Ich bin ein Cowboy
May 24th 2001 | RADEBEUL
From The Economist print edition


Modern Germany’s favourite author will come as a surprise

WHEN American GIs poured into Germany in 1945, they were astonished to discover that German children, after 12 years of Nazi rule, could be found decked-out in buckskins and feathers and playing “Indians”. Every spring in Radebeul, a quiet Dresden suburb, tens of thousands of grown-ups do the same. The explanation for both these phenomena is Karl May (1842-1912), a Saxon weaver’s son, jailbird, self-described linguist—and the man who single-handedly invented the wild west for generations of Europeans. Long before the Lone Ranger, May was giving unruly cowboys what-for, befriending Winnetou, a great Apache warrior, and generally bringing peace and order to the frontier.

Though he is virtually unknown to the English-speaking world, May is possibly the most-read German author of all time: his books have sold an estimated 100m copies to date. The Germans have a saying: “We know Goethe, but we read Karl May”. Albert Einstein spent his entire adolescence under May’s spell; Hermann Hesse, who called May’s work “fiction as wish-fulfilment”, was a life-long fan. In Germany today, Winnetou is synonymous with “Indian”, and hundreds of “Indianer” clubs meet at weekends to practice tribal ceremonies in traditional costume.

No matter that May wrote his most famous “travelogues” (there were close to 80 in all) without ever leaving Saxony. Born into poverty in the small village of Hohenstein-Ernstthal, he spent much of his early adulthood engaged in petty fraud and impersonation—good training for his subsequent writing career. May’s extended sojourns in jail, meanwhile, gave the voracious reader plenty of time to absorb just about everything he could get his hands on concerning strange peoples in faraway lands.

Having found his calling, the young masquerader churned out a number of first-person accounts of Arabian adventures, with considerable success. But it was the 2,000-page “Winnetou” series, completed in 1893, that turned May into a rootin’-tootin’, sure-shootin’ sensation. Picking up where Buffalo Bill Cody’s 1889 German tour left off, he came up with the ingenious idea of presenting a western adventure in which a German novice, Old Shatterhand, out-lassos, out-hunts, out-shoots and finally out-wits Yankees and Indians alike. Throw in the hero’s great alliance with Winnetou, the stoical “red gentleman”, and May had created both a patriotic epic and a popular monument to the Native American race.

With the smell of success in his nostrils, May was unstoppable. He put it about that his narrator-hero’s exploits were actually his own, even showing off a lock of hair taken from his “blood brother” Winnetou. He posed for photographs with “Silver Nail” and “Bear Killer”, the rifles he said he and the Apache had used in the west. At his Villa Shatterhand in Radebeul, he surrounded himself with big game skins, Indian scalps, peace pipes, carpets, Arabian tea sets and other exotica. He set himself up on the German lecture circuit as the learned Herr Doktor May.

For a time even May’s publisher was taken in—some scholars have suggested that May himself was too. By the turn of the century, however, these role-playing antics had begun to take their toll, and the author spent much of the last decade of his life squabbling over publication rights and narrowly avoiding scandal. In 1908, the beleaguered May finally travelled to America. But he was destined to remain a true greenhorn: he made it no farther west than Buffalo, New York.

Karl May’s version of the American west bears little relation to any historical reality—which no doubt accounts for much of its charm. It remains irresistible to readers from all walks of life. Although Klaus Mann, Thomas’s son and an author in his own right, accused May of being a mentor for the Führer (Hitler reread May after seizing power in 1933), movie adaptations shot in Yugoslavia in the 1960s and starring a Frenchman, Pierre Brice, as Winnetou, created a huge new following in West Germany. For its part, the East German government rehabilitated the formerly “chauvinist” author in the early 1980s and reopened the Villa Shatterhand to May fans from all over the Eastern block. May’s most famous books have now been translated into more than 30 languages (fewer, admittedly, than the 1,200 the author himself claimed to have mastered). There is a museum devoted to May and his Indians in Lithuania. Not long ago, a Nicaraguan revolutionary, Tomas Borge, claimed that May’s western stories had inspired him in his political struggles.

So deeply rooted is the Karl May legacy today that the Native American Association of Germany, a small group started by Native American soldiers stationed in Europe during the cold war, has recently launched a campaign to re-educate Germans in the facts of Native American history. But they have an uphill battle against Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, who, like the west itself, were legends almost before they appeared in print. As a seasoned frontiersman tells the newly arrived Shatterhand at the beginning of one of his Great Plains adventures, “It’s amazing what they make you people learn over there.”

Copyright © 1995-2001 The Economist Newspaper Group Ltd. All rights reserved.