Yesterday Debbie Reese and I had an interesting twitter conversation about the odd American Indian obsession that so many German-speakers still seem to have. Debbie has now followed up with the blog post, “Stereotypes of native peoples, in children’s books, in Switzerland” and here is mine.
It fascinates me that the German writer Karl May and his legacy still have such a hold in German-speaking countries. While unfamiliar in the US, this prolific 19th century German writer wrote a series of adventure novels set in a mythical American West that he never visited. His popularity was vast in my parents’ German childhoods as is evident from these excerpts from my father’s memoir:
As I was so rotund and it suited my mother’s pacifism at the time, I was mortified when I was surprised with a Dr. Doolittle costume for my birthday and not the Indian outfit I so badly wanted to play with the kids who read Karl May….
I was encouraged to read the “good” literature in my parents vast library and kept away from “trash.” Instead of reading and acting out, like other kids, the highly popular fantasies of Karl May, I was directed to James Fenimore Cooper’s more edifying stories about American Indians.
While today we are likely to flinch at the idea of Dr. Dolittle and Fenimore Cooper’s works being worthy reading material (I’ve written about Dr. Dolittle and its like here), in 1931 Germany it was all about literary snobbery — the racism and stereotyping in these books were not on my grandparents’ radar at that time. And while Lofting and Cooper’s original works no longer have the clout they had in my parents’ childhood, Karl May endures. I well remember, while living in Germany in the mid 1960s, my best friend’s obsession with his books and how she dressed up as Winnetou for Fasching (the German Carnival). And it still goes on. You can get a taste from these articles:
- “Germany’s Obsession with American Indians is Touching— and Occasionally Surreal”
- “Karl May and the Origins of a German Obsession“
- “Wild West Germany“
- “Last of the Munichans” (seems that it is not just German-speakers, but other Europeans as well)
Curious to see what sort of recent books were coming out on the topic in Germany I did a search on the German Amazon site. Going in to seeing the variety of books on the topic in Germany is quite a wormhole and I learned that a new Winnetou movie is in the works. A little more poking around and I found this 2015 Hollywood Reporter article, “Germany Reviving “Winnetou” Westerns for TV” and this trailer. Seems Karl May love is loud and clear still in Germany. Will be curious if the commentary in Germany around this movie considers its problematic nature.