Winnetou has Arrived once again: The German Fascination with the Works of Karl May

Winnetou (Pierre Brice) and his sister Ntscho-tschi (Marie Versini).
Copyright: picture-alliance/ obs/ARD DEGETOA pale cowboy with a slight paunch rides into the middle of a clearing. If it weren’t for the leather trousers, the hat, the silver-coloured rifle at his side and, of course, the horse, he could be a provincial bank manager. Not the kind who plays on the derivatives markets but the half-stern, half-kindly version that talks to you about your mortgage payments.

So the audience, who have come to Bad Segeberg to escape their day-to-day problems, seem unimpressed by this supposed conqueror of the Wild West. Suddenly, a man who is clearly supposed to be an Apache warrior arrives; graceful in the saddle, black hair tied back, at one with himself and ready for action. At this moment, you can hear the collective sigh of relief from the Germans who have come to watch this bizarre spectacle in a drizzly north German spa town. Winnetou has arrived.

Celebration of the works of Karl May

Karl May as Old Shatterhand,
Copyright: Karl May Verlag Bamberg From June to September every year Germans flock to Bad Segeberg in Schleswig-Holstein and to Radebeul in Saxony to celebrate the works of Karl May. This is more than just a re-enactment of the Wild West. Much of Germany seems to concentrate on dressing up during the summer: there are pirate shows in Rügen and Grevesmühlen, a Roman festival in Xanten and various medieval re-enactments (Ritterfeste). But there is nothing quite as close to the German soul as the Karl May festivals centred on two characters, the frontiersman Old Shatterhand and his faithful Apache companion Winnetou. Middle-aged women asked to name their favourite childhood hero invariably cite Winnetou. And every man aged forty or over has a personal story to tell about the Karl May protagonist. May’s Wild West books have sold over 200 million copies: not bad, considering the author (who led readers to believe that Old Shatterhand’s adventures were based on his personal experiences) concocted his stories in his library in Dresden. The books were, for three or four or more generations, an introduction to reading for pleasure for German boys, the equivalent of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for young Americans. Then came the Winnetou films, starting with Der Schatz im Silbersee in 1962 (The Treasure of Silver Lake) and continuing for a dozen more: all drawing in tens of millions of viewers.

Mysterious influence

How could it be that books on America written by a man who had only been there very late in his life, a fraud and a fantasist, have become something “typisch deutsch”? Albert Einstein loved the Karl May stories, so did Kaiser Wilhelm II, Franz Kafka, film-maker Fritz Lang, Hermann Hesse. The playwright Carl Zuckmayer even christened his daughter Winnetou. As for the films they have had an even more mysterious influence. Winnetou was played by a French actor, Pierre Brice; they were shot in Yugoslavia; there was almost nothing authentic about them. How could they have been so inspirational for the Germans?

For more than 110 years, Karl May’s „Collected Works“ have been published with the unique green cover. 
Copyright by Karl-May-Verlag, Bamberg

Perhaps it is the narrative structure of the May stories. Old Shatterhand’s real name is Karl. He got his nickname by killing a bear bare-handed. One blow of his fist. Karl is employed as a surveyor charting out a railway line through Arizona. His bosses are greedy and so insensitive that they do not bother to ask the Apaches about grabbing their land. Winnetou captures Karl and some other surveyors; they will all be executed, he says, unless Karl can beat an Apache warrior in hand to hand combat (Winnetou doesn’t realise he is dealing with a German who can kill a grizzly bear with a single blow or shoot a bird at a distance of 1,500 metres). Old Shatterhand fights against Winnetou’s father, wins, but spares his life. From that moment on Winnetou becomes Old Shatterhand’s loyal companion. Together they fight for good causes, against exploitation and injustice. The Bad guys are the paleface railroad bosses – depicted as Jews by Hitler’s propagandists (yes, he was a fan too) – or non-Apache Native Americans.

Something of the German romantic ideal

Open air theatre in Bad Segeberg,
Copyright: Karl-May-Festspiele Bad SegebergThis harmless nonsense might have struck a chord with Germans for historical reasons. After the failure of the 1848 revolution many Germans emigrated to Texas in search of a free and open society. And there was something of the German romantic ideal in Old Shatterhand’s closeness to nature: this was the age of trappers and frontiersmen, uncorrupted by the modern age. It is the evil financiers and proto-capitalists of Karl May’s books that spoil this Eden with their obsession with gold.

The Nazis for their part saw the Old Shatterhand yarns as parables of racial superiority (thereby failing to understand that Winnetou is in many ways more powerful than his Germanic paleface boss). The first regular Karl May festivals were held between 1938 and 1941 in Saxony. After the war though Saxony became part of East Germany and the communist regime was suspicious of Old Shatterhand. Was he perhaps glorifying the imperialist United States? And what was one to make of Winnetou’s deathbed conversion to Christianity? Old Shatterhand has a special version of Ave Maria played as his good friend lies dying. Even now this scene draws tears from the eyes of the 350,000 or so summer visitors who make the pilgrimage to Bad Segeberg. Karl May was banned by the communists, and open air theatre plays were only staged again from 1984. So neither the Nazis nor the communists really understood these German fictional heroes.

Such a hit with German women

Erol Sander as Winnetou,
Copyright: Karl-May-Festspiele Bad SegebergThe contemporary message of the Karl May stories is that they are based in a multi cultural environment. The German-American frontiersmen and the grateful Apache can overcome their cultural barriers to fight together against the evil in the world; the writer Klaus Mann may (in 1940) have denounced May as “the grotesque prophet of a sham Messiah”, but perhaps they were merely pioneers of the United Nations.

None of this though quite explains why Winnetou is such a hit with German women. Pierre Brice has long since stepped down; his role in the festival is now played by the German-Turkish actor Erol Sander. But Brice has spent more time than most thinking about the character of Winnetou. “He is a hero, in every situation that life throws at him,” said Brice. “He is brave and respectable, generous and helpful, a good, loyal friend who is willing to die for friendship.” That, it seems, is what many German women are looking for in their choice of men. Old Shatterhand by contrast reminds them a little too much of their real-life husbands, the men who would rather watch football on television than mow the lawn or make conversation.

Roger Boyes
is Germany correspondent for the London daily "The Times". He has been living in Germany for twenty years and is author of the column "My Berlin" in the "Tagesspiegel". In his book "My dear Krauts" he describes the peculiarities of everyday life in Germany with typical British humour.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V.,
June 2009

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