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Published:February 24th, 2007 11:55 EST
Indians and Cowboys in German

Indians and Cowboys in German

By Krzys Wasilewski

Every cowboy knows that the best westerns have been made in Italy. In so called Spaghetti Westerns, many now famous actors had their debut, and such titles as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly " have become icons of pop culture. While Italy was conquering the Wild West on celluloid, Germany pioneered the new terrain on paper -- and Karl May is to western literature what John Wayne is to western movies. A map, paper sheet, and a pencil. In wrong hands, these are just three separate tools; but for Karl May it was everything he needed to produce ones of the finest pieces of western literature in history.

Surprisingly as it may seem, and contrary to what most how-to-write books say, the German artist created his version of the Wild West basing only on one map, several guide books and his imagination. May only visited the United States once, in 1908, years after his westerns were published and brought him success across Europe. Needless to say that during the famous escapade, May never went further than Buffalo, New York.

Karl May was born into a poor German family on February 25, 1842. As he himself put it in his autobiography: I was born in the lowest and deepest part of Ardistan, a favorite of distress, worry, and sorrow. " As an infant, May suffered from blindness, probably due to malnutrition. He survived the illness; nevertheless, he had to wear glasses for the rest of his life. The atmosphere of the small, Saxonian town of Radebeul -- where the young boy with thick spectacles grew up, surrounded by my father, my mother, both grandmothers, four sisters " -- could not be further from the Wild West`s harsh conditions, of which he had dreamt. As if to confirm this, May received teacher training, and shortly after passing the final exams, he began a boring yet stable career in education, in an even smaller town than the one in which he was born. Less than a year later, the career was abruptly ended. Living up to the reputation of an adventurer and rebel, May wrote his first book in jail. He was only 33 years old at that time, but his police file had already surpassed others in the Saxony police jurisdiction. He had been arrested for various crimes, with theft and fraud at the top of the list. Whether it was compulsive lying, as some psychologists suggested, or simply this teacher-to-be wanting to taste the thrill of excitement in his boring life " what drove May to such a disorderly behaviour remains a mystery. Soon, however, May realized that his colorful lifestyle might seriously hamper his beginning writing career.

Late nineteenth century Germany was a beacon of conservatism in Europe and German publishers avidly employed self censorship. Therefore, a vast number of pen names under which May published his works: from the very exotic, such as Captain Ramon Diaz de la Escoursa, to more familiar Karl Hohenthal and Ernst von Linden to Emma Pollmer " his first wife`s name. That is how he debuted in 1875 with the novel, Winnetou. The name of Winnetou is known to almost all children in Germany, and elsewhere in Europe. Even when the old continent was divided by the iron curtain, playgrounds in Berlin and Warsaw, Amsterdam and Prague would be occupied by children-- as Indians and cowboys " playing the same scenes from their favorite books. Karl May might not have visited the Wild West himself, but his characters were constructed according to the very canon of western mythology. There was Winnetou-- the brave Apache Indian and the epitome of the noble savage, " who discovers in Christianity the only way to salvation. Not only Winnetou, but all of May`s Indians were painted as perfect gentlemen, ready to save European women from their drunk oppressors, to say nothing of the Redskins` supernatural skills. There was Old Shatterhand " a German adventurer and Winnetou`s blood brother. It is not hard to guess that most of the good guys " could trace their ancestry to Germany, whose civilizing mission in the Wild West meant fighting against barbarian Yankees and playing down their racism. Finally, there were women, like Ellen Patterson " a bit naive, slightly dumb, but who would complain about such nuances when confronted with accompanying flirty blue eyes and irresistible smile?

Although May conquered Europe as successfully as his heroes conquered the Wild West, most of his books have yet to be translated into English. Apart from his autobiography, My Life and My Efforts, which can be downloaded from the Project Gutenberg website (, only a few of his novels are available for English readers. Those who are interested in May`s version of the Wild West, and cannot utter a word in German, should start by reading Winnetou: The Apache Knight, the first of the Winnetou`s series and easily available at most internet bookstores. Even if you don`t particularly fall in love with it, the book will give you a sense of a European idea of cowboys` America.

What did Albert Einstein and Adolf Hitler have in common? Apart from their love for Vienna, the two feverishly loved Karl May`s books. Ironic as it may sound, such different persons as the Jewish scientist and the mustached dictator would agreeably mention that Winnetou and Old Shatterhand had been their childhood heroes, and remained with them throughout their adult years. As Hitler`s private secretary, Albert Speer, recollected: Hitler was wont to say that he had always been deeply impressed by the tactical finesse and circumspection that Karl May conferred upon his character Winnetou. " It was the fuhrer`s order to deliver 300,000 copies of May`s works to German soldiers to shore up the morale on all fronts. Adolf Hitler as the Aryan version of Winnetou? Karl May wrote 60 books, most of them westerns, but also a number of novels set in the Arab world, and one autobiography. They have been sold in over 100 million copies (some sources say of 200 million copies) and translated into 30 languages. Considering that translation into Chinese have been recently finished, these numbers may increase considerably in a short amount of time. One of May`s many fans said: Not all Europeans have read the Bible, but we have all read Karl May. "


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