February 22, 2010

The German obsession with Winnetou

Fetishizing Native Americans

In Germany, Wild for Winnetou

By Michael Kimmelman
For decades, Germans have been obsessed with a Native American named Winnetou. Only strange thing is: he's a fictional character from books written by a German who only went to America in the last years of his life. What does this obsession say about German identity?What the Germans do:At powwows—there are dozens every year—thousands of Germans with an American Indian fetish drink firewater, wear turquoise jewelry and run around Baden-Württemberg or Schleswig-Holstein dressed as Comanches and Apaches. There are clubs, magazines, trading cards, school curriculums, stupendously popular German-made Wild West films and outdoor theaters, including one high in the sandstone cliffs above the tiny medieval fortress town of Rathen, in Saxony, where cowboys fight Indians on horseback. A fake Wild West village, Eldorado, recently shot up on the outskirts of Templin, the city where Angela Merkel, the chancellor, grew up.Right. So being an Indian in Germany is all about emulating the fierce warriors of the Plains. (Including the Southern Plains where the Apache occasionally roamed.) And nothing about learning the rich diversity and complexity of the hemisphere's thousands of Indian cultures.“May framed a popular image of North America, with Indians as a dying race, tragically killed off by fate and by the spread of a new empire,” he said. The doctor ushered me toward a painting that shows Indians ambushing an oncoming train, trains having signified Manifest Destiny. In May’s books Winnetou’s loyal sidekick, Old Shatterhand, was a German émigré, a schoolteacher who went West, became a crack shot, had a deadly right jab and, not coincidentally, got work as a surveyor for a railroad company.Is that what the doctor told you, Kimmelman? Actually, Winnetou is the sidekick to Old Shatterhand, not the other way around. In the first Winnetou book, at least.

An explanation for the Germans' fascination with Winnetou and other (Plains) Indians:Dr. Zeilinger wouldn’t go so far as to say that May demonized the United States, which clearly he didn’t, although Hans Ottomeyer, the director of the museum, who wandered by to listen in on the conversation at that point, said: “May taught Germans that America was a wild place. There were natives and intruders, and he taught us to be suspicious of intruders, half of whom are good, half are very bad.” Like all German men, Mr. Ottomeyer, who’s 61, lapsed unbidden into recollections of reading May’s books as a boy. Children read him less today, he added. “The West used to be on the border of the imagination,” he said. “Now it’s a place they see every day, full of conflict and catastrophe.”

You might say that May has become a Rorschach of German identity. German “natural sympathy” for American Indians is rooted in ancient times, Dr. Zeilinger explained. The Roman historian Tacitus described German tribes as uncorrupted, primitive, fierce and at one with nature, a people on the edge of a corrupt and voracious empire. May tapped into that primordial Germanness and also into what became, by the mid-19th century, a growing interest in America and the wider world.
Comment:  I read Winnetou, the first book in the series. It glorifies Old Shatterhand, the German hero and protagonist, more than Winnetou. Its message is that progress is inevitable, Indians have degenerated into wretches, and only a few "noble savages" are left.

Some readers may misinterpret this as a positive message, but really it's negative. Winnetou the good Indian is the exception, not the rule. By partnering with Old Shatterhand and eventually adopting Christianity, Winnetou proves that the white man's ways are best.

In Winnetou, the main villains are a tribe of "bad" Indians. So the story is about how a good white man triumphs over bad Indians with a good Indian's help. In other words, an early version of the Lone Ranger legend.

The Hitler connection

Like other Germans, Hitler loved the Winnetou books too. It sort of make sense that he'd associate Aryan Germans with "uncorrupted, primitive, fierce" Indians like Winnetou. And the rest of the Western world with "a corrupt and voracious empire" intruding on his pure German state. In his mind, Jews were undoubtedly the worst example of how civilization made people decadent and degenerate.

You have to twist things a bit to see how Hitler interpreted the books. Old Shatterhand and Winnetou both represent good Christian Aryans. The bad cowboys and Indians both represent decadent Jews and other Europeans. Old Shatterhand and Winnetou inevitably dealt defeat and death to the bad guys.

If Americans defeated the real Indians and Old Shatterhand defeated the fictional Indians, that gave Hitler a template. As a good Christian Aryan, he'd defeat the "bad Indians" (Jews and other Europeans) threatening his sanctified Germany. Hence Karl Mays' books helped Hitler envision conquest and genocide.

For more on the subject, see The Winnetou Films and Germans Think They Own Native Culture.


Stephen said...

Oh boy this piece of fiction again; America was not a main influence on Hitler's genocide, which makes your 'hitler a true american' post not only bigoted but uninformed. Hitler was mainly influenced by the Ottoman empire (hence his 'no one remembers the Armenians' remark) since Germany and Turkey had a very close relationship. Himmler also was a fan of the Ottomans; he stated that he wished the Turks had conquered Europe. Hitler's other main influence was the British empire; the idea of concentration camps from the camps the brits had for boers. And judging by the quote beolow he was also probably influenced by Japanese imperialism (the Japanese was just as evil as the nazis, an example would be unit 731).

"You see, it’s been our misfortune to have the wrong religion. Why didn’t we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good? The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity with its meekness and flabbiness?"

Stephen said...

Whoops I meant to say that the Japanese Empire was just as evil as the nazis.

Jark said...

You're so offended by everything you fail to see the context in which it was written. This story was made from the German POV 70 years ago when people were only interested in the cowboys aspect of the old west. Stop making these broad generalizations about other cultures who aren't even in contact with native americans.

Kat said...

Your constant reference to Hitler is really idiotic/sensationalist here (and distracting from the main issue). Do you REALLY believe that Jewish Germans at the time (pre-Hitler) did not read Karl May as little boys?! It's a White (privilege) thing to "redface", not a 'Hitler' thing. As your blog proves time and time again, with tons of "redface" posts from all over the (White) world.

Kat said...

Just to make that slightly clearer (hopefully): By making the constant connection to Hitler, you make the entire redface/cultural appropriation/obsession a Nazi thing. Last time I checked New Agers were not Nazis.

Stephen said...


If white privilege exists please explain this graph:


Notice how Asian-Americans make more than White Americans? And yes Rob brings up hitler constantly; if exploiting the holocaust was a sport he'd be a champion.

Kat said...

@ Stephen: I cannot belive you just posted that BS.
Here's the refute:
<a href="http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2010/02/08/do_colleges_redline_asian_americans/>Asian Americans redline</a>

Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade, who reviewed data from 10 elite colleges, writes in “No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal” that Asian applicants typically need an extra 140 points to compete with white students. In fact, according to Princeton lecturer Russell Nieli, there may be an “Asian ceiling” at Princeton, a number above which the admissions office refuses to venture.

The reason why Asian Americans are more successful than Whites is mostly cultural. Higher collectivism rates, large power distance and long term orientation among them. Yet these successes are DESPITE racism against Asian Americans (as the article clearly shows).

Kat said...

The link should be Asian Americans redline

Stephen said...

The article you posted only shows that (some) colleges discriminate against Asian-Americans; however it doesn't say if they discriminate against other non-White groups. In other words an example of 'white privilege' would every college in the US discriminating against non-Whites. That isn't the case however since affirmative action applies to collge, so do you also believe in 'black privilege'?

Kat said...

@ Stephen: The biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action are White women, so it actually is a further indicator for White privilege.

Affirmative Action revisited

Also, the idea that White privilege exists only if ALL colleges discriminate is a logical fallacy.

Stephen said...

Racialious is a site the features anti-white rants, not a good source, what's next a link to stormfront?

"Also, the idea that White privilege exists only if ALL colleges discriminate is a logical fallacy."

The concept of 'white privilege' (an example of racial stereotyping) is the belief that US society is slanted in favor towards 'White people' (which isn't the case since I just proved that Asian-Americans do better than 'whites'). So in other words the fact that some colleges are anti-Asian is not an example of 'white privilege'. Now if every single college in the US discriminated against non-Whites, then that would be an example of this mythical 'white privilege'.

Stephen said...

Also racialicious links to zmag:


Zmag is an ultra left loony site that strongly supports Bosniak genocide denial.

"But the supposedly "progressive" Z Magazine, and its online extension ZNet, mark the anniversary of Srebrenica by running a lengthy piece by Edward S. Herman (one of the American left's official darlings and a one-time Noam Chomsky co-author) arguing that the massacre never happened -- or that it was exaggerated, or that the victims deserved it. Like most genocide-apologist propaganda, the piece never makes its arguments explicit: it just leaves the uninitiated reader with the vague but strong impression that anyone who believes that there was a massacre at Srebrenica is a dupe of imperialist propaganda."


So once again not a good source.

Kat said...

This is a clear cut example of "they'll drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience"...

Stephen said...

In other words you can't reply to what I posted, better luck next time.