There is not much written evidence about the kinds of stories that were told in Germany by ordinary people before the nineteenth century. There is evidence of a rich, centuriesold oral tradition in Germany in medieval epics such as the Nibelungenlied, but those were traditionally the entertainment of nobility, not the common folk.
Storytelling always has been considered a minor art in Germany, performed casually in private and informal spaces. Traveling craftsmen, merchants, or soldiers would carry a mixture of folktales, anecdotes, and real news from place to place. These stories were retold by villagers on long winter nights, as families and even whole villages took care of chores such as spinning or mending ﬁshing nets.
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The Nineteenth Century
In the early nineteenth century, Germany went through an identity crisis. German artists and scientists frantically searched for their roots. This generation gloriﬁed the last universal culture to precede the Enlightenment—the Middle Ages.
Out of this came Romanticism. Folktales and folk songs were rediscovered. They were sometimes redesigned according to the collectors’ ideas on what constituted true, original folklore. The stories are split into four categories: Zaubermärchen (wonder tales), Schwänke (comical tales), Sagen (local legends), and Legenden (saints’ legends).
The Brothers Grimm
The most famous folktale collectors were Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Linguists by profession, they felt obliged to preserve and publish folktales. The seven editions of Kinderund Hausmärchen, or Children’s and Household Tales, were published between 1812 and 1857. These successful collections may have prevented some traditional stories from vanishing. This work has been published in more translations and editions all over the world than any other German book.
The publication of the Grimms’ tales marked a change in public perception of folktales. Once thought of as told tales, these were now primarily known as written works. The Grimm brothers also eliminated what they considered offensive subjects and language from the stories, as these folktales were meant for children. This suited the current bourgeois Biedermeier style, which championed pedagogic literature.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm claimed to have written the stories down just as they had heard them, as one edition’s introduction states, “without adding, glossing or changing anything.” Literary studies have since proved that they did indeed make changes.
Their story sources were also limited. Among these sources were individuals with Huguenot backgrounds, which explains the presence of some nearly unchanged tales of the French poet Charles Perrault, such as “Little Red Riding Hood.”
Loss of the Storytelling Tradition
The inﬂuence of the work that became known simply as Grimm’s Fairy Tales was so strong that it deﬁned the idea of what a folktale should sound like. The public’s fascination with this style remained unchallenged throughout the following decades.
The rising popularity of mass media and the ongoing change of social structures further weakened traditional storytelling by everyday people. By the late 1960s, young people knew very little traditional lore, and even older generations referred to books as primary sources for these stories.
In the late 1960s, social and cultural ideologies changed throughout the Western world. In the former West Germany, this nearly put an end to traditional stories, even in their printed form. These stories were blamed for the perpetuation of conservative and outdated values. Only a few alternative theaters, called freie Theatre, embraced storytelling with programs of stories and improvisation. But their efforts fell short of launching a true storytelling revival.
East Germany followed a different path. In socialism, folktales were considered a genuine expression of the ordinary people’s longing for justice, happiness, and peace. As a result, socialist cultural institutions tried to bring folktales to the modern audience. The government supported the use of traditional tales as source material for movies, plays, and radio productions.
As a reaction against the ever-decreasing importance of traditional stories in West Germany, the Gesellschaft zur Pﬂege des Märchengutes europäischer Völker (Association for the Care of Fairytales of European Cultures) was founded in 1956. It was later renamed the Europäische Märchengesellschaft (European Fairytale Association), or the EMG. The word European in the name refers to the range of tales, rather than to the association members, since nearly all members are German speakers. The main interest of the organization is the academic study of wonder tales in both literary and psychological contexts.
The monopoly of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and printed sources in general had extended so far that nearly all tellers recited stories verbatim, which made the storyteller’s performance recitation rather than telling. There was little room for improvisation, which shifted the telling into a kind of lecture. The tellers following this fashion called themselves Märchenerzähler (fairy tale teller) instead of Geschichtenerzähler (storyteller).
From the second half of the 1980s, several developments unfolded simultaneously. The fairy tale movement of the EMG members spread into regional culture as Märchenkreise (fairy tale circles), where folktale enthusiasts could gather. In some of these circles, the frame of topics has come to include local legends.
In addition, immigrants, mainly from Arab countries, recently have introduced their idea of storytelling to Germany. But their contributions are generally considered exotic and remain on the fringes of German culture.
In the last years of the twentieth century, a rising esoteric movement created a storytelling school of its own. Its followers started up Märchenzentren, or fairy tale centers, all over the country. These centers deal exclusively with wonder or comic tales, and the performances combine fairy tales with puppetry, dance, and meditation.
The Future of Storytelling
In recent years, increasing contact between storytellers has led to a discussion about the future of storytelling, about aesthetics and questions of style. Exchanges with storytellers from abroad have helped to fertilize this process and open new horizons. The German word for storyteller, Geschichtenerzähler, is used more frequently. More and more tellers are telling rather than reciting, and they embrace stories completely invented by the teller as well as epics, myths, biographies, and world literature.
Storytelling as a cultural activity became more popular in the 1990s, when the ﬁrst festivals of storytelling were launched in Berlin, Remscheid, and Aachen. Yet the existence of storytelling as a performing art is still unknown to the majority of Germans. The increase in fairy tale book and audio book editions in Germany is evidence of what may be an unconscious longing for traditional story structures and intimate listening experiences.
In Germany as in other countries, storytelling and its protagonists continue to strive to ﬁnd a place in twenty-ﬁrst-century society. Its proponents hope that this ancient art form will ﬁnd such a place before, as a storyteller might say, “our beards have grown long.”