale called “The Jew in the Brambles”, a good servant who has spent 3 years working for a master who failed to pay him a fair wage, eventually received 3 pennies. After leaving to go on an adventure, he meets a gnome who grants him three wishes – a gun that will shoot anything, a fiddle that makes people dance, and the ability to make anyone grant him whatever favor he asks. After leaving the gnome, he happens upon a Jewish man who asks him to shoot a bird. He agrees but when the man goes into the bramble to retrieve the bird, he begins to play his fiddle. This causes the man great injury, but the servant doesn’t care. He calls out, “you’ve skinned people plenty of times. Now the brambles can give you a scraping” (Grimm 395). Eventually, the Jewish man agrees to give the servant all of his money if he just agrees to quit playing the fiddle. Later the Jewish man catches up to the servant, accuses him of robbery, and the man faces hanging. However, as a last request the servant asks to take up his fiddle once more and the judge allows him. As expected, everyone begins dancing and the Jewish man agrees to confess if only the servant stops playing. In the end, the Jewish man is hanged for robbery after being cajoled into confessing that he, in fact, stole the money (Grimm 397). This is an ongoing theme in anti-Semitic writing. The idea that Jewish people, as a group, are liars and thieves is a damaging message and one that seeps into the minds of children and the culture at large when introduced repeatedly and at a young age. Additionally, we see that this idea was in keeping with the dominant Christian culture at the time. Anti-Semitism was commonplace in Europe and the church was not the exception (The German Churches).
While many factors played a part in German Christians accepting the ideas of the Nazi party (including backlash against the Weimar Republic, resentment over WWI, anti-communism, and extreme nationalism), they were also greatly influenced by the idea called “positive Christianity” that was in Article 24 of the Nazi Party Platform of 1920. It read:
“We demand the freedom of all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not jeopardize the state’s existence or conflict with the manners and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The Party as such upholds the point of view of a positive Christianity without tying itself confessionally to any one confession. It combats the Jewish-materialistic spirit at home and abroad and is convinced that a permanent recovery of our people can only be achieved from within on the basis of the common good before individual good.”
Since anti-Semitism was a part of the fabric of the culture of Germany, this statement was not a contradiction to the Christian beliefs of many Catholics and Protestants of that time (The German Churches).
Nevertheless, opposition did exist. We see this with the emergence of the “Confessing Church”. Their founding document stood in stark contrast to that of the “German Christians” who stood, loyally, with the state. Their Barmen Confession of Faith stated that the church owed allegiance to God and to the scripture and not to any “worldly Fuhrer”. This declaration led to a struggle within the denomination between those who wanted to become “nazified”, those who did not, and those who wanted to remain neutral on the subject (The German Churches).
Ultimately, the government installed its own leaders of the German Church who made it illegal to preach sermons opposing the actions of the state. This led a group of theologians to attempt to explain the theological errors in the beliefs of the German Christians. Among many other points, the Barmen Confession spoke out against the idolatry that was involved in putting the state in authority over the church. In the Book of Confessions, we read, “The declaration proclaims the church’s freedom in Jesus Christ who is Lord of every area of life. The church obeys him as God’s one and only Word who determines its order, ministry, and relation to the state” (The Barmen Declaration). Nevertheless, a battle for the hearts and minds of the young raged on.
In an effort to promote their agenda, the Nazis targeted the young minds of Germany by using fairy tales and poems. In the various poems of the book Trust No Fox in His Green Heath and No Jew in His Oath (whose title was inspired by the work of Martin Luther), Jews are portrayed as the children of the devil who will lie, steal, and do whatever they can to get the upper hand. Whereas the Germans are portrayed as strong, honest, and hardworking (Bytwerk, Trust No Fox). In a reading entitled, “The Führer’s Youth”, we read:
“The boys who are true Germans
To Hitler’s Youth belong.
They want to live for their Führer,
Their eyes are fixed on the future.
Bigger and stronger they have become.
The German heritage is theirs.
The great and sacred Fatherland
Stands today as it ever stood.
From this picture may be seen,
Hitler Youth in splendid mien,
From smallest to the biggest boy.
All are husky, tough, and strong.
They love their German Führer
And God in Heaven they fear.
But the Jews they must despise!
They’re not like these boys,
So Jews must just give way!
In far-off South is the country
Which cradled Jewish ancestry.
Let them go back there with wife and child
As quickly as they came! —
What a disgusting picture
Is shown by these Jews, so dirty and wild:
Rebecca with little Jonathan,
Then Simon and also Aaron Kahn.
How they roll their eyes
As they march along……………….”
(Bytwerk, Trust No Fox)
Though this poem is a long way from the work of the Grimms, it serves to demonstrate how dangerous ideas can easily spread when introduced and reinforced at a young age.
In another children’s book entitled, The Poisonous Mushroom, a Jewish man is portrayed as a child molester who is trying to kidnap children by offering them candy. The book The Poodle-Pug-Dachshund-Pinscher, compares Jews to snakes and dogs and calls upon the youth of the nation to continue the work that Hitler and his generation started, “We today who are building a new Germany and a new Europe under Adolf Hitler’s leadership will not carry out the final and decisive reckoning with Jewry! No! The final and decisive reckoning with Jewry is reserved for our children and their children” (Bytwerk, An Appeal). This is the type of nationalism that, when engrained in the minds of children, leads to the hatred necessary to convince them to follow along with any unthinkable acts.
A large portion of Nazi literature for children was simply an updated version of the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. For this reason, it can be argued that the brothers played as big of a part to German nationalism as military and political leaders. In fact, the Grimm’s role was acknowledged by Carl Franke:
“To the spirit of German schoolchildren the tales have become what mother’s milk is for their bodies—the first nourishment for the spirit and the imagination. How German is Snow White, Little Briar Rose, Little Red Cap, the seven dwarfs! Through such genuine German diet must the language and spirit of the child gradually become more and more German. . . . Indeed the brothers Grimm have earned our innermost love and highest admiration as citizens and as men. For they belong doubtlessly in the broadest sense among the founders of the new German Reich. . . . They exhibited all the German virtues: the inner love of family, true friendship, the kindly love for the Hessian homeland, the inspiring love for the Fatherland. . . . With full right they earn therefore a place among Germany’s greatest men” (Snyder 221).
Nevertheless, it must be argued that the Grimms demonstrated no malice towards Jewish people during their lives. We see no evidence that they would have in any way been in favor of the holocaust. Still, we must acknowledge the danger that exists in pushing extreme nationalism. We must acknowledge the attitude that existed among Christians in Europe leading up to the era of Hitler. We must acknowledge that often non-European and, certainly, non-Christians were viewed as “primitive peoples” deserving of pity and in need of salvation (Woolf 81). We also must acknowledge that this was a perfect environment for a personality such as Hitler, who was not a Christian, to step in and use the long-held beliefs of the people in order to do his bidding. The system was in place long before Hitler stepped onto the scene.
We should not blame missionary zeal. There are great things that can be accomplished by reaching out and sharing your culture and even your faith with others in need. The problem comes in when you begin to see the other as lesser. The problem comes in when you blame an entire group of people for all of the ills of the society. While the Brothers Grimm had the goal of creating a moral society, dedicated to the German culture, they failed to acknowledge the humanity of a large portion of their population. By demeaning the Jews, the brothers, along with many others, set in motion an attitude that eventually dominated the culture and led to their stories, at least for a time, falling out of favor.
As the war came to an end, many outside of Germany began to view the Grimms work as a threat to the safety of many in the population. The allied forces in Germany after WWII tried to ban the Grimms tales because they believed that the violent nature of these tales helped to form the Third Reich” (Grimm xxviii). While banning these books (or any books) will not solve the problem of extreme nationalism, we must acknowledge that not all children’s literature is benign or well-intentioned.
Though the Protestant church in Germany gave up the idea of converting Jews in the decades following the Holocaust, it wasn’t until 2016 that the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) officially renounced this mission. At the annual meeting a resolution was passed declaring that Christians “are not called to show Israel the path to God and his salvation.” The church explained that since God had never renounced the covenant with the Jews, they did not need to convert to Christianity in order to be saved. The EKD stated, “All efforts to convert Jews contradict our commitment to the faithfulness of God and the election of Israel” (Heneghan).
While the churches resolution is a positive step, it underscores the fact that we must be on guard to the dangerous ideas that are lurking around every corner. While in extreme cases, war may often be necessary, we can also combat some of these ideas through inclusion and learning to appreciate different people and cultures. Faith is a great thing, but we must be vigilant in not allowing evil forces to take over that faith and use it in ways that are harmful to any in our society. It is important to confront hatred and intolerance in all forms – from political and military leaders to fairy tales.
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