Best Of The West 2012: Karl May
The German author found a huge fan base with his uniquely Euro view of the Old West.
Photography: All Images Courtesy © Karl-May-Verlag, Bamberg/Germany
He was arguably Europe’s foremost Old West enthusiast, responsible for introducing generations of Europeans to cowboys and Indians through the characters he created, but odds are that very few Americans even know he existed. Karl May (pronounced “My”) is long gone — he died 100 years ago this March — yet his work is alive and well and read by millions in more than 40 countries. In his native Germany, he’s more popular than Goethe, Schiller, and Hesse. Today, he remains the most popular literary figure in German history, and his books about cowboys and Indians (Indianer in German) in the American West have sold more than Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey combined.
Every year thousands of visitors from all over Europe flock to Old West attractions outside of German cities such as Munich, Bad Segeberg, and Berlin to experience “towns” inspired by May’s creations. Named after places that appear in his novels, the towns feature saloons, hotels, bawdy houses, banks, forts, Indian villages, and scores of actors made up to look like characters from May’s famous stories. Aficionados of May’s works set up camp and frequently dress and act like his characters, the most popular of which are the two May made iconic: the stoic Apache Indian warrior Winnetou and his white man companion Old Shatterhand. Their featured friendship displays a firm belief in human goodness and tolerance, even when threatened by the forces of greed, intolerance, and racism.
Like Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales series but in a venue far removed in both time and place from colonial New York, Old Shatterhand and his blood brother Winnetou play out their adventures among the streams and grasslands of the Wild West, where the buffalo roam and a code of honor trumps all. The two characters have attained such mythic status in Europe that when the man who played Winnetou for decades retired a few years ago, many of his fans wept openly.
May himself was an unlikely cultural icon. Born in 1842 in Ernstthal (later the Kingdom of Saxony) to a poor family, he, like his German immigrant alter ego Old Shatterhand, was educated to become a teacher. After only a few weeks of teaching, May was accused of stealing his roommate’s watch. He lost his position and sank quickly into debt, desperation, and a life of crime. Forgery, fraud, petty theft, and even impersonating a policeman and a doctor, among other schemes, managed to get him two stints in prison of several years each. But while in prison, May discovered a previously unknown talent for writing. After his release, he contacted printers and publishing houses and began to churn out scores of tales. By 1886 May had become the most widely read author in Germany with scores of pieces on various subjects, but his most popular work by far was the novel set in the American West featuring the Indian Winnetou and his railroad surveyor friend Old Shatterhand.
Largely on the proceeds of his Old West tales, May became financially secure enough to purchase a large villa in the city of Radebeul in 1895. Located on the outskirts of Dresden in what was formerly East Germany, Radebeul is now home to a museum — many say a shrine — commemorating Germany’s most popular author. Every year thousands make the pilgrimage there to honor May’s memory. A few years before his death and long after his popular series of westerns had won him a huge audience, May was finally able to make his own pilgrimage to the America he had long imagined and written about, though he never ventured west of Buffalo, New York.
Among his legion of fans, May had gathered some remarkable adherents: Artist George Grosz was a fan who even visited May in Radebeul; future physicist Albert Einstein read everything that May wrote and was enamored of his western tales. Einstein later wrote, “My whole adolescence stood under his sign. Indeed, even today, he has been dear to me in many a desperate hour. ...” Famed author Herman Hesse and even Kaiser Wilhelm II delighted in May’s tales of the American frontier. Other die-hard fans included Albert Schweitzer, Fritz Lang, and even Franz Kafka.
When May addressed the Academic Association for Literature and Music in March of 1912, the assembled throng included Bertha von Suttner, the first female Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Also there to hear him speak on the topic “Upward to the Realm of Noble Men” was a 23-year-old aspiring artist named Adolf Hitler. Enthusiastically received, the speech was to be May’s last. Vienna’s cold, damp weather was his undoing: Within a week of his lecture May was hospitalized with a severe respiratory infection that proved fatal. He died in Vienna on March 30, 1912.
Despite a dubious endorsement by Hitler, who became a lifelong fan, May’s legacy is secure. Scores of films, radio productions, and television dramas have preserved his characters. (One series of very successful films even starred American actors Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand and Stewart Granger as Old Surehand). Perhaps the German news magazine Der Spiegel zeroed in on May’s popularity best when it described his principal character Winnetou as “... the quintessential German national hero, a paragon of virtue, a nature freak, a romantic, a pacifist at heart, but in a world at war he is the best warrior, alert, strong, sure.”
The most successful and popular author in German history struck a responsive chord in the German psyche with an inspiring myth of the American West. In an interesting transatlantic twist, in August of 2011 award-winning novelist and screenwriter Michael Blake (whose Dances with Wolves swept the 1990 Oscars) was commissioned by German-based Constantin Films to write a new script resurrecting Old Shatterhand and his friend Winnetou. The legend lives on.