Struwwelpeter – German Folktale to Frighten Children

“Struwwelpeter is the villain in the story, and is about a boy that does not want to cut his nails despite his parents advice, and he is warned of the villain/demon type figure–Struwwelpeter–who has curly blond hair, at least that is what he looked like in the book. He also had very, very long fingernails, and wore this sort of tunic outfit with pants.

So basically, if the young boy refused to cut his nails, his parents told him that Struwwelpeter would come. The boy refused to cut his nails, and Struwwelpeter came in the middle of the night. He cut off not only the boy’s nails but also the boy’s fingers, so he didn’t have any fingers.”

Context: The informant, ML, and myself were talking about the stories that we were told as children that would keep us in line. The informant, being of German descent told me this story that scared him as a child. Struwwelpeter is a German folktale. His mother was read this story as a child, and she used to be terrified by it. This story teaches a lesson in a very brutal, typically German way, according to ML. Most of the German children’s folktales are pretty gruesome, and follows the nature of German parental “advice-giving”. ML’s grandfather used to tell him that the way to get a child to not go near the stove was to hold one of their hands over the burners and possibly singe their hand a little bit, so that it would hurt and they would know that touching the stove in the future would hurt.

Analysis: I agree with ML’s insights as to the pattern this folktale follows. One of the most famous collections of German folklore was the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The stories, while still reminiscent of the tale circulating in German oral history, were “cleaned up”–removing violence and sex–to cater to a wider, and younger audience.For example, Rapunzel was supposed to be impregnated by the prince who visits her tower, but later editions of the Grimms removed this reference to sex, particularly the pre-marital kind. However, the tales from which the Grimm’s stories were derived from children’s folklore aimed to scare the youth into abiding by certain rules and obeying what their parents and society told them; in this case, you must cut your nails if you want do not want to be mangled by this terrifying demon figure.

Along with this, the context in which ML was taught this folk belief shows how folklore can change over time. The informant was told the story by his mother in a way that shows that she was told this story to scare her as a child, but she was not going to use the same story to scare her child. In this way, ML’s mother is no longer spreading this belief as something that the informant should be believing, but rather as a way to connect with her child. Folklore is shown as a way to connect various generations together through similar experiences; in this case, the reluctance for children to cut their nails is somewhat universal. For another version of this tale, see Spence, Robert, et al. Struwwelhitler A Nazi Story Book by Dr. Schrecklichkeit (Philip and Robert Spence). Autorenhaus-Verlag, 2014.