In a magazine illustration based on a painting by Louis Katzenstein, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm sit and listen to the folk tales told by Dorothea Viehmann, an inn-keeper’s daughter who knew a wealth of stories, many of which appeared in the Grimms’ famous collection Children’s and Household Tales. It’s an idealized picture of how an older woman, surrounded by children, shares the folksy stories she remembers from her life with two young scholars in a crowded but cozy home while chickens walk in and out of the open door in the background. It fits the common image of the brothers Grimm as collectors and editors of fairy tales and legends: they gathered the narratives of the simple folk in collections that preserved a shared, popular heritage – they became the record keepers of the people.
As I show in The Brothers Grimm and the Making of German Nationalism, however, we should not think of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm as scholars surrounded by the people, two academics among the German Volk. Throughout their professional lives in the first half of the nineteenth century, the two brothers worked in various capacities under rulers in a succession of German states. They were professionals with legal training who depended on princes for stable, salaried employment. The list of rulers who employed, sponsored or in some way decided over Jacob Grimm is quite long: William I the Elector of Hesse, Jérôme Bonaparte King of Westphalia, the Elector William II, Ernest Augustus I King of Hanover, and finally Frederick William IV of Prussia. Grimm took on a number of tasks over the years. He served as a court librarian and archivist under Bonaparte in Kassel, a delegation secretary, censor, and librarian under the Hessian Electors, a professor in Göttingen, Hanover, and an academy member and lexicographer in Prussian Berlin. Jacob Grimm himself never worked as a private teacher at a court, but Wilhelm Grimm did, trying to tutor the Hessian Elector’s apathetic son in the early 1820s.
Shaped by their professional careers as civil servants, the brothers Grimm did not only want to remind German people of their stories and thereby strengthen national consciousness; they also thought that monarchs should appreciate and honor the cultural and ethnic character of the people. Equipped with detailed knowledge of Germanic grammar, law, myth, and stories, Jacob Grimm especially saw himself as a potential advisor to the rulers of his day. He felt that his expertise allowed him to disentangle peoples from one another, counsel rulers on the proper extent of their authority, and even adjudicate disputes over territories. The philologist could not offer the king any Machiavellian insights into how to acquire and maintain power or clarify the principles of justice in the manner of a philosopher. Yet the princes of the period, Jacob Grimm believed, would benefit greatly from philological input on where the true borders ran between peoples and lands. For him, legitimate government depended on a close cultural and linguistic fit between rulers and ruled, and the philologist was best suited to judge when this fit had been achieved.
We are used to seeing the brothers Grimm as scholars who listened to the people and sought to preserve their heritage, with the intent of strengthening the nation. But this image does not capture the political vision of Jacob Grimm and his brother. Throughout their career as scholars and civil servants, they wanted to remind the Volk of its cultural identity but also reach the ruling elite; awaken the nation but also educate the king.