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Post Winnetou: The Allure of America's Wild West among Germans
Created by John Eipper on 02/23/21 4:58 AM

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Winnetou: The Allure of America's Wild West among Germans (Patrick Mears, -Germany, 02/23/21 4:58 am)


A few nights ago after watching the new Tom Hanks film, News of the World, I began to reminisce about the true stories and legends of America's "Wild West.": Like most male Baby Boomers who were raised when the American television industry was expanding, I religiously watched television "westerns." These whisked my imagination back to the days of Sitting Bull, Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickock and Annie Oakley. Television series such as The Lone Ranger, The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train and even Rin Tin Tin merely whetted my appetite to play "Cowboys and Indians" with my cousins and neighborhood pals on weekends, where we would wear our cap-pistols in holsters on our hips and remain on the lookout for marauding "Indians" and sneak-thief bank robbers.

As I grew older, my tastes for commercial television fare changed dramatically, but I kept (and still keep) in my heart a longing for the devil-may-care life of gunslingers, horse soldiers, and trappers on the Western plains and in the Rockies. These feelings grew even more personal and meaningful when I recently discovered that many of my Irish forebears left the State of Michigan behind beginning in the 1870s and moved either alone or with their families to the states of Oregon and Montana to pursue new careers such as lumberjacks, ranchers, miners and even owners of general stores. Yet after moving to Germany in 2014, I experienced a greater surprise when I learned of what I will call here the "Winnetou Cult" among Germans. This fictional Mescalero Apache tribal chief, Winnetou, and his German "blood brother," "Old Shatterhand," were characters created by the long-deceased, German adventure author named Karl May between 1875 and his death in 1912. Nonetheless, I quickly learned that the longevity and popularity of these two characters (and a few others) have survived the test of time and remain front and center in the consciousness of many Germans today.

A.  The shifting American frontier, the romance of the Wild West, and its literary recreation

The western frontier of the United States of America steadily moved westward during the 103 years between June 21, 1788, the date of the ratification of the United States Constitution, and 1891, the year that the "Ghost Dance War" involving the Sioux tribe and the United States Army ended with the defeat of the Sioux. After 1790, the United States steadily extended its civil and military authority over former Native American territory and its inhabitants, often by forcing tribes to pick up their stakes and move westward. This process intensified after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. These forced relocations of tribes resulted, inter alia, in the tragedy commonly referred to as the "Trail of Tears," where numerous tribes were forcibly removed from the southeastern United States in the 1830s and thereafter. The execution and ratification of the Oregon Treaty of 1846 by the United States and Great Britain resolved their border dispute that affected what is now the Northwest corner of the United States and the victory of the United States in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, essentially completed the territorial acquisitions of the US in the middle of the North American continent. However, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo did not instantly pacify the various Native American tribes that lived between the Mississippi River and the West Coast of the United States. This "pacification" or, more accurately, the violent repression of these tribes and their forced relocation into designated reservations was completed, at least as far as the United States government was concerned, by 1924, when members of these tribes and their offspring born in the US were granted United States citizenship via the so-called "Indian Citizenship Act of 1924."

After the American Civil War, the term "American Frontier" colloquially referred to the shifting border between the settled "American Midwest" and the area occupied primarily by Native Americans in area between the Mississippi River and the eastern border of the state of California. This area and its denizens constituted the "Wild West" that has been the subject of countless novels, short stories and even poetry in the United States. One of the earliest and most famous American writers in this genre is James Fenimore Cooper, who with his five "Natty Bumppo" novels (i.e., The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers and The Prairie, collectively known as the "Leatherstocking Tales"), recreated the turbulent border regions between former French Canada and the English colony of New York, featuring armed and bloody conflicts between and among English settlers and "Redcoats" on the one hand, and French soldiers and Native Americans on the other. (1)

Numerous American writers have followed in the wake of James Fenimore Cooper, spinning tales and legends of the Wild West, its rough-and-tumble residents and its desperadoes. Other correspondents reported on their personal experiences in this area of the North American continent. One of this latter group of writers, Francis Parkman, was the scion of a well-established, New England family and a graduate of Harvard University. In 1846, he set out from Westport, Missouri on horseback with his cousin, traveling along the Oregon Trail heading west. During this journey, he ventured as far as the Black Hills in present-day South Dakota, where he joined buffalo hunts with Native Americans. Along the way, Parkman became involved in many adventures in territory that was then peopled by Native American tribes, such as the Sioux, Pawnee and Cheyenne. Upon Parkman's return to Missouri, he composed his classic travel book detailing his adventures, which is titled The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life.

Other American authors turned to the novel as a means to convey vivid images of life in the American Wild West after the Civil War. In The Virginian, published in 1902, the American author Owen Wister described the life of a cowboy on a cattle ranch in Wyoming Territory in the 1880s, which book has been praised for its verisimilitude. The popularity of this novel has endured since its publication; the story has been the subject of four "Hollywood" films and two television films, as well as a stage production in New York City and a popular television series from 1962 to 1971. In this series, some episodes often took creative turns, one of which involved a character played by actor George C. Scott quoting from Oscar Wilde's famous poem, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." Another such author whose works were extremely popular in the United States, was Zane Grey (1872-1939). (2) Grey's masterpiece is considered by many to be his novel, Riders of the Purple Sage, in which three characters living in a Mormon-settled community in 1871 Utah Territory are subject to discrimination by members of that religion. This story has been the subject of five films between 1918 and 1996, one of which featured Hollywood's first western and silent-movie star, Tom Mix. This story was even transformed in 2017 into an opera by the American composer, Craig Bohmler, which opera was premiered in Tucson by the Arizona Opera in February, 2017, and then in Phoenix one month later.

B. The continuing fascination of Germans with the American Wild West via the novels and short stories of Karl May (1843-1912)

Who would have thought that Germans today would retain a strong interest in, and even a fascination with, the American Wild West, primarily on account of the efforts of one eccentric author named Karl May, who was born, raised and died in Germany?  Karl May was a very unusual person (Germans often attach to him the label of "komisch"), who was able to become the J.K. Rowling of his generation through his production of a massive oeuvre that captured the imaginations of millions of Germans during the period following the creation in 1871 of the Second German Empire until May's death in 1912. Although there is no way of reliably ascertaining the circulation of his work, it has been estimated to exceed 200 million copies in 40 languages. As a comparison, J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series of works had sold more than 450 million copies worldwide as of 2017.

Karl May had a troubled existence and often ran afoul of the law before he achieved fame through his writings. He had been jailed on numerous occasions for petty crimes and has been characterized as a "skilled con man." Once he was arrested for stealing leftover pieces of candles, and on another occasion he was convicted of heisting five billiard balls. His longest stint in prison was four years, beginning in 1870. However, being sentenced to jail time turned out in some respects to be a boon to May. Because he was an avid reader who thirsted after knowledge, he would spend long hours in prison libraries reading books on geography, history and other topics. Because he later wrote novels and short stories with settings in locations throughout the world, viz., the Near East, the South Pacific, Mexico and the United States, he was able to incorporate the historical and geographical knowledge that he acquired behind bars and elsewhere for his benefit. When May was later queried by journalists and publishers about his activities during time that he had actually spent in the pokey, he would often reply that he was then traveling to the exotic locations of his stories, searching for material.

When the reader becomes familiar with Karl May's works and, within them, the extremely detailed descriptions of their literary settings (often to the point of the reader's exasperation), he or she will typically wonder whether May had actually visited the places that he describes. We know that, notwithstanding May's painstaking and generally accurate portrayals of the American Wild West and the Native American tribes that inhabited this area, he had never crossed the Mississippi River traveling west. Rather, the furthest west in the United States that May journeyed was to Niagara Falls in the State of New York. When one considers this and the topsy-turvy life that May led, it is astonishing that he was apparently able to recall and effectively employ in his tales a broad range of information he gathered primarily from his readings.

May's popularity in Germany was not snuffed out upon his death, but continued through World War I into the days of the Weimar Republic and then to the Third Reich. It is disputed, however, whether Adolf Hitler was un admirateur of May. Although a German journalist interviewed Hitler during his days in power and remarked on Hitler's extensive collection of May's works on display in his bookshelf, some observers point out that there is no photographic evidence of such a collection. Another claim made about Hitler's alleged admiration of May is that Hitler, when arguing with his generals over military strategy and tactics, he would often bolster his own advice with reference to strategy and tactics used by Old Shatterhand and Winnetou in "similar" situations. Again, there is no definitive proof one way or the other concerning this assertion.

After the defeat of the Third Reich, interest in Karl May's works arose some years later, this time in West Germany, and with a vengeance. In 1962, the first of eleven Winnetou films produced and released in West Germany, was titled The Treasure of Silver Lake/Der Schatz im Silbersee. This film series continued throughout most of the decade until 1968, when the eleventh film, titled Winnetou and Shatterhand in the Valley of Death"/"Winnetou und Shatterhand im Tal der Toten, hit the German box office. Here is a link to the trailer one of these films, titled Winnetou I, for your viewing pleasure. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKoOY-QEEuI .

During this postwar period, my German wife, Cornelia Lohs, was a youth being raised on her grandparents' farm with her parents and two sisters near the town of Eberbach near Heidelberg. Cornelia, her sisters and her cousins were devotees of the Winnetou films and would often play "Winnetou" on the extensive grounds of the farm, much like I and my cousins had done in Michigan during our youth. When I pressed her for a quote earlier today, she told me this: "Unlike other girls during Fasching in February, I did not want to dress up as a princess at the Kinderfaschingsparty, but wanted the famous Winnetou outfit as a costume--the beige, two-piece pants and shirt with blue ornaments and fringes that actor Pierre Brice wore as Winnetou."

I actually first learned of Karl May and his works shortly after I moved here in 2014, when Connie and I traveled to the city of Karlsruhe to meet for lunch with a German friend of mine who sits on the German Supreme Court and his son, who was then attending university. At some point during our lunchtime conversation, the topic of Karl May and Winnetou arose, and the son of my friend began to educate me about the author and his most famous literary creation. I was fascinated by this flow of interesting information, of which I had been ignorant of up until then. Cornelia, of course, knew all of this and commented now and then in response while I absorbed everything like a dry and eager sponge. While preparing this piece, I asked my friend's son, Jonas Remmert, who is now a teacher in a Gesamtschule here in Germany, for a comment on the continuing fascination of his fellow Germans with Karl May and his works. Here is his response:

"My first points of contact with Karl May were the Winnetou films from the 1960s and, later, the novels of May's 'Winnetou Trilogy,' the latter of which I fished out of our bookshelves at home and read through. At that time, I attended elementary school and needed almost an entire month to read the 500-page, small-print volumes, and especially labored over May's seemingly endless descriptions of the Western plains and mountains. However, this effort was worth it: Winnetou and Old Shatterhand were heroes, upon whom one could always rely. They always overcame each peril that they faced together, often through cunning instead of violence. And naturally, also through their solidarity. These blood brothers were (and remain) an ideal of unbreakable friendship. They had been placed in a harsh environment, but always work their way through extreme difficulties while believing in the basic good in people. On account of this belief, they often treat their enemies with leniency. Their example illustrates that the world is not so simple, that the good does not always prevail over the bad, and that the segregation of humans into the opposite categories of friends and enemies is too simple-these life lessons are only learned as one matures.

"It is beautiful that literature, film and theatre have offered complex figures and flawed heroes, on whom and their challenges one may ruminate. Karl May's novels have been described as modern fairy tales. Although bad things happen in May's stories, in the end the good prevails and the world again shifts into order. I believe that this is the same ideal that German readers, past and present, have been fascinated with. As a child, my parents passed on to me the Winnetou films and books, which my mother had received from her parents. The teaser of the 2016 remake of the Winnetou films is fitting here: ‘Every generation has its own Winnetou.'"


1.  In "The Deerslayer,“ most of the action takes place during Natty Bumppo’s youth in and around the town of Cooperstown, New York, a town that had been founded by William Cooper, James Fenimore Cooper’s father, and is now best known as the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.  https://baseballhall.org .  The remains of James Fenimore Cooper and his father are buried in Cooperstown’s Christ Churchyard.  https://de.findagrave.com/memorial/228/james-fenimore-cooper .  

2.  As a curious sidenote,  Pearl Zane Grey, better known as just “Zane Grey,” played collegiate baseball for The University of Pennsylvania while a student there and also appeared in the lineups of several minor league teams.  His brother, Romer Carl “Reddy” Grey, was also a member of a number of minor league baseball teams, including his rookie season in 1895 with  the Jackson Jaxons of the now-defunct, Michigan State League.  Unlike his brother, however, , Reddy Gray was called up to the major leagues in 1903 by the Pittsburgh Pirates for a “cup of coffee”--he appeared in only one game during that season for the eventual National League Champions that year, and hit .333 with one single in three official plate appearances. His one hit produced a run batted in (RBI) and Reddy also scored a run in the game. Although this modest achievement was clearly insufficient to earn him a Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown, it should be enough to cause baseball fans to imagine some of the unrealized possibilities. Reddy’s  fate, however,  was similar to that of another MLB player of the same vintage,  Archibald Wright “Moonlight” Graham, who appeared in only two innings of one game for the New York Giants in 1905, their first championship season, and was thereafter unceremoniously  sent back down to the minor leagues by Giants’ manager, John  J. McGraw. Yet Moonlight achieved posthumous fame in 1982, when he appeared as a main character in W.P. Kinsella’s much-heralded baseball novel, Shoeless Joe, which book provided the basis for the 1989 film Field of Dreams starring Kevin Costner. 


First, links to two teasers for the 2016 Winnetou remakes by the German broadcaster RTL are here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IU2v9jRmck    and  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPCb8fBaTow .  Don’t miss these!  Interestingly, the scriptwriter incorporated the character of Karl May into this remake.  Second, I suspect that the Winnetou stories and films appeal to the historical Angst of foreign invasion and occupation that forms an integral part of the German character.  Third and finally, the Winnetou stories gave birth to a recent German satire of Karl May’s works.  Here is the trailer to this comedy, Der Schu des Manituhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIua9c869y4 

JE comments:  Pat, this is WAIS content at its best.  Danke!  The Winnetou phenomenon is unknown outside of Germany, but it has deep implications for understanding that nation's psyche.  If only Hitler had followed Winnetou's policy of leniency towards his enemies.

I watched the Winnetou I trailer linked above.  That Pierre Brice (1929-2015) is an awfully handsome fellow.  I had to explore further.  As his name suggests, he was a Frenchman, although he made his career in German "Westerns."  The cross-cultural hybridization continues!  A further curiosity:  where were the Winnetou films made?  My first assumption was Spain (Almería), which provided the faux frontier look for the classic Clint Eastwood Westerns.  But no: the outdoor scenes were shot in...Yugoslavia (at the time, Croatia now).

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  • Helen, Georgia: Bavaria in the Appalachians (David A. Westbrook, USA 02/25/21 2:53 PM)
    My thanks to Pat Mears (February 23rd) for an excellent post. As somebody who has spent a lot of time in both the West and Germany (my mother is German), I've long known about Winnetou. It is a bizarre, but sweet, phenomenon.

    Something oddly similar, but running from east to west: Helen, Georgia, a little town in Appalachian foothills, was rebuilt as an ersatz Bavarian village. As a child, we used to visit near Christmas, among other things to get candles for trees, generally unavailable. My mother thought the whole thing was ridiculous, and loved it.

    Decades later, I went on a social hike here in Colorado with a nature photographer of some renown, Bernard Nagy, originally from Austria. Many books on wildflowers, South Park, and so forth. I took him to the trailhead, between Leadville and Copper Mountain. We hiked together, and I watched him photograph. We talked, about kids, his time in Atlanta... It emerged that out he was one of the people who created the "alpine" village of Helen.

    I've always fantasized that, locked away in some obscure valley, maybe west of Innsbruck, was a small "Southern" town. Sweet tea, moonshine, drag racing and football on Fridays, honky tonk and painted-on jeans, except when hanging from a limb over the creek, the works. (Would probably make a mint.)

    JE comments:  Bert, you've added to my Bucket List:

    The 2021 Visitor Guide to Helen, Georgia: Eat, Stay & Play (exploregeorgia.org)

    We should assemble a list of pseudo-German towns in the US.  Three come to mind immediately, because I've visited them:  Fredericksburg, Texas; Hermann, Missouri; and our own Frankenmuth in Michigan.  These three all got their German identity the honest way:  with German settlers in the 19th century.  Helen artificially re-imagined itself as Bavarian starting in 1969.  Outside Las Vegas and the Epcot Center, are there any other faux European hamlets in the US?

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    • Solvang, California: Denmark of the West (Francisco Ramirez, USA 02/28/21 9:56 AM)
      John E asked about "faux" European hamlets in the US. How about Solvang in Southern California for the "Danish look"?

      Also for the film Sideways and the rise of Pinot Noir in the American wine market.

      JE comments:  Solvang (Danish for "sunny plain") fits the bill.  It was indeed founded by Danes, but the city consciously embraced the architecture in the late 1940s.

      How about the following for the WAIS Effect?  Eugenio Battaglia forwarded this 2017 article from Spain's La Vanguardia, "Little pieces of Europe in America," and Solvang is featured among other examples such as New Orleans, St Augustine (Florida), and Boston (?).  I don't get that one.  And Montpelier, Vermont?  It's the quintessential New England town, albeit with a name borrowed from the French.



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      • Bariloche, Argentina: Bavaria in the Andes (Timothy Ashby, -Spain 03/01/21 3:25 AM)
        A few decades ago I visited Bariloche, in the foothills of the Argentine Andes, a charmingly ersatz Bavarian village that had an influx of "Austrians" after WWII.

        I had a friendly conversation with an elderly shopkeeper (the emporium actually sold Lederhosen) with a thick German accent who told me that he had lived in Argentina since emigrating from "Austria" after the War. Upon asking how he liked living in Argentina, he leaned close and replied "Good country but there are too many Italians here."  I had the impression that he somehow blamed Italy for letting down his side in "Der Krieg."

        JE comments:  Hitler was Austrian but called himself German.  But as Tim Ashby shows, the opposite scenario became commonplace after the war.

        I've never been to Bariloche, the Aspen of Argentina--or St Moritz if you prefer.  I must be either too proletarian or not "Austrian" enough!  It was on a small island in the adjacent lake Nahuel Huapi that the Austrian (really) charlatan-"scientist" Ronald Richter promised to deliver a nuclear reactor to Juan Domingo Perón.  The facilities can still be visited today.

        I just learned that Richter inspired a full-blown opera, Richter, ópera documental de cámara.  I'd love to see it.


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        • Richter, Lysenko: A Pseudo-Science Hall of Fame? (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA 03/02/21 3:23 AM)

          Gary Moore writes:

          To Timothy Ashby's interesting travelogue on the "Austrian" sanctuary of Bariloche, Argentina, John E appended a rich aside that opens worlds. John reminded of Ronald Richter, the 1950s scientific wonder of Argentina's Perón years, who was promising Perón that he could make miracles with nuclear fusion, but never quite did.

          The comment glows because Richter rounds out a genre, consisting of pseudo-science as a supposed tool for authoritarian paradise, in hopes of leaping over mere reality into a validating promised land.

          Lenin's euphoria about electrification creating the worker's paradise was not exactly pseudo-scientific, but captures the delusional aspect. More on-point were "race science" in Nazism and the people's (fake) agricultural genetics pushed by Stalin via Lysenkoism. I think WAIS may also have discussed some examples from Mao's China. Richter in Argentina implies that the genre may be wide. Any other nominations for the Trofim Lysenko Authoritarian Pseudo-Science Hall Of Fame?

          (And a belated thanks for that evocative review of Wild West mythology from Patrick Mears. Lots of resonance in that genre, too. John E has an echo in his Michigan backyard, pairing Pat's discussion of the Olympian Apache-Buddy Winnetou in German page-turners with Tonto--since the word "kimosabe" got lifted by the radio gnomes in about the 1930s from the name of a Michigan summer camp.)

          JE comments:  "Pseudo-science as tool for authoritarian paradise":  Gary, this distills the phenomenon to its basic elements.  We must populate your Hall of Fame.  Lysenko was probably the most nefarious of all, or at least the deadliest, as his agricultural mandates killed millions in famines in the USSR and later China, which copied his methods.  One wonders why the authorities never once asked for a "pilot" project to validate his agricultural theories.

          To this list we should add the "scientists" and engineers who promised the Germans a miracle weapon or two to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

          Kamp Kee-Mo Sah-Bee on Mullett Lake in Northern (Lower) Michigan closed around 1940.  Until today I was unaware of its existence or its connection to the Lone Ranger.  Few remote regions can claim two iconic etymologies:  note the emergence of the "Mullett" hairdo in the late 1980s, with its trademark "business in the front and party in the back."

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    • Baden on the Caribbean: Colonia Tovar, Venezuela (José Ignacio Soler, Venezuela 03/09/21 4:26 PM)
      Recent WAIS postings about cities of foreign origin, especially German ones, in some countries, have reminded me of Colonia Tovar in Venezuela. 

      This city was founded by German settlers in 1843, by 340 emigrants from the state of Baden.  It presently has 21,600 inhabitants. Colonia Tovar is nestled in the mountains near Caracas at 2200 mt altitude, with a moderate tropical climate. This immigration was promoted by the Venezuelan government, under the advice of Alexander von Humboldt, to develop agriculture in the country. 

      Because of their relative isolation in the mountains, they preserved much of their culture over the generations,  the architectural style,  the kaisersthul; their language, originally the Badish that today has been transformed into Alemannisch or Aleman coloniero;  their clothing, food and festivals.  Among the first settlers there were not only farmers, but also scientists, writers and painters who contributed significantly to the cultural progress of the country. 

      This small city had great significance in the 19th century, being one of the first for the transit of German migrations through Latin America. With respect to that, I also remember visiting in Brazil another city founded by German immigrants, who have also preserved their culture and traditions.  In fact I learned that there were many other similar cities in that country, which arose at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, especially in the south of the country, Minas Gerais and Rio Grande do Sul, agricultural and mining areas, with names as suggestive as Wegner, Blumenau, Fraiburgo, Novo Hamburg, Westfalia, Teutona, Sevach and Alfredo Wegner, and many others with German names. 

      The reasons for these migrations and settlements were apparently different from the Venezuelan.  In the first place the industrialization of Germany ruined many peasants and craftsmen, who had to look for places to survive and found those opportunities in Brazil. Second, because the German government of the time promoted emigration to develop new markets and promote German culture. I suppose it is something similar to what modern China intends to do with its New Silk Road strategy.

      JE comments:  Fascinating!  That the various German states would encourage the emigration of its citizens seems counterintuitive, but it seems to have been a common tactic in the 19th century.  Besides spreading German culture and markets, emigration was more likely an escape valve for overpopulation.

      Come to think of it, Eipper lore has it that our ancestors came from the Stuttgart region (Baden).  We might well have ended up in Colonia Tovar! 

      How about another coincidence?  Colonia Tovar has a "twin" city in the US:  Helen, Georgia.  Here's Bert Westbrook's post from a fortnight ago:


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