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Winnetou ()

Munich Found magazine aptly compares turn of the century German author Karl May to our own Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Both men were quite prolific and immensely popular (May, with over 100 million copies of his more than 60 books in print is the best-selling German author of all time).  And, just as Tarzan survived Burroughs and remains a significant figure in American culture, Karl May is survived by his heroes Old Shatterhand and Winnetou.   But an appropriate comparison might also be made to Gene Rodenberry, creator of Star Trek, because not only do Germans continue to read May's books and watch movies based on them, they also gather in the thousands to dress up like cowboys and indians and hang out in teepees and wickiups.  In fact, Lufthansa schedules seven non-stop flights a week to Flagstaff, Arizona in the Summer, just to accommodate all of the Indianer Club tourists who travel there to act out their Karl May inspired fantasies.

May, whose books combine American West settings with heroes seemingly culled from medieval myth, was the favorite author of folks as diverse as Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, Herman Hesse, and Adolph Hitler.  The tales of Winnetou and Shatterhand owe more to romantic epics than to reality, or even to American Westerns for that matter, but it's probably that very fact that makes them so popular to Germans.  Shatterhand, the nickname derived from his capacity to break the bones of those he punches, is a young German engineer who travels out West to help with a railroad survey.  There he meets the young Apache princeling, Winnetou, and promises the boy's dying tutor that he will look after him.  Thus begins a series of adventures which see Shatterhand and Winnetou try to fend off other tribes and encroaching civilization.  May's vision of the natives is straight out of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the myth of the Noble Savage, romanticizing their culture and ethics, and giving the story an arc of almost Wagnerian tragedy.

I recall, particularly when Reagan was president, how the Europeans, who wanted to appease rather than confront the Soviet Union, would always refer to him as a cowboy, and how in their mouths the word had a pejorative connotation that made little sense to us ugly Americans.  To read Karl May's stories is to realize that for European liberals, it was the American cowboys who were the bad guys, the Indians who were the good guys, and, of course, the ultimate hero was the invincible Teutonic gone native, Shatterhand.  This is obviously a naive reading of what aboriginal life was like in America and betrays a fundamental distrust of Western Civilization as a force for good in the world--not to mention that if there had been any Native Americans in Germany in the 1940's they would have been gassed, so it's particularly ironic to give them a savior who is a Hun.  But the novels, taken on their own terms, are undeniably thrilling and great fun to read.


Grade: (B+)


Karl May Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Karl May
-ESSAY: Great Books: the Winnetou series by Karl May: The adventures of Winnetou and his German-American friend Shatterhand have delighted German children since publication over a century ago. The recent criticism of the series misses the point. They're a well-written escape into a fantasy. (Katja Hoyer, October 2022, Engelsberg Ideas)
    -ARTICLE: Publisher's withdrawal of Winnetou books stirs outrage in Germany (Deutsche-Welle, 8/24/22)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Karl May (1842-1912) (kirjasto)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Karl May (
    -ETEXT : WINNETOU, THE APACHE KNIGHT :  Jack Hildreth among the Indians
    -Karl-May-Museum Radebeul/Dresden - Germany/Saxonia
    -Karl May Gesellschaft - English Home Page
    -Karl May :  german writer (b.1842, d.1912)
    -Cowboys & Indians: The Strange Life and Legacy of Karl May
    -ESSAY : Cowboys und Indians  Karl May's Teutonic American West (Ben Novak, Weekly Standard)
    -ESSAY : Karl May and D.I.D. (William E. Thomas, MD)
    -ESSAY : Fistful of dreams: Taming the Wild West in the old World  (Munich Found)
    -The German Tourist Industry in Arizona
    -REVIEW : of  The Hitler of History: Hitler's Biographers on Trial by  John Lukacs "Few would have known that Hitler learned about the American West and was  much interested in cowboy history from  reading the works of the German  best-selling author Karl May." Conrad  Black, the newspaper magnate, likes John  Lukacs' new book on Hitler. (booksonline uk)
    -LINKS : Karl May Links (