Max and Moritz: Two rascals keep readers laughing 150 years later

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A tale by Wilhelm Busch about two mischief-making lads is considered to be the best-known German children’s book the world over. The first edition of Max and Moritz came out in October 1865. The stories are based on Busch’s own boyhood experiences in northern Germany.

Nowadays, the two boys would be a case for the child psychologists. But things were a little messier 150 years ago, when author Wilhelm Busch led his creations, Max and Moritz, to a grisly comeuppance – being ground up into pieces in a mill and then eaten by geese.

Before that gruesome end, the two naughty lads in the children’s book Max and Moritz (A Story of Seven Boyish Pranks) had done all sorts of bad things – gleefully torturing chickens and ambushing villagers in various ways – pranks that, to this day, draws laughter from readers.

The satirical book – written in rhyming couplets (“Ah, how oft we read or hear of/ Boys we almost stand in fear of!”) – was brought out in October 1865 by the Munich publishing house Kaspar Braun. In all, the book, which was illustrated by Busch as well, has been translated at least 190 times, including into many regional dialects.

“One reason for such lasting success is that there is no one wagging a finger at them, which contrasts, for example, to the Struwwelpeter,” says Gisela Vetter-Liebenow, director of Hanover’s Wilhelm Busch Museum.

Stuwwelpeter was an illustrated book by Heinrich Hoffmann that appeared 20 years beforehand. It is also full of bad children but here, for every kind of misbehaviour, there is a rapid, and often cruel, punishment.

Compare that to the world of Wilhelm Busch, where the adults, such as the self-righteous teacher Laempel, are victims of pranks and made to look ludicrous – something that never, ever, had been done before in a children’s book. Education authorities at the time warned that Busch posed a danger to the morals of German youth.

Carefully, wearing white gloves, Vetter-Liebenow opens one of the few preserved original copies of the book. In 1864, Busch, then 32 years old, had finished writing the Max and Moritz manuscript, but his publisher rejected it. Kaspar Braun immediately snapped it up in early 1865.

Busch had to etch his own illustrations in a reverse image into boxwood for the printing process. Many consider that a shame, because something of the dynamism of his illustrations was lost.

In fact, the illustrations are admired by satirical artists and comic book illustrators around the world to this day. Busch sketched in a cinematic style long before the invention of moving pictures. His illustration of an exploding pipe belonging to the teacher Laempel is regarded by some as the Big Bang birth of modern comics.

Then there is Busch’s macabre humour, one based on malicious joy. It is timeless and still amuses and entertains readers 150 years later.

So, who were Max and Moritz? Scholars agree that Busch based them on his own childhood experiences. At the age of 9, he left his home village of Wiedensahl, west of Hanover, to go live with an uncle, pastor Georg Kleine, in the town of Ebergoetzen, near Goettingen.

The boy spent the next five years in Ebergoetzen, often together with his best pal, Erich Bachmann, the son of a miller. Busch’s early portrait drawings showed that Moritz was based on himself, while the puffy-cheeked Max resembled Erich.

Today, visitors to Ebergoetzen can follow the trail of Max and Moritz. There’s the Wilhelm-Bush Mill, which houses a museum, while a small wooden bridge recalls the footbridge where the two boys sawed through a plank that resulted in Boeck, the tailor, being plunged into the cold water below.

“In this anniversary year, the visitor numbers are very good,” reports Marianne Tillmann, director of the Wilhelm Busch sites promotional board in Ebergoetzen. Each year the mill, which is still fully functional, sees around 10,000 guests. This year the figure will be higher, she said.

And in the rural district of Schaumburg, which includes the town of Wiedensahl, where Busch was born, the Max and Moritz jubilee year is being celebrated with readings, theatrical performances and exhibitions.

“Our aim is to transport Wilhelm Busch into the present day,” says Maxi Schweizer, project director of “150 Years Max and Moritz from Schaumburg.”

In addition, the Wilhelm Busch birthplace in Wiedensahl will be presenting illustrations by this year’s Wilhelm Busch Prize recipient, Hans Traxler, through January 10. In addition, there is the exhibition titled Max and Moritz in Woman’s Hands – Five Female Illustrators Take A Look At The Bad Boys.

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