German troublemakers

In the 1865 German children’s book Max and Moritz, the titular troublemakers blow up a teacher, are baked in an oven, and finally get ground up in a flour mill and eaten by ducks.

Max and Moritz go into the oven
Wilhelm Busch, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When I visited Germany in 2004, I wanted to buy four books.

  • The first was an Asterix and the Goths in German – part of my plan to acquire an Asterix book in the local language in every country I visited.
  • The second was Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story in the original German – it was one of the most influential books of my childhood.
  • The third was that classic dark storybook Der Struwwelpeter – which I’ve written about in scissorman and the fingers and uncombable hair.
  • And the fourth is the subject of today’s post.

Max und Moritz was written by Wilhelm Busch and first published in 1865. Like Der Struwwelpeter, it is supposed to entertain 19th century children, which means that it has a dark streak of humour a mile wide and a rather gruesome moral lesson at the end.

Max and Moritz are two children who love to play pranks and cause trouble. The book is divided into seven “tricks” that the two troublemakers pull on unsuspecting adults. Think lots of animal cruelty, like tangling live chickens up with string or stealing cooked chickens and blaming the dog:

Max and Moritz's chickens
Wilhelm Busch, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Or explosives: packing their teacher’s pipe with gunpowder so it blows up in his face:

Max and Moritz's exploding pipe
Wilhelm Busch, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But beginning in the second-to-last trick, things turn out wrong for Max and Moritz. While trying to steal from a baker they fall into a vat of dough. The baker bakes them in an oven until they are boy-shaped loaves of bread… but Max and Moritz eat their way out and run off.

The two mischief-makers finally get their comeuppance in the last “trick.” They cut open a farmer’s sacks of grain as he is carrying them, causing the grain to drain out. But the kids are spotted. The farmer stuffs them into the sacks, carries them to the flour mill, and has them ground up:

Max and Moritz go into the mill
Wilhelm Busch, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

All that remains of their remains are suspiciously kid-shaped piles of crumbs, which are promptly eaten by ducks.

This macabre children’s tale remains in print today. It has inspired a ballet, several films (both animated and live action), and The Katzenjammer Kids, one of the earliest comic strips. The German WWI flying ace the Red Baron named his dog Moritz; two of Wernher von Braun’s 1932 experimental rockets were named Max and Moritz.

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