Bergman und Engel
January 11, 2008 5:51 PM   Subscribe

You probably thought all those wooden toys and Nutcrackers from your local version of the KrisKindlMarkt were made in Bavaria. But wooden toys from Germany were an economic engine that supported a large percentage of the population of the Deutsche Democratische Repulic. In fact, people in the DDR were not allowed to own these toys, they were all made for export to the west. You can still find "Unter dem Tisch" (secret, illegal) collections in towns like Dippoldiswalde in the Erzgebirge mountains on the Czech border.
posted by nax (14 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
"Unter dem Tisch": Under the table
posted by ArgentCorvid at 6:15 PM on January 11, 2008

Huh, fascinating. I've actually been to a small Christkindlmarkt set up in Akron, OH by its sister city, Chemnitz, which was part of the Erzgebirge region. They have a long tradition of gorgeous folk art, but I didn't know it had been harnessed by the DDR in that way.

Though I have to say, it's more properly "Christkindlmarkt", or various other Süddeutsche variations thereof. The name literally means "Christ Child Market." In Northern German areas, it's more often called a "Weihnachtsmarkt" (Christmas Market). I can, however, personally vouch that at least a fair amount of the stuff sold at the many Christkindlmarkts of München [self-link to Flickr] is Bavarian these days. Not that there haven't been changes - some of the intricate woodwork is now lasercut...
posted by ubersturm at 6:15 PM on January 11, 2008

Here, folk art did not give birth to the toy industry; the toy industry (or rather its crisis) gave birth to folk art. This article...aims to show how the concept of folk art could be used for commercial and very different political purposes throughout the twentieth century.

Neat post, nax. Reminds me of so many things, but most concretely the Native American "folk art" I sold as a Christmastime job one year at a fine arts store.

The deployment of folklore toward political ends is a recurring theme over the last few centuries (at least) and the U.S. has plenty of examples of its own. Thanks for posting.
posted by Miko at 6:18 PM on January 11, 2008

(Er, the end of my first paragraph got b0rked. Missing was the key qualification that even prior to the heavy marketing as "folk art", they had a long tradition of woodworking and an identifiable style that really could qualify as, well, folk art. Sigh. Sometime I'll learn how to preview.)

I'm actually rather curious about an almost throwaway statement in the article - "After 1933 the new national socialist government introduced job schemes, and schools were admonished to use wooden toys and decorations from the Erzgebirge for their Christmas celebrations." I don't have JSTOR access right this moment, and can't check out the citation, but it's unclear from context quite how widespread this and some of the later Nazi promotional efforts were. Between that and the DDR's PR, I wonder how much related traditions (Bavarian, for example) may have been affected and redefined to more closely fit the new ideal of Erzgebirge-style woodworking as (the) archetypal German folk art.
posted by ubersturm at 6:45 PM on January 11, 2008

ubersturm: I'm not sure if you're already familiar with this stuff and just focusing on the woodcraft aspect, but in case it's a completely new idea to others, it's important to note that to the extent you'll find the celebration of woodworking as German folk art, you'll find other folk material used to fit the ideals of nationalism. Singing societies, folk dancing, traditional costume, proverbs, foodways, and stories were all hailed by proponents of nationalism as proof and expression of an essential Aryan identity.
The emergence of a unified German state under Bismarck fostered a considerable interest in all manifestations of German culture. This search for the essence of German cultural identity had both antiquarian (Tacitus was an important source) and ethnographic dimensions, since within the "timeless" traditions of the "simple folk" one could discern the continuity of a truly German character
I don't have JSTOR access either, but anyone who does would have plenty to read on these topics there. There's lots of good stuff available there on the uses of folklore for the purpose of pulling the masses into a shared ethnic identity.
posted by Miko at 7:29 PM on January 11, 2008

ubersturm: JSTOR access won't help. the citation of (Anja) Grosche is on an unpublished MA Thesis, and I can't find record of it anywhere. Presumably, you'll have to check with the Uni in Dresden where it was submitted.
posted by honest knave at 11:43 PM on January 11, 2008

I got a nice wooden top and flying propeller at a Weihnachtsmarkt. Where I lived in Duesseldorf, the market was in front of my door. I don't know anything of their make, I just liked their look. My great nephew will be providing a good excuse to send such things home, in a couple more years.
posted by Goofyy at 4:34 AM on January 12, 2008

There are some papers on those other politically and commercially influenced folklore promotions in JSTOR - both in Germany and elsewhere.
posted by Miko at 8:48 AM on January 12, 2008

Miko, ubersturm and honest knave, your comments on the parcity of information are interesting. I've actually been searching for information on this topic for several weeks and was quite surprised not only at the lack of scholarly treatments, but also of news reports and even of photos of the wide range of wooden objects that fit into this category. Lots of shopping sites, but mostly of items that actually seem to have been made in Asia to look like things made in the Erzgebirge to emulate the supposed Bavarian craft. I was quite surprised at the lack of sites, which I searched using both English and German keywords. I finally decided to go ahead and post, in the hopes that others might have additional sites or information.

I first became interested in this when I was in Dippoldiswalde about 10 years ago and met someone who had an absolutely amazing "unter dem Tisch" collection--thousands of objects and figurines dating back nearly 100 years to the start of the "industry"--, which she was still very cautious about more than half a decade after the wall came down. The museum cited has a 25-foot long, 100 year old diarama of authentic (but who knows) artisan-made figurines. The picture on the first page is about 20" of the entire thing.

A note on the title-- Bergman und Engel are the figurines in the first link; the tradition is to have one Bergman for each boy child and one Engel for each girl child in the family. I bought mine from the secret collection and put them out every Christmas.
posted by nax at 12:06 PM on January 12, 2008

I have the most beautiful Angelchor which I've just packed away carefully after Christmas. Thanks for this, I had no idea of the background.
posted by Wilder at 2:32 PM on January 12, 2008

Ach Scheisse, I meant Englechor!
posted by Wilder at 2:34 PM on January 12, 2008

Folklore as a Political Tool in Nazi Germany
Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction - this is one of the most important basic works of folklore and Dorson discusses the Nazi use of it, which is where I learned about it. He doesn't go into great detail, but if you can get ahold of a copy - a university library should have it - his bibliography would probably give you a lot more to go on.
Folklore & Fascism: The Reich Institute for German Volkstunde

any help?
posted by Miko at 10:18 PM on January 12, 2008

And, if there's so little on the woodworking story, you've definitely found a dissertation waiting to be written!
posted by Miko at 10:19 PM on January 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's got to be a way to market that.

I had actually found the article you sent, in an even more truncated version via google scholar; it was broader than what I was seeking, as you say. Lots of general stuff of that nature in German. Neither my German language nor my web skills quite reached the level needed for this topic. There's a lesson in that!
posted by nax at 6:51 AM on January 13, 2008

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