Karl May and the Germans’ Image of Native Americans
Enlarge image Photos of Karl and Klara May in Klara's study, Karl-May-Museum Radebeul (© picture-alliance / ZB) In 1908, a 66-year-old man and his wife sailed on the ship Großer Kurfürst from Bremen to the United States. Upon reaching the state of New York, they traveled to the Tuscarora Indian reservation near Niagara Falls and there came into contact with Native Americans for the first and only time in their lives.
The two travelers were the writer Karl May and his wife Klara. At that time, he was already one of the most well-known German authors of adventure novels. His books had an enthusiastic readership and had seen numerous editions. However, he had never traveled to the regions he described in his books.
As a young child, Karl May lived in abject poverty and suffered from inexplicable blindness until he was seven. Still, he fondly recalled the fairytales his grandmother told him. His favorite school subject is said to have been geography. He was trained as a teacher but was later fired for embezzlement and theft. In the ensuing years (1861-1874), he was arrested time and again by the police for incidents of fraud and petty theft, spending eight years in various Zuchthäusern—special work prisons. Due to his good behavior, he was named administrator of the Zwickau Zuchthaus facility’s library and found a great deal of time to read. There, he drafted his initial ideas for his works. In 1874, he returned home to his parents at the age of 32 and began to write.
The colonization of the world by the Europeans went hand-in-hand with a growing interest in descriptions of foreign cultures. The “Orient” and the “Wild West” held a special fascination. Reports by European travelers, major ethnological shows and world expositions fed this hunger for knowledge and inspired peoples’ imaginations. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show toured Europe eight times between 1887 and 1906.
Enlarge image Exhibit "A Prince in the Wilderness" telling the story of Wied's and Bodmer's Journey, Karl May Museum (© picture-alliance/ZB) Karl May quickly became successful and was soon able to live from his writing. He was likely familiar with the work Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper, which had already been translated into German as early as 1826. The tales contain romanticized descriptions of Indians similar to the works later written by Karl May. Perhaps May even knew the scientific travelogue by Maximilien Prinz zu Wied, Reise in das innere Nord-Amerika 1832 bis 1834, and the wonderful illustrations of Indians drawn by his Swiss traveling companion Karl Bodmer.
The main figure in Karl May’s Wild West stories is the noble Apache chief Winnetou, who, together with his white trapper friends Old Firehand, Old Surehand, and especially Old Shatterhand, stands for values such as courage, friendship, and justice. Winnetou and his friends stand in stark contrast to the bad guys: bandits, barbaric Indians, or the land-hungry government.
Fantasy and reality intermingled in the life of Karl May. His stories are often written in the first person, almost as though he had experienced the adventures himself, which many of his readers believed. He identified with Old Shatterhand, the best white tracker of the Wild West. His wife often signed documents using the name of Winnetou’s sister, Ntscho-tschi. He dubbed his house in Radebeul, Saxony, “Villa Shatterhand.” There he died in 1912. In 1926, his widow had a log cabin erected in the garden of their home, the “Villa Bärenfett,” where the first “Karl May and Indians Museum” was housed.
Enlarge image Members of Indian Fan Clubs in Radebeul, Saxony (© picture-alliance/ZB) Perhaps no other novelist influenced the European popular imagination of Indians quite like Karl May at the beginning of the 20th century. And the fascination lingers still today among young and old. In Germany, there are numerous Indian "fan clubs," whose members meet, dress up in costume and nostalgically reenact what they believe to be Native American traditions of the 19th century. Dramatizations of Karl May’s works take place on open-air stages erected specially for that purpose. Bad Segeberg, Radebeul, Elspe, and Dasing may not be household names abroad, but every year hundreds of thousands of people flock there to see the performances. In German-speaking countries alone, there are approximately a dozen stages that perform Karl May plays.
In the 1920s, the German film industry discovered Karl May’s material. However, those silent movies, which were set in the Levant, remain lost today. The Winnetou films starring the Frenchman Pierre Brice as Winnetou and American Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand emerged between 1962 and 1968 and were very successful in Germany. Karl May’s works were also adapted for radio and published Enlarge image Library, Karl-May-Haus (© picture-alliance/ZB) as comic books. It is estimated that 200 million copies of his books have been sold up to the present day. That the planned publication of all his works will comprise 120 volumes shows just how prolific Karl May was.
Today, in the age of global communication, fans of the Wild West, of course, no longer draw their knowledge solely from Karl May books. They know that his novels are fiction. Karl May himself also conceded this fact during his lifetime. Aficionados nowadays travel to reservations themselves to gain insight into the modern lives of Native Americans. American authors of Native American origin envelope their readers in their heritage and shed light on issues affecting their lives today.
Louise Erdrich, an American author with German and Chippewa roots, often deals with encounters between Germans and Native Americans in her works. And what is her opinion of Karl May?
“I know that Karl May had a great effect on the German imagination," she told Laura Coltelli in the 1994 book "Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris." "Anyway I think more interest is there, because so much of what is being written now is breaking the stereotypes and giving a different view of American Indians than Karl May could have. Because of his writing there’s a fertile ground, a thirst for American literature, but goodness, there is more than Karl May."