By Adam Bushnell, author of County Durham Folk Tales (The History Press, 2013)
Fairy tales have been a key tool in the education of children and adults alike throughout history. These stories have been a way of teaching about ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. These ideas vary from society to society. In this post author Adam Bushnell explores how the governing regime in Nazi Germany manipulated popular fairy tales to express their own principles and beliefs.
Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library
Bruno Bettelheim explains how fairy tales educate, support and liberate the emotions of children in his book The Uses of Enchantment. I wholly agree. Fairy tales are powerful developmental tools for children and adults alike. They can have a dark side to them, but generally good overcomes evil. They frequently contain moral messages too and are useful tools for promoting oral storytelling. They follow themes and structures still seen in modern writing. For example, The Gruffalo feels like a traditional fairy tale. It has the rule of three just like Goldilocks, The Billy Goats Gruff and countless others.
Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief follows all the rules of the fairy tale too with its triadic structure and themes of good versus evil. Modern books still follow the structure and themes of the fairy tale because they are of everlastingly appealing. The themes can be dark, but children still adore them as they excite and inspire. If I told my publishers I wanted to write a book about a cannibal witch that lived in the woods using sweets to lure children to her home, then they would probably be surprised I was pitching this for children in their early years. Yet Hansel and Gretel is exactly that.
Fairy stories are not just for children though. In Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, she describes her stories as ‘reimagining the fairy tale’. We meet familiar characters from childhood in an adult context. We view the stories in a whole new way. It is magnificent to read.
Fairy tales appeal to all ages essentially because human beings are story animals. We thrive on them in all of their forms, whether news articles, stories in the pub or experiences at work that we share at the dinner table. We communicate through story. We express our inner selves in the retelling of the story. Stories hold great power.
However, fairy tales are something that have been manipulated in the past. The Nazis understood the importance of the fairy tale. One of the first things they did upon rising to power in Germany was to make fairy tales into films and broadcast them in movie theatres across the country. In the Nazi film version of Puss in Boots, Puss is seen standing at the end on a raised platform wearing a swastika armband. The crowd gathered around all chant, “Hail Puss in Boots! He is our Savour! We will live again!”. This was a deliberate attempt to compare Puss to Hitler, with a strong suggestion to children that only a hero should be hailed.
Shortly after the invasion of Poland, the Nazis turned Little Red Riding Hood into a film too, where the heroine is rescued at the end by a swastika-armed, SS uniform-wearing man holding a knife.
At that time, most households in Germany had a German House Book containing the Brother’s Grimm fairy tales. These were often shared by a fire with the whole family. The Nazis rewrote, reprinted and redistributed the book to all households in Germany but this new edition had sinister and subtle changes to the text.
In the original version of the Brother’s Grimm story The Little Magic Table, ‘The Golden Donkey and the Club in the Sack’, there is reference to a ‘yellow stain’ on someone’s trousers to suggest fear and cowardice. In the Nazi version, the yellow stain is written as a yellow star. The same star that Jewish people in the Nazi occupied ghettos were forced to wear.
In another tale, there is a magic fiddle which makes people dance. In the story, the fiddle is used to make Jewish people dance themselves to death in thorn bushes. Hitler wanted to warp young minds into thinking that this was the work of a hero.
Fairy Tales are powerful developmental tools for children and adults alike. As such, the Nazis used it to their own evil ends. Hitler knew of the power of these stories. He knew that children were influenced by them. He knew that if he manipulated them, then he also manipulated children’s minds.
As an author and a teacher, I think that fairy tales are critical in schools and at home. The more we share them in their untarnished form, then they help children, and adults, to understand the way of the world. They contain tragedy, comedy and hope.
Let us hope that the fairy tale will never again be a tool for manipulation, but rather only be used for good.
Adam Bushnell is an author of both fictional and academic books based in Durham. Find out more about his work here.
Entry to Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairy Tales from Northern Britain is free; opening hours are 10am – 5pm 7 days a week until February 25 2018. Please visit the Palace Green Library website for further information about your visit:
If this blog has inspired you to find out more about fairies and folklore, then why not come along to the final public lecture running alongside the Between Worlds exhibition. Find out more about this exciting free talk here: