Winnetou und Shatterhand
August 9, 2005 7:37 PM   Subscribe

Unless you are German you may not have heard of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, characters created by Karl May. A possible D.I.D. sufferer, he had never set foot in America and began to write his Wild West stories whilst in jail. Popular with readers across Europe, his books have been translated into over thirty different languages. Spaghetti Westerns partly came about because early 60s films [test your knowledge] based on his books, inspired Italian producers to invest in Westerns. His life story was made part of Syberberg's trilogy in 1974.
posted by tellurian (26 comments total)
Oh, anyone who lives or has lived in the desert Southwest knows about Karl May. He's the reason why, this time of year, you can go to Organ Pipe Cactus NM or Death Valley NP and find the thermometer hovering around 120 degrees Fahrenheit and nothing in the parking lot except rental Winnebagoes (cousin of Winnetou, no doubt) occupied by German tourists engaged in their peculiar pilgrimage to Karl May Land.
posted by Creosote at 8:21 PM on August 9, 2005

they're pretty entertaining reads ... although the accuracy of his information about the west leaves much to be desired ...
posted by pyramid termite at 8:23 PM on August 9, 2005

posted by caddis at 8:48 PM on August 9, 2005

I used to read Karl May westerns when I was a kid and my parents kept telling me that this guy has never left Germany and that those stories were just his imaginations, but still they were amazingly real. Very good read.
posted by orelius at 8:55 PM on August 9, 2005

I remember a history (or was it anthropology?) professor telling me that the entire setting of the "Old West" used in Westerns was so made up as to bear almost no resemblance to the actual American west. For starters, a cowboy in the actual old west had a 75% chance of being black or hispanic. (I think that was the number).

This would lend a bit of credence to that statement.

Interesting stuff.
posted by teece at 8:55 PM on August 9, 2005

When visiting Germany as a high school exchange student, my host family was horrified that as an American, I had never heard of Winnetou and his adventures in the Wild West. I had always written it off as some sort of cultural/linguistic misunderstanding, but now it all makes sense!

(Incidentally, this post may have finally convinced me, as a MeFi reader for about a year, to finally get an account…Thanks tellurian.)
posted by corranhorn at 8:57 PM on August 9, 2005

I understand Adolph Hitler was a big fan of Karl May. When Nazi armies bogged down around Stalingrad, Hitler felt that a heroic, cowboy May moment was at hand. His 6th army suffered complete defeat while their supreme leader was mentally lost in cowboy land.
posted by telstar at 9:13 PM on August 9, 2005

Welcome, corranhorn. I was discussing this post with my German partner last night and she was similarly shocked that I had never heard of them before. She started humming the theme tune and talked about how in love with Winnetou she had been as a child.
pyramid termite & teece: "Alone of the nation's geographical regions, the West has had the dubious distinction of spawning a literature that bears little resemblance to reality, of providing the stage for a morality play that will not end."
posted by tellurian at 10:07 PM on August 9, 2005

Walter Benjamin has a great essay on (among other things) the Karl May phenomenon. It's in the 2nd vol of the new English edition of his selected writings, if anyone's interested.

I understand Adolph Hitler was a big fan of Karl May.

And so were youth in, strangely enough, post-WWII Israel.
posted by ori at 10:08 PM on August 9, 2005

& welcome, corranhorn!
posted by ori at 10:10 PM on August 9, 2005

Wow, never heard of this stuff. Great post, thanks.
posted by freebird at 10:12 PM on August 9, 2005

My uncle had all of them, the wild west ones, the historical ones, the Arabian ones (with Hadschi Halef Omar!), a whole wall full of about 100 books. He let me borrow "Winnetou I" but I could never get into it, thought the writing was tedious & slow. But like every other German kid at the time, I loved the movies when they came on TV. Old Shatterhand and his Henry-Stutzen, Sam Hawkens, Der Schatz im Silbersee, the whole thing....

Wow. And I thought Jerry made me nostalgic today. Thanks for the post.
posted by muckster at 10:22 PM on August 9, 2005

Oh, the whole movie series is still a regular on our TV screens, and we're not even Germany.

By the way, the Wild West scenes in the movies were mostly shot in the former Yugoslavia.
posted by Laotic at 3:01 AM on August 10, 2005

I inherited almost all of them (his wild west stories make up only about half or a third of them) from my older cousin when I was 10 or something.

Still got them somewhere in the basement. I remember I was hooked on them at the time - I must have read most of them.
posted by uncle harold at 3:08 AM on August 10, 2005

New Shatterhand.
posted by Eideteker at 5:44 AM on August 10, 2005

Great post. I knew about Karl May, but not about the split-personality stuff.

I don't quite get the "Hitler loved Karl May" thing. I mean, if all Germans love Karl May, and Hitler was a German (well, Austrian, same thing as far as this is concerned), then by the inexorable workings of the syllogism Hitler loved Karl May. It's like pointing out that Hitler drank beer or spoke German.
posted by languagehat at 5:59 AM on August 10, 2005

Hitler drank beer

Say it ain't so!
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:11 AM on August 10, 2005

Maybe he didn't drink beer -- I'm not really into Hitler, so I don't know all the details. My point was that he was German, in the wider sense, so naturally he did German things. It's just a specialized version of the fact that he was human, so he did human things. Hitler ate, drank, breathed oxygen, eliminated waste! I get a little tired of people dragging Hitler into discussions just for the shock value or polemical use. "Hitler was a vegetarian" is, of course, a classic example. Who cares?
posted by languagehat at 7:19 AM on August 10, 2005

Hitler drank beer, out of frustration over not having sold any of his paintings.
posted by Smart Dalek at 7:35 AM on August 10, 2005

While we're on the subject of disillusioned Germans and adventure novels, the discussion wouldn't be complete without mentioning B. Traven, author of The Treasure of the sierra Madre.
posted by Smart Dalek at 7:45 AM on August 10, 2005

I am glad to finally understand the plethora of German Tourists--historic ones at that--in the Petrified Forest and at Bandelier N. P. When we visited we were (literally) overrun by GT's, who were completely blase about "Keep Out" and "Keep Off" signs.

Of course, the same thing happened when we visited Italy, another place overrun by GTs.
posted by beelzbubba at 7:51 AM on August 10, 2005

And now it makes sense why in "Malcolm In the Middle",the oldest brother has (had?) been working on a ranch run by a German couple, Otto and Gretchen. (But why have I heard of Karl May before?)
posted by of strange foe at 9:19 AM on August 10, 2005

Continuing the Hitler comment, my Dutch friend (a great fan of the Karl May canon) tells me that Hitler got the idea for concentration camps from the portrayal of Indian reservations in Karl May. And that May did visit the US once, after he was already famous, but never got farther west than New York. He did manage to meet some east-coast Indians, though. (All this may be in the linked material -- sorry if I'm repeating.)
posted by SealWyf at 10:37 AM on August 10, 2005

And then there's a hole bunch of East German Karl May movies (sorry, Link is in German) which of course put an entirely different spin on the material by celebrating the Native American's heroic battle against their capitalist colonial oppressors.

And as if that weren't obscure enough, I may point you to Dean Read, the GDR's only state-sanctioned country and western artist.
posted by Herr Fahrstuhl at 11:15 AM on August 10, 2005

Well, Karl May had his followers in 30's Catalonia as well. My dad's never been to Germany nor can he read german but May's books are amongst his most cherished chilhood memories.
In fact, he treasures a couple of 30s's Winnetou/Shaterham novels which I've read and enjoyed when I was 10.
The sole mention of Hadschi Halef Omar would have him talking about May books for hours.
Wonderful post tellurian, it's brought back wonderful memories of my own childhood listening to my dad's childhood enthusiasm for Karl May.
posted by blogenstock at 3:49 PM on August 10, 2005

Hitler got the idea for concentration camps from the portrayal of Indian reservations in Karl May.

Well, no, the concentration camp comes to us by way of Lord Kitchener. (To be fair, the British conceived them as a Victorian equivalent of the "strategic hamlet", not as a device of ethnic cleansing.)

Indeed, there seems to have been a strong element of sympathetic romanticization in May's portrayal of the Indian. (Hey, that's a great May site nobody else caught yet.)
posted by dhartung at 11:55 PM on August 10, 2005

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