Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher
Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher

Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann was a 19th century German psychiatrist who published poems and novels in his spare time. Today he is best remembered for what is perhaps the most infamous educational children's poetry collection of all time: 'Der Struwwelpeter' (1845). 'Struwwelpeter' is a series of cautionary tales set to rhyme, for which Hoffmann provided his own illustrations. The book became a frequently reprinted classic. It's even the most translated German-language book of all time, next to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. The work is so popular in fact that numerous bootleg editions were created, including a wide variety of parodies. But 'Struwwelpeter' owes its lasting fame mostly to its rather gruesome and morbid stories, made more frightening by Hoffmann's vivid drawings. Today the book is generally regarded as being too disturbing for its young target audience. Yet again this explains why it has outlasted many other children's stories of that same era. The 'Struwwelpeter' is furthermore important in comics history as one of the earliest German-language comic books, along with the works of Rodolphe Töpffer and Wilhelm Busch.

Heinrich Hoffmann was born in 1819 in Frankfurt on Main as son of an architect and building inspector. Hoffmann's mother passed away when he still a child. His father remarried with his late wife's sister. Hoffmann didn't enjoy a particularly happy childhood. While his stepmother was friendly to him, his actual father was a strict disciplinarian. He wanted his son to behave well and do his very best at school. Slowly but surely Hoffmann's grades went up, though he had to concentrate hard to maintain this level. In 1829 he started studying medicine. Between 1835 and 1846 he worked in a pauper's clinic. From 1844 on, Hoffmann lectured students in anatomy at the Dr. Senckenbergischen Institute. In 1851 he graduated as a doctor and opened his own practice in Frankfurt. Looking for a better paid job Hoffmann was in luck that a doctor from a local mental asylum retired. Despite his lack of experience he became the new psychiatrist and gained an extraordinary reputation for curing many of his patients. Hoffmann soon became a beloved member of his city's community. He published various essays about psychiatrical topics and was an active member of the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, the Mozart Foundation and the freemasons' lodge.

Der Struwwelpeter

Apart from psychiatry, Hoffmann also enjoyed writing stories, poems and drawing cartoons. Whenever children were brought to his practice and started to cry out of fear he usually calmed them down by drawing something for them. In 1842 he published his first poetry collection, simply titled 'Gedichte' ('Poems', 1842). A satirical comedy followed one year later, named 'Die Mondzügler. Eine Komödie der Gegenwart' (1843). Two years later, Hoffmann searched for a decent children's book for his own offspring, but found nothing suitable. Under the impression he could write something better himself, he penned down ten narrative poems which he illustrated personally. He gave them as a Christmas gift to his son, Carl, and later published them too as: 'Lustige Geschichten und drollige Bilder mit 15 schön kolorierten Tafeln für Kinder von 3-6 Jahren' (1845). The work was an instant bestseller and by its third edition the title was shortened to 'Der Struwwelpeter', named after a character who appears in the first poem of the book. The book initially appeared under a pseudonym, "Reimerich Kinderlieb", but eventually it was published under his own name.

Die Geschichte vom bösen FriederichDie Geschichte vm Suppen-Kaspar
'Die Geschichte vom bösen Friederich' and 'Die Geschichte vom Suppen-Kaspar'

'Der Struwwelpeter' tells ten highly moralistic tales, all set to rhyme. Most are about naughty or foolish children who are punished for their misbehaviour. Some stories are not unlike a typical cautionary tale. When little Zappel-Philipp ('Fidgety Philip') cannot sit still at the table he predictably tips over, knocking down all food, plates and cutlery. Hans Guck-in-die-Luft never watches where he is going and thus falls into a river. Other stories, however, have a more gruesome and disturbing conclusion. Little Friederich terrorizes animals and people until he is bitten by a dog and forced to remain in bed for several weeks. If that weren't enough he has to drink a disgusting medicine too. Suppen-Kaspar refuses to eat his soup until he starves away! Little Pauline plays with matches until she accidentally sets herself on fire and burns to death! 'Struwwelpeter' has entertained but also disturbed generations of young readers with its nightmarish stories and imagery. Since the second half of the 20th century many parents and tutors even feel the work is too family unfriendly. While the life lessons are timeless, most of them do nothing more than scare children into obedience. Some stories even tell downright lies about what might happen if they continue a certain misbehaviour. Fliegenden Robert goes outside during stormy weather and is taken away in the air by heavy wind, never to be seen again. Struwwelpeter never washes or cleans himself, which causes his hair and nails to grow to enormous lenghts within a few days. As a result he becomes a human abomination, hated by everyone. A boy who always sucks his thumbs is eventually visited by a frightening man appearing out of nowhere with a pair of scissors. He then cuts off both of the boy's thumbs!

Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug
Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug

In our modern era 'Struwwelpeter' often comes across as a grotesque "scare 'em straight" book. Pedagogues nowadays feel children should be educated in a caring and respectful manner. Some of the "disobedient" behaviour frowned upon in the book is not all that unusual for certain children who suffer from ADHD, anorexia nervosa or hyperactivity. Telling young readers utter lies to prove a point is also discouraged. Even apart from its educational value 'Struwwelpeter' isn't even considered that suitable as children's entertainment either, because of its nightmarish atmosphere. Contrary to what modern audiences may assume 'Struwwelpeter' wasn't the first moralistic children's book. There have been numerous others before it. Even the scary narratives aren't that unusual for its time. Since the dawn of time adults have told violent and scary stories to children through fairy tales, legends and myths. Until the late 18th century people saw children as beings who weren't that different from adults. Thus they didn't mind that some things weren't meant for their innocent ears. Even in the 19th century, when the general attitude changed, frightening stories were still considered fine, as long as they taught children a valuable lesson. 'Der Struwwelpeter' ought to be understood in this context. More recent research has even suggested that the entire book might be sardonic comedy, rather than be taken seriously. Interestingly enough, Hoffmann complained in one of his writings that some parents scare their children into behaving by claiming "the doctor will give you a nasty medicine" or a "chimney sweep will carry you off". He never seems to have noticed that his own children's book uses the same tactics. Also, despite its reputation, 'Struwwelpeter' contains more innocent and less horrific stories as well. In 'Die Geschichte von dem wilden Jäger' a far-sighted hunter loses his gun to a rabbit who then turns the tables by shooting at him. It's the most comedic story in the entire book. Another poem,'Die Geschichte von den schwarzen Buben', also has a fairly non-violent ending. As three white children laugh at a black kid they are eventually given a piece of poetic justice by being dropped into black ink and thus ridiculed themselves. Given the time period, it's a remarkable stance against racism.

Die Geschichte von den schwarzen Buben
Die Geschichte von den schwarzen Buben

Much of the success of 'Der Struwwelpeter' can be explained through Hoffmann's use of illustration to make the stories more visually interesting. As primitive as his artwork is, it was nevertheless highly effective in scaring countless children. Much of the imagery stays with readers long after they've closed the book. In German literature 'Struwwelpeter' has even become iconic. It has remained in print until this very day. The work was translated in several languages all across the world. It even inspired a remarkable amount of bootleg copies or downright rip-offs. In 1850 Heinrich Kruspe published the very similar 'Die Struwwelsuse, oder Lustige Geschichten und drollige Bilder für Kinder von 3–7 Jahren'. In 1851 'Slovenly Peter Reformed. Showing How He Became A Neat Scholar' (1851) was published in which the gruesomeness of the original Struwwelpeter is even pushed further. When his mother tries to cut his overly long finger nails she uses a saw to get the job done. Mark Twain wrote his own translation, 'Slovenly Peter' in 1891 but because of copyright issues this work was only made available to the public in 1935. Various 19th and early 20th century illustrators blatantly retraced Hoffmann's drawings and substituted them with their own. An interesting case is Dutch artist Henriëtte Willebeek Le Mair, who elevated Hoffmann's rudimentary drawings by turning them into more detailed and fully worked out illustrations. In the Netherlands, Hoffmann's stories were also prominently featured in Leonard de Vries' storybook compilation 'Het Prentenboek van Tante Pau' (De Bezige Bij, 1974), which has made them available for a new generation. In 1950 Janet and Anne Graham Johnstone also created a new graphic illustration of the original stories. In 1994 Renate Alf, Barbara Henniger, HOGLI, Ute Krause, Cleo-Petra Kurze and Marie Marcks reimagined the novel as 'Die Struwwelpaula – Struwwelige Geschichten und haarige Bilder' (1994). In 2006 Bob Staake drew his own graphic interpretation of 'Struwwelpeter', which was later even adapted into an animated short. Erwin Grosche and Sara Balls created an animal version of Struwwelpeter named 'Der tierische Struwwelpeter' (2007). David Füleki reimagined 'Struwwelpeter' as a manga-inspired trilogy, consisting of the works 'Struwwelpeter: Das große Buch der Störenfriede' (2009) and 'Struwwelpeter in Japan' (2012). Philip Tägert (Fil) and illustrator ATAK created their reinterpretation of Hoffmann's novel in 2009. In 2012 Sanya Glisic adapted the story of the boy who sucked his thumbs into a comic strip, published in the second volume of 'The Graphic Canon'. In 1993 Laura Scarpa and Giorgio Pellizzari founded a literary group they dubbed "The Struwwelpeter Group".

Die Geschichte vom wilden Jäger
Die Geschichte vom wilden Jäger

'Struwwelpeter' was also adapted into various media, including theatrical plays, musicals, films and musical pieces by musicians as varied as Norbert Schultze, Lowell Liebermann, Kurt Hessenberg ('Struwwelpeter-Kantate', 1949), Cesar Bresgen ('Struwwelpeter-Kantage', 1953), Siegfried Köhler ('Der Struwwelpeter', opus 31, 1968), Kenneth Hesketh, XTC (their song 'Scissor Man', 1979), The Tiger Lillies (their opera 'Shockheaded Peter', 1998), Rammstein (their song 'Hilf Mir', 2005) and Knorkator (their 2014 song 'Konrad'). Fritz Genschow directed a 1955 live-action film based on the book, but gave it a more child friendly ending. David Kaplan turned the original book into a psychosexual interpretation with the short 'Little Suck-a-Thumb' (1992), while Richard Mansfield adapted 'Struwwelpeter' into a shadow puppet short film named 'Sucking Hell' (2015).

'Struwwelpeter' also inspired numerous parody novels and comic books, several of a political-satirical kind. As early as 1848 Henry Ritter published 'Der politische Struwwelpeter. Ein Versuch zu Deutschands Einigung; dem deutschen Michel gewidmet' (1848), which satirized the various Communist revolutions which swept Europe that year. A man under the pseudonym of AH wrote a military pastiche named 'Militär-Struwwelpeter. Lustige Geschichten und drollige Bilder von und für Militärs von 10 bis 100 Jahren' (1877). Carl Heinrich Stratz created a gynaecological version named 'Kurzer gynaekologischer Struwelpeter' (1882), which depicted pictures of dead foetuses. Julius Lütje wrote a female version of Hoffmann's classic named 'Struwellies' (1890), with drawings by Franz Maddalena. The same decade Austrian author Fritz Netolitzky spoofed Struwwelpeter as: 'Der Ägyptische Struwwelpeter' (1895). He made the book in collaboration with his siblings Richard and Magdalene as a birthday gift to a friend of their mother's. The book was written in a style which references Ancient Egypt, both in its content as in the drawings by Elfried Kuzamany's mother. While the book attracted a notable celebrity fan, novelist Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, the book was still forced to be taken from the market after accusations of plagiarism. Edward Harold Begbie's 'The Political Struwwelpeter' (1898) was a satire of late 19th century British politics, depicting the British Lion as the uncombed and filthy Struwwelpeter. In 1914 Fried Stern wrote an updated version of Hoffmann's book for adults named 'Der Struwwelpeter von heute. Ein Bilderbuch für die Großen' (1914). The same year an English satirical book came out by an anonymous author named 'Swollen-Headed William: Painful Stories and Funny Pictures After The German' (1914), which attacked German emperor Wilhelm II. In 1915 K.E Olszewski drew a German political parody, 'Bombenpeter' (1915), lampooning the Serbian crown prince Peter who threatened the Austrian-Hungarian empire with the help of Russia. One world war further Hitler was the predictable target for another vicious 'Struwwelpeter' satire, though surprisingly enough no less than three different versions! As early as 1933, when the Führer has just taken power, a man named Oistros published 'Truffle Eater: Pretty Stories and Funny Pictures' (1933). During World War II the Britons Robert and Philip Spence published the work 'Struwwelhitler. A Nazi Story Book' (1941) under the pseudonym "Dr. Schrecklichkeit". Yet another anti-Hitler Struwwelpeter parody followed in 1943 named 'Schicklgruber' (1943), written by Robert Collin-Pyper and drawn by Margaret Stavidri.

Der StruwwelpeterHet prentenboek van Tante Pau

Two decades later, Eckart Hackfeld and his son Rainer Hachfeld created a political parody named 'Der Struwwelpeter neu frisiert. Lästige Geschichten und dolle Bilder für Bürger bis 100 Jahre' (1969) which poked fun at East-German head of state Walter Ulbricht. Meanwhile in the DDR itself, another 'Struwwelpeter' parody was published by Hansgeorg Stengel with artwork by Karl Schrader. Their version updated the original tale with moral lessons to warn children what would happen if they watch too much television, for instance. In 1970 F.K. Waechter created the 'Anti-Struwwelpeter' (1970), which reversed the morals of the original stories. In 1974 U.S President Richard Nixon was lampooned as Struwwelpeter with 'Tricky Dick and His Pals: comical stories by Dr. Joseph Wortis and funny pictures by David Arkin'. The story of Little Suck-a-Thumb was also referenced in a cut-a-way gag in the episode 'Business Guy' (2009) in Seth MacFarlane's TV series 'Family Guy', where the entire story is shown as an example of a "typical depressing German bedtime story". Jürgen Lehrich created a punk version named 'Der Punker Peter' (2011), while Klaus Günterberg made a cyber parody of the original tale named 'Der Cyber-Peter – und andere Geschichten aus der modernen Welt nicht nur für Kinder' (2013).

Heinrich Hoffmann continued his literary career both with non-fiction as well as fiction. Among the latter category were 'Handbuch für Wühler oder kurzgefaßte Anleitung in wenigen Tagen ein Volksmann zu werden' (1848) and 'Der Heulerspiegel' (1849), in which the staunch monarchist satirized republicanism. He also wrote fiction like 'Der wahreund ächte Hinkende Bote' (1850-1851), 'König Nußknacker und der arme Reinhold' (1851), 'Bastian der Faulpelz' (1854), 'Allerseelen- Büchlein. Eine humoristische Friedhofs-Anthologie' (1858), 'Prins Grünewald und Perlenfein mit ihrem lieben Eselein' (1871) and 'Auf heiteren Pfaden. Gesammelte Gedichte' (1873). Hoffmann passed away from a stroke in 1894. In 1977 a special museum dedicated to both the author and Der Struwwelpeter opened to the public in Frankfurt am Main.

Heinrich Hoffmann's 'Struwwelpeter' influenced Edward Gorey, Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak and Dick Bruna. Wilfrid von Bredow and Anja Kuhl's 'Lola rast und andee schreckliche Geschichten' (2009) is a homage to the book. Even Tim Burton combined the messy hair of the Struwwelpeter with the Scissorman who cuts off the thumb-sucking child's thumbs to create his more gentle and tragic title character in 'Edward Scissorhands' (1991). For those interested in Heinrich Hofffmann's life, Barbara Smith Chalou's book 'Struwwelpeter: Humor or Horror?: 160 Years Later' (2007) is highly recommended reading.

Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann
Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann

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