When you think of children's books, you will most likely - or so we hope - not immediately think of cruel horror stories. Neither did Heinrich Hoffmann, author of the famous German children's book "Struwwelpeter". What he wanted was to simply create a children's book that's both entertaining and educating.
To a reader of the book in 2020, however, these stories appear uncanny, cruel, - gory almost; at the very least not as educational and pedagogically on point as it's author had intended for them to come across.
And yet: Struwwelpeter is still one of the most successful children books sold in Germany today.
History of the Struwwelpeter
So what is the Struwwelpeter? The Struwwelpeter is a German children's book from the 19th century. In December 1944, Heinrich Hofmann, a physician from Frankfurt, was on the lookout for a Christmas present for his 3 year old son, Carl. Hoffmann was looking for an illustrated picture book, but wasn't able to find something he deemed suitable to his son's age. Hoffmann himself later wrote about this experience and explained that he was looking for something in line with his son's mental capacity.
He was to be disappointed, however. Looking back, he writes:
Aber was fand ich? Lange Erzählungen oder alberne Bildersammlungen, moralische Geschichten, die mit ermahnenden Vorschriften begannen und schlossen.
So Hoffmann decided to write his own book for his son, and started working on the Struwwelpeter.
What Hoffmann ended up with was a collection of illustrated, plot-wise unrelated stories for children, each story usually aimed at teaching a lesson of some sort. The stories are written in a rather simple German, making them easy to understand, especially for children. Each story is also written with a straightforward rhyming pattern, which adds to the memorability of the texts. And lastly, all stories are quite short, so that even a 3-year old could understand them (Hoffmann's son Carl was 3 at the time).
Differences to Fairy Tales
The idea behind the book is also rather interesting. Contrary to the Classic German fairy tales, most of the protagonists of the Struwwelpeter are fully responsible for their bad luck: "Der Daumenlutscher", for example, has his thumbs cut off because he can't stop sucking them. "Hans-guck-in-die-Luft" wouldn't stop staring at the sky - and paid the price for his inattentiveness by falling down a cliff.
The point is that there is no-one else to blame here. Grimm's fairy tales, for example, tell a very different story. Hänsel & Gretel are not so much too blame for their evil stepmother and their stumbling upon the witches house. Similarly, Aschenputtel's fate derives from no fault of her own: She was just unlucky.
Another interesting difference to other stories has to do with what exactly is being taught in the Struwwelpeter. While German fairytales often teach grand moral lessons and often relate to growing up, finding ones prince and love, the Struwwelpeter has a much stronger focus on simple rules of behaviour - what in Germany is often called "Knigge" (derived from Adolph Freiherr Knigge, who played a similar role in Germany as Emily Post in the US).
Children should not : suck their thumbs, rock in the chair, play with fire, let their hair and nails get too long. These are not really moral lessons.
Learning German with Struwwelpeter
We believe that Struwwelpeter is an incredibly useful resource for beginners who just started learning German, because the stories are so memorable (due to the rhyming) and so easy to understand (due to the simple style). It might also be particularly interesting to intermediate students of German, as it's one of the best selling children's books in Germany, a staple in every German household and an overall interesting book to know simply from a cultural perspective.