A fistful of dreams. Taming the Wild West in the Old World.

by Greg Langley

[© By the courtesy of Munich Found Verlag (Marschallstr. 1a, 80802 München, Germany), Mrs. Walsh (editor) and Mr. Greg Langley (author) taken from: Munich Found. Bavaria’s City Magazine in English. August/September 1996 (Vol.VIII No.8), S.33-35.]

   Of all the mythic images created in America, vicious gangsters, ruthless Wall Street traders, sultry Hollywood sirens, investigative journalists, it is the legend of the American West that has captivated imaginations around the world. Thanks largely to an author who is almost unknown in English-speaking countries, Germans in particular have long thrilled to tales of cowboys and Indians. So say hello to Karl May, a hugely popular turn-of-the-century adventure writer, and the man who brought the Wild West to central Europe.

   May (pronounced „my“) wrote more than 60 books but his most successful and beloved feature was Old Shatterhand, a German immigrant trapper and his blood-brother Winnetou, noblest of all the Indian warriors. Initially aimed at a juvenile market, May’s stories began appearing in the late 1870s. But he was quickly adopted by a wider reading public and became more famous throughout Europe than any other writer on the subject, including American authors. Today, few Germans over the age of 20 have not read at least one of May’s books or seen the films based on his Western tales, and many will confess to having wept when they learned of Winnetou’s death at the close of the Shatterhand trilogy.

   „May wrote about the strong, silent man oft he western plains and the Rocky Mountains,“ says Walther Ilmer, a research consultant to the executive of the Karl-May-Gesellschaft. „May’s stories are modern mythologies; the good man encounters evil men with whom he must struggle, good always prevailing in the end. His hero is a knight errant on a crusade against crime and wickedness“.

   Throughout his life, May was closely identified with his first-person narrator and alter ego, Old Shatterhand -so called because he could kill a man with the blow of his fist. Ironically, May never set foot upon the American plains and largely researched his subject in German prison libraries while serving time for, among other things, fraud and impersonating a police officer. Despite, or perhaps because of this, May’s stories continue to be immensely popular. His works have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide, far more than any other single German author, including Goethe, Hesse and Mann, and his fans have included the likes of Einstein, Schweitzer, and even Hitler.

   Not that he got everything right. „May’s stories, while dramatic, are also full of historical inaccuracies and improbabilities,“ says Ilmer. „He wrote scenes based on events in the early 1800s but placed them in the 1860s and ’70s. This is one reason May never becamepopular in the United States. His plots never rang true to the American ear.

Carl May as himself … and as Old Shatterhand.

   „May was, however, a voracious reader and his portrayal of the American Indian was quite accurate. He revealed their noble character, their gifts as orators, their wildness, their savage and their heroic traits. May created the legend of Winnetou and in so doing raised sympathy and respect for the American Indians and their way of life. The image the German population has had of the American West and particularly of the American Indian since 1880 has been largely shaped by Karl May.“

   May’s influence is still strong. He now receives more serious academic attention than ever, his works are classic texts at many German universities, and the Karl-May-Gesellsehaft is one of the largest literary societies in the world. Open air festivals of May’s work are held every year in Bad Segeberg (northwest of Lübeck); Lennestadt (between Frankfurt and Dortmund); and Kurort Rathen (southwest of Dresden), attracting thousands.

   While May greatly shaped German perceptions of Western life, fascination with America was strongly entrenched even before. Works by early German travel writers, such as Karl Anton Postl, Friedrich Gerstäcker, and Balduin Möllhausen, were avidly read. Also popular in translation were writers such as Zane Grey and James Fenimore Cooper. When Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show visited Munich in 1898 and 1913, huge crowds thronged the Theresienwiese to witness the spectacle.

   But then America has always gripped the imagination of Europeans: a land of seemingly limitless space and freedom stretching without borders between two seas. In massive numbers, Germans emigrated to America in search of a better life as early as the 17th century. One major wave of German immigrants came between 1749 and 1754, when 90,000 Germans came to America. A second, much larger influx occurred 1830-50, with the bulk arriving in the aftermath of the failed 1848 revolution. More than seven million Germans left their land, some going to Australia, New Zealand and


The beauty and the majesty of the American frontier have long captivated Europeans.

Argentina, but most heading for America. Even today, ethnic Germans are the largest single minority group in the United States.

   But why are the Germans who stayed behind so entranced with the American West? In an address in San Francisco during American Indian Heritage Month four years ago, Dr. Eckehard Koch, of the Karl-May-Gesellschaft noted, „In Germany, thinking of foreign countries has always initiated longing for faraway regions (Fernweh), but no foreign country (has caused this) in such a manner as the American Far West. Hardly any other nation on earth will be found to display the same vast sympathy towards the Indians as the Germans. Nowhere will you find as many Cowhoy and In-dian Clubs as in Germany. There are reasons for this: the myth of the ’noble savage,‘ the discontent with civilization and the restricted freedom caused by the modern world, and the wish to escape from the narrowness of German life.“


From 1963 to 1968, six films were made about the adventures of Karl May’s fictional Apache warrior, Winnetou. The films, including „Winnetou,“ „Winnetou and Shatterhand in the Valley of Death,“ and „Winnetou and his Friend Old Firehand,“ were only loosely based on May’s stories, but they introduced him to a whole new generation of European fans. Featuring actors such as Lex Barker (Old Shatterhand),

Old Shatterhand and Winnetou ride the open plains.

Elke Sommer, Herbert Lom, Klaus Kinski and Pierre Brice (Winnetou), the films were shot in rugged Yugoslavian scenery and rolled out of the BR studios at the rate of one a year. For many, Brice, a handsome, young French actor, was the ideal incarnation of Winnetou, the noble chief who embodied a gallant nation brutally treated during the expansion of the American West. After the Winnetou films finished production, Brice continued to play Winnetou in open air productions of May’s works, even when well beyond the 32 years of age that Winnetou was when he died.

   Whatever the reason, the lure of the land beyond the Appalachians still exercises a strong hold on Germans, who are travelling to America in increasing numbers, many with the express purpose of experiencing life in the West. According to the American Consulate, the number of Germans visiting America has risen from 373,000 in 1985 to 1.7 million in 1994 and is predicted to increase by 5 to 10 percent annually. The itinerary of most Germans include NewYork, Miami or California, but no trip is truly complete without a taste of the West.

   Travel agent Bernd Walbert of American Ranch Holidays sends more than 300 clients annually to dude ranches in America, where the cost of a weekend of cowboy life can be between DM 300 – 600. A week on the trail driving cattle can cost the German city slickers as much as DM 2000. Not all American Ranch Holiday clients stay on dude ranches, but make a visit to the West: cold-weather states such as Montana and Colorado in summer, Texas during the winter. Walbert says many of his clients are at least in part inspired for their Western visit by May’s books, the film adaptation of Winnetou, and of course, Hollywood. „What is surprising is that almost 90 percent of clients visiting dude ranches are young, single women“, notes Walbert. „They want to stay on dude ranches, live the cowboy life, work cattle, and ride horses.“

   German tourism to Canada has almost doubled within the last decade to 397,000 visitors a year. While dude ranches are an attraction, some Indian villages, such as the Piapot Reserve near Regina, recreate traditional villages where the tourists can experience Indian culture. Visitors dress in buckskins and feathers, live in tepees, skin muskrats, and join pow-wows. Many have been studying and practising for years in the Cowboy and Indian Clubs in Germany to have this „authentic“ experience.

   A somewhat more incongruous example of Germany’s Wild West fascination are the more than 200 Cowboy and Indian clubs throughout the country, attracting some 80,000 „Cowboys and Indians.“ This year’s annual council, a three-day pow-wow held near Frankfurt, attracted more than 5,000 Rote Indianer who recreated an encampment of tepees and tents. In Munich, „Western fever“ is particularly strong. The Munich Cowboy Club was founded in 1913 (a year after May’s death) by a group of would-be immigrants to America. Frustrated by the outbreak of World War I, the group used their savings to create a slice of frontier life in Bavaria. The club, located on the banks of the Isar near the Munich zoo, is hidden from view behind a lush, green curtain of trees and bushes. Inside, the 80 members undertake typical western activities: ride quarter horses, learn to shoot a bow and arrow, cook around a campfire, or drink in the large clubhouse decorated as a western saloon.

   At the Cowboy Club and other German Wild West clubs, the emphasis is on authenticity. Members spend much time and resources researching the West and Indian life, and disassociate themselves from what they see as May’s naiveté‘. „We refuse to be identified with the romanticism of Karl May,“ says Peter Timmermann, historian and curator at the Munich Cowboy Club. „We’re not against Karl May as a writer, but as an ethnologist. May depicted the Indians as all feathers and warpaint. As a result, Europeans received a very distorted image of Indians.“ Cowboy Club members also believe May performed a disservice to the Indians through his cartoonish characterization of them as noble savages.


   A Trading Post, complete with period wares, is one of the buildings in the compound, while the Club’s collection of authentic Western artifacts, valued at DM 700,000, is among the most impressive in Europe. Among the prize exhibits are a rare autographed photograph of Buffalo Bill, a full Sioux ceremonial dress, and authentic weapons, including a small canon. „We don’t play cowboys and Indians,“ says Timmermann. „We do this properly. Of course it is a hobby, but we really try to take it seriously.“

   But if German notions of the Wild West are romantic, is this any different from the way in which Hollywood has influenced everyone else’s image of the American frontier? The Western myth produced by Hollywood from the first Western (The Great Train Robbery made in 1903) to the later films of Clint Eastwood is as morally stylized as Greek drama. Set on a timeless ftontier, as probable as Neverland or Camelot, the good man fights evil with only his courage, self-reliance, moral rectitude and his six-iron. Never mind that real cowboys did not spend much time shooting each other. Bob Muden of Butte, Montana, recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest man alive with a gun, dispelled this long cherished myth about the West during an interview for German television last year. „The movies created the dramatic illusion of cowboys for our entertainment,“ says Muden. „In fact, it never really happened that way. Gun fighters were just flat out killers. If you had a vendetta, you just walked up to him and popped him in the back of the head.“

Ghost town or golden opportunity? German tourists are flocking to the Wild West.

   Indeed, in the ten years that Dodge City was the biggest, rowdiest cow town in the world, according to author Bill Bryson in his hook Made in America, only 34 people were buried in the infamous Boot Hill cemetery and almost all of them died of natural causes. The shoot-out at the OK Corral and the murder of Wild Bill Hickok became famous, says Bryson, because they were unusual.

   „It is decidedly odd that these figures of the West, whose lives consisted mostly of herding cattle across lonely plains and whose idea of ultimate excitement was a bath and a shave and a night on the town in a place like Abilene, should have exerted such a grip on the popular imagination,“ writes Bryson. He cites historian William W. Savage who said, „The cattle business and cowboy life were hardly the stuff of which legends are made.“


Although Karl May is best remembered for his Winnetou tales of the American West, he was an extraordinarily prolific writer who penned more than 60 books on subjects ranging from the Orient to historic family sagas based on the Napoleonic era and Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. In many ways, May was the Edgar Rice Burroughs of Germany in that both writers wrote thrilling stories about places they never visited. For May it was the Wild West of America, for Burroughs it was the Africa of his Tarzan series. Neither let this get in the way of a good story. And straightforward but gripping prose combined with fast-paced classical plots are the hallmarks of both writers.

The Deutsche Bundespost honored Karl May in 1987 with Swedish artist Carl Lindeberg’s depiction of the beloved Winnetou.

   May was born into a poor weaver’s family on February 25, 1842, in Ernstthal, Saxony, near the Bohemian border. Although intelligent and ambitious, he was forced by circumstances to teach in an elementary school, a position he lost when he was found guilty of stealing a roommate’s watch and served six weeks in prison. After his release, May embarked on a series of imaginative and bold confidence tricks including impersonating a medical doctor, a lieutenant of police and a notary’s assistant, which repeatedly landed him back in jail. In all, the author spent seven years in prison, but made good use of his time, reading and preparing to become a writer.

   After his final release in 1874, May wrote most of his vast body of work. He became acclaimed throughout Europe, amassed a fortune in royalties, and hobnobbed with kings and emperors. His later life was, however, involved in a series of legal actions spurred by revelations about his early life and disputes over the payment of royalties. May won all his court actions, finishing the last shortly before his death at the age of 70 on March 30, 1912, at his home in Radebeul.

   But does this really matter? Everybody knows that the West of John Wayne, The Magnificent Seven and the Marlboro Man is fiction, just as most Germans recognize that May’s vision of the West is inaccurate. The fiction of the West, whether it was written by May or Zane Grey, filmed by Sam Peckinpah or Sergio Leone, or personified bv Gary Cooper or Pierre Brice, contains a legendary quality that appeals to all of us. And even though much of this image may now have been discredited, the promise of freedom it contains has firmly entered all our dreams, whether American or German. Some dreams, it seems, are universal.

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