Speaking recently at this year’s Telegraph Bath Festival of Children’s Literature, celebrated German children’s author Cornelia Funke talked about the difficulty of writing imaginative literature based on folklore in the long shadow of Nazism. “The fascists used myth and fairytale,” she said, and “corrupted the the whole.”

As the Festival details outline, Cornelia Funke “is the renowned, much loved author of many children’s books, including the Inkheart and MirrorWorld series. She is also a film producer, an app designer, and was named by Time Magazine as one of the ‘100 must influential people in the world today’.” This is by no means the first time she’s spoken out on the subject. In a 2008 interview with Der Spiegel, she said: “The Germans have a fractured relationship with any form of romantic-poetic storytelling … The Nazis sullied our tradition of fantasy storytelling. They misused the Nibelungen, our sagas and myths. A black hole has been there since then. Günter Grass managed to incorporate fantasy into his works in a natural way, as did Michael Ende in his children’s books. But aside from them? Many reject fantastic irrationality, because the Third Reich exploited emotions and irrationality.”

That may go a long way towards explaining the dour, social realist, tone of too much post-war German “serious” literature, as well as explaining why Patrick Süskind came as such a breath of fresh air. But is it true? Certainly, the German Völkisch movement has indelible associations both with Romantic nationalism in Germany during and post the Napoleonic Wars, and with some of the theories woven into Nazism. And of course, no one is going to be able, never mind entitled, to tell German writers to feel any different about their tradition than they do. But was it the only tradition of folklore that could have been exploited? Neil Gaiman is just one modern imaginative writer who has drawn on legends from almost every continent for his work.

It’s also worth recalling that despite Hitler’s occult leanings, Nazism sought much of its grounding in science, or at least pseudo-science or scientism. Eugenics, the basis of Nazi racial theories, was accepted in many other ostensibly more liberal countries, including Sweden and Switzerland. (continuing in Sweden until 1975). Bertrand Russell in his in The Impact of Science on Society (1951) noted that “the Nazis were more scientific than the present rulers of Russia.” As one scientist wrote: “Nazi Racial and biological policy grew out of a well-established and generally accepted scientific tradition.” Furthermore, the German professional classes, engineers and scientists as much as teachers and lawyers, were all too vulnerable to the seductions of Nazism – and not out of apparent love of irrationalism, but for specific and very separate reasons.

Historian Jacques Barzun identified Darwinism and the principle of survival of the fittest as core to Nazism. “With Huxley and others we denied the principle of human equality, asserting the inborn supremacy of certain races instead – only to wake up in a world taking this science literally,” he declared, deploring “the triumph of mechanistic materialism over the flexible and humane pragmatism of the Romantics.” And he was certainly not the only scholar to make this connection. Just possibly, the post-war German critics of the Romantic heritage of folklore and the imagination may have been looking in the wrong place.


  1. Oh for goodness sake, are you really arguing for an either/or position? Nazism was ultimately syncretic, drawing on folklore, pseudo-science, academia and religion to both develop and justify itself. This is not a question of either/or but rather of both/and. This can be demonstrated not only by its use of eugenic racial theories (little more than pseudeo-scientific justifications for racism) but also the development of Positive Christianity and an attempt to re-establish Wotanic Paganism in an attempt to undermine and replace traditional Christianity which was tainted by its Jewish origins and value system that in some respects clashed with the value system of the Nazis.

  2. Quote: ” Günter Grass managed to incorporate fantasy into his works….”

    That hardly negates the issue. A few years back a secret aspect of Grass’ biography came out. The fact that as a young man he was in the army of Nazi Germany in itself means nothing. If he’d have refused to join, he’d have been shot. What was unique was that he was in the elite SS, which wouldn’t have been that hard to avoid. My hunch is that doing so offering him a way to avoid being sent to the dread Eastern front where 5/6th of German military deaths occurred.

    The Nazi connect to folk tales is silly, particularly since many of Grimm brothers’ allegedly Germanic tales are now known to have a French origin. For reasons I can’t understand, those who want to describe ‘authentic’ cultures often lie. That’s still true today.

    On the other hand, the Darwinian/survival of the fittest connection is a serious one and underlies both the Nazi eugenic programs (some based on US eugenic laws) and their obsession with population and ‘living space.’

    But if historian Jacques Barzun linked Thomas Huxley to those Darwinian horrors, he was way out of line. I happen to know Huxley well. His defense of naturalism against theism will be one appendix in my latest revision of Theism and Humanism.

    Huxley may have been ‘Darwin’s bulldog,’ promoting evolution more strongly that Darwin. But just before he died, he wrote two essays, usually published together as Evolution and Ethics. He accepted all the premises of Darwinian thought, particular the core one about the dangers of a civilization keeping the ‘unfit,’ alive, and yet he stubbornly refuse to admit that those principles should be applied. It’s marvelous written and well worth reading.

    Essentially, he claimed that, to keep our humanity, we shouldn’t apply eugenics. We should let the unfit build up to the point where civilization collapses, restoring the struggle to survive. That would again eliminate the unfit, allowing civilization to build up again.

    It was a brave stand and one I think that makes clear that if he’d been in Nazi Germany, he would have opposed it. But it was a counsel of despair. Doing the right thing even though it would lead to disaster wouldn’t persuade many. Most of the fashionable progressive of his day who were beginning to adopt eugenics (including educator John Dewey), attacked him, claiming that evolution/eugenics did not mean what he claimed it mean. He proved doubly right. It did mean what he said, and they did do what he feared. Hence was born both Buck v. Bell/forced sterilization and the aggressively eugenic birth control movement of Margaret Sanger (and today’s Planned Parenthood). If you want to really see a parallel to Nazism around today, look at where abortion clinics are being placed. Talking about folk tales is silly beyond belief. Hitler’s on reading tastes were for Karl May.


    You can sample Theism and Humanism and read in the Second Edition Foreword what I wrote about Huxley. The third edition should be out in a couple of months and will enlarge a bit more the debate between Balfour and Huxley over the merits of theism versus naturalism.

    Here are samples from my book:


    And the second essay on this website is the one I’ll be including.


    But for that essay, the current edition and the new one will be almost identical. The current edition (now 14 years old) isn’t in a format from which I can create a digital edition, so I decided to revise both the print and digital versions. In the process, I’m adding a bit more about the elderly Huxley’s clash with the young and rising Balfour, author of Theism and Humanism.

    Huxley, who coined the term “agnostic” died a most unhappy man, missing a deceased daughter he loved very much but without any hope of ever seeing her again. He should be pitied not demonized.

    –Mike Perry, Inkling Books

  3. Did either of you above commenters actually read the article? I suggest you go back and read it again. Paul isn’t taking a position at all, merely reporting on what a prominent German author is saying and even calling it into question. I think Ms. Funke likely knows a lot more about the German literary mindset than a couple of anonymous internet commenters.

    Personally, I find this very interesting. If it is true, it seems to be a German thing as English fantasy writers (Gaiman as noted in the article and even more prominently Tolkien) have certainly not been afraid to draw on German folklore traditions.

  4. Sigh, I did read the article, and I reread it again. I was not commenting directly on what Ms. Funke was writing, but rather calling into question the last two paragraphs that Mr. Mackintosh wrote to conclude the article. As far as I can tell, those last two paragraphs about the pseudo-scientific underpinnings of Nazism were inserted to undermine Ms. Funke’s thesis about the impact of the Nazi use of folklore on post war German Authors. This despite the fact that those paragraphs are essentially a non-sequitor for the rest of the article.

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