Was Heidi’s father German?

April 8, 2010, 8 Comments

For millions of people around the world, she is the personificaton of Switzerland but it seems that the original Swiss miss may not be quite as Swiss as we thought. Did Heidi have German origins? It’s almost tantamount to blasphemy to suggest such a thing but it’s a question that is making front-page news in her homeland: yesterday Blick am Abend had the headline ‘Unser Heidi hat einen deustchen Vater!‘ or Our Heidi has a German father. Notice the ‘our’. The Swiss are very possessive of their little heroine, so you can imagine how much it niggles to have her parentage questioned. It’s on a par with saying Robin Hood was French, or Tom Sawyer Canadian. Unimaginable.

Here’s the problem. A German-studies scholar has found a story about a girl who lives with her grandfather, gets sent away to a foreign land, suffers terrible homesickness but lives happily ever after once she is back in the Swiss mountains. And her name was… Adelaide. This version was written by a German author, Hermann Adam von Kamp, in 1830, half a century before Johanna Spyri wrote her Heidi, the one we know and love. Is our Heidi nothing but a copy, albeit a much more succesful one? Did Johanna plagiarise a forgotten work? It’s a scandal up there with suggesting that Shakespeare copied Marlowe, and the penknives are already out.

Peter Büttner, the scholar behind the discovery (now being cast as Switzerland’s enemy Number 1; or maybe Number 2 after Colonel Gaddafi), is adamant that Heidi is a second-hand version of a German original. She might have had a Swiss mother, but her father was clearly one Herr von Kamp from Germany. This is possibly an argument that will never end as, with both authors long since dead, there’s no-one to ask. Maybe it’s just a matter of faith, like believing that Jesus never had children.

Whatever the doubts about her origins, Heidi will remain an iconic Swiss figure. It was no surprise that she was recently picked as one of the Top Ten most important Swiss people of all time, and that despite being fictional. The Swiss love her and make the most of her fame, using her name to sell everything from milk to hamburgers – and the country itself. But even most Swiss people don’t know everything about the girl from Graubünden:

  • Heidi Fact 1 – her real name is Adelheid (not so different from Adelaide)
  • Heidi Fact 2 – the book we know today was originally published in two volumes a year apart
  • Heidi Fact 3 – it was first published without Johanna Spyri’s name on it

A Shirley Temple film, a 1970s TV series, a line of dairy products in Swiss supermarkets, even a region of Switzerland named after her. 130 years after her birth, Heidi is alive and well – and as Swiss as can be, no matter where the idea of her first came from. After all, it’s not as if anyone can do a DNA test on Heidi.

8 Comments on "Was Heidi’s father German?"

  1. Tim Footman Tuesday April 13th, 2010 at 03:12 PM · Reply

    Whenever my sister and I meet, we can amuse ourselves for hours with our rendition of the grandmother from the TV version. “Soft white rolls, my little Heidi!”

  2. MM Monday March 21st, 2011 at 02:06 AM · Reply

    1. Who knows? Maybe Hermann Adam von Kamp plagiarized from an earlier work. If Spyri hadn’t written Heidi, then his work may have been lost.

    2. How come noone is complaining about the borrowed theme of Heidi in ‘The Secret Garden’?

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