15 April 2015

Max and Moritz

● Today is the birthday of Wilhelm Busch, influential nineteenth-century German humorist and cartoonist, and creator of Max and Moritz. The book is a classic of German children’s literature but is rather unpleasant, in the vein of Struwwelpeter. Max and Moritz are two naughty boys who perpetrate a number of nasty tricks, before themselves coming to a sticky end.
Ja, zur Übeltätigkeit,
ja, dazu ist man bereit!
Menschen necken, Tiere quälen,
Äpfel, Birnen, Zwetschgen stehlen.
(“For bad deeds
one is always ready!
Teasing people, torturing animals,
stealing apples, pears and plums.”)

As a supposedly fitting punishment, they are ground into grain by the miller whom they pranked, and are gobbled up by ducks:
Hier kann man sie noch erblicken
Fein geschroten und in Stücken.
Doch sogleich verzehret sie
Meister Müllers Federvieh.
The more famous Struwwelpeter, written by doctor/psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffman in 1845, is equally horrific. Burning to death, amputation of thumbs, drowning in an ink pot, etc. According to German-language Wikipedia, the book is no longer regarded as an automatically acceptable family book in the way it once was:
What has come in for criticism is not its educational value per se, but rather the negative role models, the repressive and punitive learning ethos, and the dogmatic and authoritarian tone in which the moral lessons are conveyed.
I cannot think of anything similar in the English canon. Is there something about the German temperament, so apparently sensitive and romantic in other artistic contexts, that makes it want to write pedagogic horror stories for kids?

Oxford Forum should be given funding.