Growing up it never occurred to me that the books and Fairy Tales I read were that different, but as it turns out the biggest difference between growing up with American Parents and German Parents can be found in the stories we are read/told as children. My American friends grew up hearing about Cinderella being dressed by mice… my German friends and I sang songs about the Thirty Years War. Face it, Germany has a long, and sometimes dark history. And in the eyes of a certain generation of Germans, the best way to prepare children for the real world is to scare them into behaving. Sure, you might fall off of the horse into a ditch, and be eaten by Ravens (next time hang on!), but German scary stories for Children are taught with love. What’s really funny is how, as a child, I never really noticed how violent or even disturbing the stories are (sure, I never sucked my thumbs again…). It’s only now, that I’m realizing just how strange they are to outsiders (honestly, Struwelliese’s mother wasn’t REALLY going to drown her). Which is the most scary German children’s book or Fairy Tale? You be the judge…
See how many you remember.
What’s the most Scary German Children’s book?
Struwwelpeter Stories the scariest German Children’s Book?
The Struwwelpeter stories were written by Heinrich Hoffman when he couldn’t find appropriate cautionary tales for his then three-year-old (you can read more about that here). This scary German Children’s book is packed with frightening stories about what happens when you don’t comb your hair or finish your dinner. Ok, so messy hair wasn’t scary, you it did get you a lot of negative attention. To me, the scariest stories were about thumb suckers and children who play with fire. These nightmare-inducing tales certainly worked on me.
Other stories in the book include Zappel-Philip… who couldn’t sit still, and Die Geschichte vom Hans Guck-in-die-Luft… about the boy who always had his head in the clouds. You can order the Struwwelpeter book here.
Daumenlutscher- the Thumbsucker
The story of the Daumenlutscher was one of the German Scary stories that had a strong impact on my life. I was the kid who sucked her fingers. My parents tried everything. Finally they reached for Heinrich Hoffmann’s “Struwwelpeter stories.” The Daumenlutscher (Konrad) was a child who sucked his thumbs. His mother left him home alone one day with these words of warning:
“Ich geh’aus und du bleibst da.
Sei hübsch ordentlich und fromm,
Bis nach Haus ich wieder komm’.
Und vor allem, Konrad hör’!
Lutsche nich am Daumen mehr:
Denn der Schneider mit der Scher’
Kommt sonst ganz geschwind daher,
Und die Daumen schneidet er
Ab, als ob Paper wär'”
I’m going out, you stay here
Say orderly and well behaved
until I come back home
And above all else, Konrad LISTEN
Don’t suck your thumbs anymore!
Otherwise the Tailor with his scissors
will come here like the wind!
And cut off your thumbs
Like they were paper.
So, naturally, the second mom is out the door, Konrad jams his thumb into his mouth. BAM! The door opens, the tailor and the giant scissors rush in… and SNIP. Mom gets home, and Konrad looks sad (SAD?) standing there without his thumbs.
(I never sucked my fingers again…)
Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug- the Very sad story about Matches
Got a kid who likes to play with matches? Dr Hoffman had a story for her too. Paulinchen loved to watch fire, and didn’t listen when the cats, Minz and Muanz told her not to play with matches (to be fair… who takes advice from cats?). And oops! Her dress caught fire, then her hand, then her hair… then Paulinchen when up in flames.
The final scene is the cats crying over a pile of ashes….
Max und Moritz
This scary German children’s book by Wilhelm Busch follows two boys, Max and Moritz, on their mischievous adventures. The pranks turn dangerous. German children’s stories don’t hold back, Max and Moritz weren’t just put in Time Out, they DIED.
Recently, the stories were used in the Netflix post war drama- The Defeated, and it was frankly horrifying to see the cartoons come to life.
Now, to be entirely fair, Busch didn’t set out to make this a children’s book… it was meant to be political commentary. But that didn’t stop parents from reading them out loud to kids. Wilhelm Busch wrote the Max and Moritz stories as social commentary about all of the young people without parents who had no direction. PARENTS took these stories as a great lesson for children about playing pranks and causing mischief. Maikäfer make an appearance again, when Max and Moritz put them into the bed of Onkel Fritz (they also steal chickens, saw a bridge and put gunpowder in the Organist’s pipe). The story ends with the boys being ground up by the miller, and fed to the ducks. (All I can think is “that escalated quickly”). And those sound effects “Rickeracke the mill goes with crunching sounds…” Order the Max and Moritz book here.
Books about model behavior weren’t just for boys. For girls who couldn’t conform there was Struwelliese.
I had a few heroines while growing up, one was Pippi Longstocking, the other was Struwelliese. Cilly Schmitt Teichmann wrote the story because Struwwelpeter was about a messy boy, and girls needed to clean up their act too. Now, I never really saw anything odd about it (and pulling veggies instead of weeds made perfect sense to me), until a friend pointed out that Liese’s mother PUSHED HER DAUGHTER’S FACE into the washbasin. (My response… “oh, is that wrong?”) (although, in retrospect, the mother does look a bit TOO gleeful) . And then further in the story, she’s reading while crossing the street (I’ve done that) and gets hit by a car. Ouch.
Naturally, after this she’s a model citizen… and I lost interest. Order your copy of Struwelliese here
A book of Nursery Rhymes as a scary German Children’s book?
This sweet little Nursery Rhyme book , Schweinchen-Schlachten Würstchen Machen Quiek Quiek Quiek (Slaughtering pigs, making sausages, Quiek, Quiek, Quiek)… (presumably quiek is the sound a dying pig makes) lures you in with lovely illustrations… But riders fall off horses, war breaks out, and parents are feeding kids Wine Soup (made from red wine, butter and sugar… sound’s interesting).
One of the stranger rhymes is about the little baby who wanted to be carried everywhere, but is unsatisfied with the brook, horse, and snail that carry her, so she ends up stuck in a tree by her hair… (the rhyme does point out that she doesn’t die… and she’s probably still hanging there today)
Hoppa Hoppa Reiter
I loved sitting on Opa’s knee and bouncing while we sang… and my kids loved it too. What kid wouldn’t? But have you ever really considered the words?
Hoppe, hoppe, Reiter
Wenn er fällt, dann schreit er
Fällt er in den Graben
Fressen ihn die Raben
Fällt er in den Sumpf
Macht der Reiter plumps!
Hop, hop, rider
If he falls he will scream.
If he falls into the ditch,
He will be eaten by the ravens.
If he falls into the mud,
The rider falls with a splash!
WHAT? Scream? EATEN BY RAVENS! That will teach you to hold on tight….
Maikäfer Flieg is a sweet song, something my mother would sing when rocking me and my sister to sleep. But the song goes back to the Thirty Years War. 8 million people died as a result of fighting, and the famine and disease that followed. (At least the Maikäfer…Maibug… is safe)
Dein Vater ist im Krieg!
Dein’ Mutter ist in Pommerland,
Pommerland ist abgebrannt.
Your father is in the war!
Your mother is in Pommerania,
Pommerania has burned up.
And of course… there are the original non-Disneyfied Fairy Tales!
Rotkäppchen- Little Red Riding Hood
The Grimm’s Fairy Tales book that I grew up with was much more… um… gruesome than the sanitized version than the one my American friends grew up with. We all know how the story goes… Red Riding Hood heads off through the forest to see her grandmother (my book had her carrying a bottle of wine), when she meets the wolf. He races ahead to eat the Grandmother…This is where the story shifts. In German versions, when Red arrives, he eats her too (after the “Big Eyes Big Teeth” speech). Fortunately, a hunter comes along, hears the wolf snoring loudly, and becomes suspicious (I can’t imagine what he would have thought of MY Oma’s snores… but I digress). He takes scissors and cuts open the wolf’s stomach! Red jumps out, then Grandmother jumps out. They decide to FOOL the wolf by filling his stomach with rocks and sewing it shut. When the wolf wakes up thirsty, he goes to the well for a drink, and falls in. Red, Grandmother and the Hunter end up doing a happy dance. Moral of the story? Be careful in the woods… don’t talk to wolves… and work on your sewing skills.
Helpful little mice? Sewing birds? No. The Cinderella story I heard contained dismemberment… Aschenputtel, the German Cinderella starts out like the Disney film (frankly, like most Disney films) with a dead mother. Her father remarries, giving Ashenputtel a step-mother and two step-sisters, and naturally she does all the work. Daily, Aschenputtel cries at her mother’s grave… and her tears water the hazelnut tree growing there. The beautiful tree lures a white dove to the tree. The bird and other bird friends help Aschenputtel with impossible chores, like sorting the lentils from the ash, and ultimately, when it’s time to go to the Ball, they drop a gown and golden shoes out of the Hazelnut tree for her. The Ball happens, she falls in love with the prince, and loses a shoe. The next day when the prince comes looking for the owner of the shoe, her step-sisters CUT OFF PARTS OF THEIR FEET to fit in the shoe. Fortunately, the prince is no dummy, and he figures out who the real Cinderella/Aschenputtel is. At the wedding… those beautiful white doves don’t break in to a happy song, instead they peck the step-sister’s eyes out. I can’t imagine that getting a G rating and a happy soundtrack.
Surviving German Childhood
Still, in the end, we somehow survived a German Childhood (more or less… support group meets on Thursdays, and we need someone to bring napkins). Maybe scary stories and cautionary tales had a different effect in a world without Sponge Bob? And they didn’t really go away, my daughter is still terrified that her Oma will cut off her tongue if she doesn’t stop sticking it out at her brother!
Find your Favorite German Scary Stories Here