No time for books

Niklas and Jenny, Merry Dragon
Niklas and Jenny, Merry Dragon

[America and Europe, around 1830/1840] For some years now Niklas and Heinrich Bergmann had been living in America. It was a good life, they had worked hard and could live in financial security.

Above all, they were happy that their children could grow up free and without hunger. But time and again their thoughts went back to their old homeland, where many people were in great need. More and more people came to America, hoping for a better life. Among the newcomers in their neighborhood were many children. Often Niklas invited them to the “Merry Dragon” inn, and then they read together: “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” from Germany and “The Last of the Mohicans” from America.

Many children cannot read

Niklas’ son Harvey was very sad to see that so many of the children could not read. His father told him about the hardships these families had had to endure. In his homeland, he assumed, some 3/4 of the people were illiterate. Sure, the Prussian government paid attention to education, going to school was even compulsory. However, in many peasant and working-class families the need was so great that the children had to work too, and could not go to school. His father’s cousin Hubert had written them all of that.  Many children came to school with their stomachs full of empty. And that his wife and his wife Henriette and his daughter Anni prepare sandwiches for them every day.

Industrialization (1820-50, Germany)

Back then, many people worked in the home industry, they made nails and knives, span and wove to make a living for themselves and their families. Also small-scale farmer families whose land did not feed them all earned money by working at home. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, more and more industrial products from England came to Germany, and also here industrialization began.

But the home industry could not withstand industrialization. The more machines were developed and in use, the more people lost their jobs. One mechanical loom replaced 200 workers. That was a catastrophe for the weavers, and starvation wages, women or even child labor could not change anything. Many craftsmen impoverished, especially those whose products competed with industry. At the same time, countless impoverished peasants and jobless craftsmen moved to the industry cities, hoping to find work in the factories. As a result, the wages went down.. Working conditions were generally terrible, laws to protect the workers did not exist, and the conditions of living were disastrous.

Great need at home

Despite strenuous work, many people could not make a living for themselves and their families and became destitute*. “I wish we’d live for better times to come, and you could meet my relative Hubert Limbach in the Rhineland,” Niklas said to his son, “you would be by his side right away. He is an elementary school teacher, not by profession, but by vocation. He often invites his kids to their “Stübchen”, then his wife Henriette treats them to hot chocolate, and they read together. Anni does her best to mend their worn out clothes.” Harvey was all amazed. “I often send him drawings from here”, Niklas added with a big smile.

Political oppression (1837, Germany)

On that day in 1837, when Niklas wanted to read another fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm with his little guests, his smile seemed a bit forced. He had received bad news from Germany, a letter and newspaper articles.

The Brothers Grimm

“Before we read on, I need to tell you something,” he said, “we have read many tales of the Brothers Grimm here together, and I told you about them. Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm did not collect only German fairy tales, but tales from all around the world, translated them and promoted understanding for other cultures. For them, respect and love for one’s own language and culture meant respecting other cultures as well.

The Göttingen Seven

But now they are in danger. They were professors at the University of Göttingen*, a city in the Kingdom of Hanover. For about 125 years, the crowns of Hanover and England have been united in the person of a single monarch. Now, that personal union has been dissolved, and the new King of Hanover has abolished the quite liberal constitution. This is a violation of law. Seven professors of the University of Göttingen, among them the Brothers Grimm, have protested against it. Now they are expelled from the country, only because they have protested with other professors against a violation of the constitution.”

Admiration and support

When he saw the bewildered faces of his listeners, he said: “You grow up in a free country with a President elected by the people. In my homeland, it is very different. Over there, kings and emperors rule, and after the victory over Napoleon, they want to turn back time, back to absolute monarchy, where the monarch has no restraints in state and political matters. Many upright men are considered to be demagogues, that means persons who deceive and incite the people. The authorities pursue them for ‘revolutionary activities’, among them are men of great merits, and now also the Brothers Grimm.”

Then Niklas smiled. “My cousin also writes that many people are on the courageous professors’ side,” he added, “wherever they go, they are warmly received, people admire them and even collect money for them.”

* We speak of a time of pauperization.

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