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Adrian Daub | Longreads | December 2019 | 16 minutes (3,994 words)

The small community of Dellfeld lies amid rolling hills and leafy forests in the extreme south of Germany’s Palatinate region. Ruined castles dot the landscape. Some are impressive stalactites: you can still trace the outlines of a crumbled keep. Others are barely more than colossal piles of stone, their sandstone further melting into the landscape with every rainstorm.

In April 1895, a certain Herr Mayer found a very different kind of relic in a barn attached to Dellfeld’s village school: a wheel of ten dead rats connected at the tips of their entangled tails. A rat king. Herr Mayer sent the strange specimen on to Ludwig Döderlein, director of the Zoological Museum in nearby Strasbourg. It remains there to this day, preserved in a large, formaldehyde-filled beaker. It isn’t always on display, but whenever the museum presents it, certain people make a direct beeline to the rat king case. The questions are always the same: how did this happen? Could they have lived like this for long? Is this natural?

Herr Mayer was not alone in discovering these strange specimens. The Thuringian town of Altenburg houses perhaps the most spectacular exemplar. A mad bramble of no fewer than 32 rats sits mounted on a plexiglass pane in the entrance hall of the Mauritianum, the town’s small natural history museum. It was found in a village not too far away, in a warm space underneath a chimney. The 32 corpses look sooty and dessicated. By contrast, the rat corpses in Strasbourg have something almost peaceful about them in their flotation tank. Still, the central knot feels upsettingly autonomous, as though it might yet writhe at any moment. Looking at the grotesque tangle of tails, dirt, straw, and feces that binds the group together — it covers half the body of each of the individual rats — it’s hard not to come away with the sense that, like monsters in a story, this object is here to convey some sort of meaning.

The first visual representation of a rat king is in Johannes Sambucus’s Emblemata, from 1564, a collection of moral truths “wrapped up in certain figures.” Sambucus introduced the rat king as both natural phenomenon and symbol, and a sense that its sheer bizarreness has something to tell us has never gone away. “In the rat king,” writes contemporary German critic Hubert Winkels, “energy, avarice, and movement have become an object.” Like Winkels (and Sambucus centuries before him), many observers can’t seem to help themselves when they face a rat king — they have to understand its existence as a perverse model of human communal life. A rat king is either nature holding up a monstrous mirror to society — or society making a monstrous joke of nature.

It’s hard not to come away with the sense that, like monsters in a story, this object is here to convey some sort of meaning.

Some have considered the joke to be literal: as old as the discovery of rat kings is the suspicion that they cannot possibly be real. “We present it as a natural phenomenon,” says one of the curators in Strasbourg. “If someone made it a sport to tie rat tails together, it would be a major effort, unless you have steel mesh gloves.” The rat king is just as inexplicable when you think it’s a fake as it is when you assume it’s authentic.

Many rat kings have been found in cities (including one in Strasbourg, discovered alive in a basement in 1683). But of the few dozen reports of rat kings over the centuries, the vast majority come from towns rather like Dellfeld. Looking at the list of reported rat kings between 1700 and 1750, only one major city, Leipzig, makes an appearance. The other nine come from Keula, Rossla, Gödern, Dieskau, Tambachshof, Dorndorf, Wernigerode, Großballhausen, and Langensalza — the kinds of places you know from exit signs on local highways (they’d be unlikely to score direct autobahn access). They’d rotted for years under the walls of the village school, or were heard screaming under the floorboards of a manger. Villagers would drown them in a well, douse them with boiling water, or bring them to the town’s schoolteacher. They were hung from trees or wound up in traveling carnivals.

At some point in the 19th century, it became common knowledge that people in far-flung locales either routinely discovered knots of rats that had grown together, or made a sport of tying vermin by their tails in painstaking labor. I am not sure which option would make a place like Dellfeld more uncanny.

* * *

There is much we don’t know about rat kings. Mentions of the phenomenon predate verifiable findings. Martin Luther called the pope in Rome a “rat king” (Rattenkönig), and lack of faith “the many-headed rat king of sins,” but it is unclear if he was referring to the kind of chimera found in Dellfeld. The moniker itself contains some ambiguity: eventually the word came to refer to the conjoined rats, but according to legend the wheel of rats served as the living dais from which the actual rat king ruled his kingdom.

If anything, the phenomenon has become more mysterious with time. A great number of rat kings tracked down by the researcher Maarten ‘t Hart (and compiled over at Mental Floss) were subsequently lost — several of them when numerous zoological exhibitions went up in flames during World War II. Fake specimens made the rounds in traveling carnivals, while others, presumed real, were reported burned or drowned as soon as they’d been discovered. People have wondered how such an animal came about, and above all how it sustained itself. The general assumption among zoologists of the early 19th century was that rat kings form shortly after the birth of their constituents, though this theory only generated more questions: how could this uncomfortable cohabitation survive into adulthood? The twelve connected rats that were found with their tails grown together inside a stable wall in the tiny town of Zaisenhausen were, as a letter to the Regensburger Zeitung describes it, “all of relatively equal size and seemed to be well fed.” But well fed by whom? Some suggested that a bunch of independent rats would serve as caretakers or courtiers to the king.

One element that stays mysteriously stable across the centuries is rat kings’ geographic spread: the history of the rat king is uncannily, at times uncomfortably entwined with the history of Germany. Rattus rattus exists across the globe: it spread across Europe and North Africa with the Romans, then across the rest of the globe with European colonizers. And yet rat kings come from a curiously limited area. All but one of the specimens preserved today are from Western and Central Europe. Marten t’ Hart notes that “from 1564 to 1963, fifty-seven rat kings were discovered and described.” The vast majority of those discoveries took place in areas that make up present-day Germany.

This curious geographic concentration has led some researchers to suggest that rat kings are cultural, rather than natural phenomena. More bluntly put, they could be elaborate, centuries-old hoaxes. Like the crop circles that sprang up across certain countries (but only certain countries) in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and which turned out to be a form of entertainment for bored locals, the rat king may have simply been a joke the provincial played on learned men from the city. Complicating matters, though, are the numerous attempts by researchers to create their own rat king. A couple of them have succeeded in assembling a rat king using glue, suggesting that (some of) those “discovered” around Germany could be fakes — but there are other convincing reasons to believe that most weren’t. In his Complete Handbook of a Technological and Economic Natural History (1797), the pastor and educator Gottlob Eusebius Fischer split the difference. “I am neither among those who have ever seen such a thing, nor among those who doubt the verity of the phenomenon.”

How do we explain the way the discovery of rat kings aligns with the geographic boundaries of German-speaking central Europe? The years during which rat kings were found with the greatest frequency — roughly 1720 to 1850 — coincide with a number of advances that helped determine which rat kings survive today: advances in preservation techniques, for one. A burgeoning mass press could have played a role as well, giving wide publicity to strange finds that previous generations would have consigned to the rumor mill.

Those years also saw the development of several civic institutions that could show an interest in collecting and preserving these monstrosities. The Mauritianum collection in Altenburg, for example, was bankrolled by wealthy professionals from the town — doctors, lawyers, bankers — who sought to buy up curios unique to the area. The rat king, being local, seems to have mattered to the museum founders — however bizarre a discovery, it somehow belonged there.

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The most significant development was also the most question-begging: the impulse to impute significance to rat kings and therefore to report on them, draw attention to them, and preserve them. Here, the German-speaking world led the way. Sure, French writers wondered about the “roi-des-rats” and the OED notes the first use of “rat king” in English dates to 1862. But in both French and English, the descriptor is a calque from the German, whose speakers seem not only to find all the rat kings, but also to be the ones talking nonstop about them.

The rat king seemed tailor-made for social critique: The freakish image of rats forced to live together in squalid proximity seemed like a powerful metaphor for crowded cities.

I am not a zoologist and have no definitive answers to the whys and hows of rat kings. But over the years I’ve kept coming back to the other part of the rat-king mystery: the way its significance seems to be attached to specific periods and places. This brings me back to Dellfeld, the town where the Strasbourg rat king was discovered in 1895. Before 1871, Dellfeld had been near the Franco-German border — or rather, near the border between Bavaria and France. Geographically, Dellfeld is not connected to Bavaria, but in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars the entire region had become the property of the king in faraway Munich. In 1870, Bavaria joined the other German States in war against France, and when the fighting ended, Bavaria (along with the Palatinate, which was under its control) had dissolved in a new country, the German Empire. The border was gone too: the Treaty of Frankfurt — between the newly formed Empire and the equally new French Third Republic — annexed the Alsace region, which had most recently belonged to France. The citizens of Dellfeld thus had had a constant experience of finding themselves in large collectives that they had not chosen, and of having their identities entwined with new and only semi-willing compatriots. Could one imagine a better place to find a rat king?

When Herr Mayer sent his rat king across the old border into newly conquered territory, it was to a museum with a clear agenda to convince the citizens of Strasbourg that the Alsace region had belonged with Germany all along. Museum director Ludwig Döderlein had taken up one of the many posts vacated by French nationals who chose to emigrate to France rather than remain in German-occupied Alsace. In the decades after 1871, professionals from across the German-speaking world poured into Alsace to take the positions left by the French emigrants — did Herr Mayer’s rat king function as an unwitting and grotesque totem of their new entwinement? I doubt that it would have occasioned as much interest at a different time in a different place.

The rat king seemed tailor-made for social critique: The freakish image of rats forced to live together in squalid proximity seemed like a powerful metaphor for crowded cities. Given his royal designation, you’d think the rat king would have made a natural fit if one wanted to agitate for equality — that was how Luther had used the term against the Pope, after all. Strangely enough, ever since Luther the opposite was usually the case. In 1842, German poet Heinrich Heine wrote for his German audience about revolutionary ferment in Paris, where the “citizen king” Louis Philippe was in trouble. “How badly they’d like to tear down Louis Philippe,” Heine wrote, “but they fear His Majesty the sovereign rat king, the thousand-headed beast, that would come to power if they did!” Heine was ultimately on the side of the people looking to overthrow Louis Philippe. And yet, when he had to express his worries about what might come after the citizen king fell, Heine seems to have pictured the teeming, writhing rat king. How did this strange equation come about?

* * *

On October 27, 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte rode through Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, finalizing his defeat of the hundreds of principalities and territories that, until a few months before, had made up the Holy Roman Empire. In a matter of months, Napoleon upended a status quo that had persisted since the end of the Thirty Years War, in 1648. And he left Germany’s poets, intellectuals, and political thinkers to figure out what had happened.

The philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte gave one of the classic answers in his Addresses to the German Nation in December 1807. (Note that addressing “the German Nation” in 1807 meant conjuring not only a non-existing entity, but also an entity that had never, in fact, existed.) Fichte sought to make sense of the defeat of the German states, and to point the way forward. His answer to what had gone wrong was simple: selfishness. Fichte meant several different things with this word: the individual German states had behaved selfishly by either allying with France or by sitting out their neighbors’ battles with Napoleon. German citizens had acted selfishly by not understanding themselves as Germans, but rather as individuals who might benefit from a revolutionary army sweeping through and getting rid of the tangled web of inbred dynasties to whom they owed most of their taxes. Fichte thought that Napoleon had done Germany a favor, because through him German selfishness had annihilated itself. By 1808, the German nation was at last united — in defeat.

As Napoleon came, Ernst-Moritz Arndt (1769-1860) had to leave. Born on Rügen, an island in the Baltic Sea in what is today the far northeast of Germany, he taught German literature in the city of Greifswald. When Napoleon won at Jena, Arndt fled. For one thing, he had written a popular anti-Napoleonic tract. For another, his area of Germany was actually a Swedish possession at the time, and in the wake of Prussia’s defeat, Swedish dominion there was also collapsing. He spent the next few years in Stockholm, but snuck back into Germany in 1809 to organize a pan-German resistance movement.

While the venerable University of Greifswald bore his name until recently, Arndt, who held nationalist, and at times anti-Semitic positions, isn’t widely read today. He published the fairy tale “Rat King Birlibi” in a collection of Fairy Tales and Reminiscences of Youth in 1817. It is unclear whether the tale originates with Arndt — he opens the story by claiming that he is repeating a tale “frequently told to me by Balzer Tievs from Preseke,” a farmhand on his father’s estate. Most likely, “Rat King Birlibi” is a Kunstmärchen, an art fairy tale — a narrative that a writer fashions to resemble something you might hear from a farmhand at your father’s estate.

In the story, Hans Burwitz, a farmer in the small village of Altkamp, takes nightly strolls across the island’s forests. On one such walk, on Walpurgis Night, he encounters the traveling court of the titular rat king. “There were foxes and martens, polecats and weasels and dormice and woodchucks and hamsters and rats and mice in such numbers that it seemed as though they had been recruited here from all the world.” Birlibi himself is a single rat, “with his queen beside him,” but the story makes special note of the way “their long, bare tails entwined behind them” — a clear nod to the zoological phenomenon. The rat king “lives like a very fancy lord and it is hard to imagine the Grand Mogul or the King of France having better days than he.”

The rat king offers Hans Burwitz a pact: in exchange for his fealty, the farmer becomes fabulously rich. Before long, his devotion to the rat king falters and on each subsequent Walpurgis Night he resolves “to stay happily in bed with his wife” — only to find himself drawn to the dark forests all over again. Eventually, Hans regains his Christian faith and decides never to visit the rat king again. As punishment, the various critters under Birlibi’s command ruin his crops, destroy his stables, and kill his livestock. In the end, Hans Burwitz is ruined, humbled, and happy — the mice and rats “converted” him, he says, teaching him that to try to rise above one’s station may bring momentary enjoyment in this life, but guarantees eternal damnation in the next.

Arndt wrote “Rat King Birlibi” several years after Napoleon’s victory, but the memories and moral categories of those years clearly echo in Hans Burwitz’s narrative: it’s a story about the promise of elevation above your traditional station and about foreign invaders who lure common folk with false promises of wealth and equality. Even the idea of the rat king gathering a motley army of rodents and vermin, “recruited here from all over the world,” would have conjured memories of the massive international armies that followed Napoleon across Europe.

* * *

At the same time that one rat king entered German literature as a traditionalist response to the promises of the French Revolution, or their faint Napoleonic echoes, another one — the most famous one of all — appeared on the scene as part of a mass mobilization against Napoleon. In 1816, two years before Arndt published “Rat King Birlibi,” E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote Nutcracker and Mouseking, which inspired (via Alexandre Dumas père) Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s inescapable ballet.

If you watch The Nutcracker today, the mouse king has gone missing several times over. He has disappeared from the title, only shows up in one of the acts as the leader of an evil army of mice, and goes through a busy and less-than-iconic mass scene before exiting the stage as Masha explores the Land of Sweets with her nutcracker-cum-prince. But Hoffmann’s rendition not only lavishes a great deal of attention on the army of mice and their vicious battle with the nutcracker’s tin soldiers, but also makes it clear that the mouse king is a close relative of the rat king. This is how we first meet the monarch:

Seven mouse heads with seven shiny crowns rose, hissing and whistling dreadfully, rose out of the ground. Soon after the mouse body to which these seven heads were attached emerged fully, and three times the entire army squeaked in triumph at the great mouse garlanded with seven diadems…

Just as Napoleon’s armies rumble faintly through Arndt’s fairy tale, the titanic troop movements of the recent war reverberate through Hoffmann’s children’s story. There is a lot of battle in this fairy tale, probably too much; the nutcracker, damaged and broken, is only the most obvious sign that the entire story suffers from something akin to PTSD. The murderous battles and routed armies of the early 19th century are all over this story, albeit sugarcoated for children.

If you watch The Nutcracker today, the mouse king has gone missing several times over.

Despite the distance most Nutcracker productions keep from Hoffmann’s story, the confrontation in Tchaikovsky’s ballet between the mouse king’s army and the tin soldiers gets at something that the story was always about, however covertly. In most performances the choreographer will lean into the contrast between the measured, mechanical goose-stepping of the gingerbread soldiers and the mad whirling of the mice. The absurd, horrified, uncontrolled writhing acts as a potent counterpoint to human bodies shaped by military drills. Both the individuals that make up a rat king and the tin soldiers lose their identity in a larger collective, but they experience and perform collectivity in radically different ways.

The rat king appears like an almost perfect parody of the community-building ambitions that dominated German public life during and following the Napoleonic Wars. Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the “Father of Gymnastics,” wanted (German, male) bodies to move in unison. Choral director Carl Friedrich Zelter argued that public singing might stir community among the denizens of the various German states. The brothers Grimm thought that collecting folk tales might accomplish the same. Alongside these programmatic attempts to fashion a cohesive society, the rat king, a horrifying agglomeration born of filth and stupidity, manages to sneak in the sense that social cohesion has its unpleasant underbelly, and that community can be stifling and ultimately hellish. The rat represented the dark side of community, the dark side of dependency, the dark side of proximity.

* * *

In the course of the 19th century Germany transitioned from a largely rural society to an urban one. As borders between the many states first became porous and then vanished altogether, a provincial economy gave way to a modern, industrialized, national one. A growing population came to live more densely together. The transition gave rise to dreams of community, fraternity, and even of a national family. But it also brought back nightmares like the rat king. Historians have long pointed out that these changes happened a lot more rapidly in Germany than in England or France; modernity had something sudden about it, and while its benefits were largely accepted, they couldn’t erase the not-so-distant memories of a time before.

As a result, forms of community that had allegedly existed in small towns became an object of profound nostalgia as big-city living appeared to replace them. There was a profound sense that life before industrialization and modernization was separated by an unbridgeable chasm from the life one lived now. That chasm wasn’t entirely real, of course. People tended to overestimate the insularity and intimacy of small villages. And they underestimated the cohesiveness of urban populations that frequently recreated the village communities they had left behind. But the juxtaposition between urban and modern “society” and rural and traditional “community” became a dominant concept through which all politics were read.

German culture is rife with concepts and artifacts that allow people to articulate their profound distrust of this provincialism, and turn closeness, connectedness, and intuitive understanding into something monstrous and uncanny.

The rat king was a more popular motif at the beginning of this process than at the end. But I suspect it functioned from the outset as an emblem of the perils of community. Rat kings were found in urban as well as in rural areas — but they seemed to attract a particular interest when reports came from far-flung mangers or village schoolhouses. They embodied something specific about those kinds of communities. For over a century the great big world had peeled away people from these villages — those who hadn’t left in the 1830s and ‘40s for the Americas might have left for the big city, or to one of the coal-mining regions in the 1860s. If they had missed these waves, those desperate to run away could take a boat to Buenos Aires by 1890.

The people they left behind, an intergenerational tangle that stayed put out of stubbornness and fear of the outside, were held together by centuries spent wallowing in the same filth. Growing up in Germany, you encounter all the subtle ways in which provincialism is reaffirmed and valued — especially after 1945, people took pride in their region in ways they could not in good conscience do with their country. But German culture is rife with concepts and artifacts that allow people to articulate their profound distrust of this provincialism, and turn closeness, connectedness, and intuitive understanding into something monstrous and uncanny.

This might be why rat kings continue to draw people to museums in Strasbourg and Altenburg. The energy that comes from agitated stasis, the perverse pride that comes from lazy, ingrown ties, the self-satisfied guarding of communities against perceived outsiders — all of these have made small German towns uncanny once again in recent years. Perhaps Sambucus was right all those centuries ago: the rat king is always an emblem. It’s impossible to look at it and not see the worst version of ourselves.

* * *

Adrian Daub is professor of Comparative Literature and German Studies at Stanford University. He is the author of four books on German thought and culture in the nineteenth century, as well as (with Charles Kronengold) The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism. He tweets @adriandaub.

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Editor: Ben Huberman
Fact-checker: Steven Cohen