Karl May and his creation, the fictional Apache chieftain Winnetou, make a great example of heritage that is built on appropriated selections of the past, not necessarily one’s own and not necessarily historically accurate either, for a purpose that is far removed from the original source. It is an example of heritage as emotional, social and as a process, and it is also an example of heritage as dissonant.
If you weren’t raised in the German-speaking world, you won’t know Karl May or Winnetou, and to you it will likely seem clear-cut once I explain: a 19th-century chap from Saxony who’d never set foot on American soil invents a Native American world. It is a world with flat, stereotypical characters that nearly two centuries later are still cherished by Germans, historical inaccuracies and cultural stereotypes be damned. Evidently, this is cultural appropriation of the worst kind, and an insufferable white European simplification of history that – typical! – refuses to engage with the shameful reality of colonisation of the American continent.
And you wouldn’t be wrong, either. In July, I took my mother to the Karl-May-Festspiele, where they put on an elaborate open-air theatre adaptation of one of May’s stories. There, you have everything that would make any Native American’s blood boil: non-Native actors wearing black long-haired wigs to impersonate Native characters, with dubious representations of Native American spiritual traditions. It was bad, and it made me squirm.
That is, until Winnetou rode onto the stage, accompanied by the opening theme of the famous 1960s movie adaptations, which have been part of most Germans’ upbringing in one way or the other, and I found myself wiping away tears. You see, that is the thing about Karl May and Winnetou: it is not about Native American reality, past or present. It is about a German cultural phenomenon, a series of stories and also a series of films that have accompanied most Germans through their childhood.
I would suggest it is these memories of childhood that still make Karl May and Winnetou such a strong component of German popular culture. The stories’ universal motifs of adventure and friendship also play a role, no doubt, as does the exotic escapism they provide. However, I think for many adults it is less about the actual content of the stories than it is about that which they remind them of. It’s about what the stories and the Festpiele allow us to do: like my mother and I, I saw lots of families with and without children around, and they laughed and spent time together. Winnetou was a conduit for something else; a gathering, a bonding, a memory and an identity shared and reaffirmed.
It is not about Native American reality. This also became clear around Christmas last year, when one of the broadcasters showed their new adaptation of the Winnetou trilogy. The first clue was in the trailer: referencing not only the books, but also the 1960s films along with the title theme, it announced that, ‘Every generation has its Winnetou’ . But, as the director pointed out, this Winnetou is ‘not a real Indian’ . He is a ‘totally romanticised idea of being an Indian’. And that’s why he didn’t cast an indigenous actor, the director said when pressed on the matter, because ‘this somewhat fairy-tale character’ of Winnetou couldn’t be captured by a Native American.
I actually think he’s right. An indigenous actor would have forced a different gaze onto this story. He would have brought with him the demand and the necessity to make it realistic, and making it realistic would have meant to make it different. And with that difference it would have ceased to be Winnetou and part of German heritage. For Winnetou to stay Winnetou it needed not only an Albanian actor, as was the case this time , but also a return to the Croatian landscape of the previous films, standing in for the American Southwest. Winnetou, you see, also has a European dimension. In a bizarre way, this fits right in with Germany’s post-WWII identity.
As I said, it’s a German story. Karl May’s legend, of him having been in jail, of not having been to the US before writing the books, and of having lived in a bit of a dreamworld of his own making, is as much part of it as are Winnetou and all the other characters in May’s stories. All these ingredients come together to form a unique little package of German culture.
The story’s origins are still a romanticisation, and thus a misrepresentation of another culture. Such a misrepresentation is not a harmless thing; it suppresses, denies, and colonises. If tomorrow it weren’t hundreds of thousands of Syrians coming to live in Germany, but Native Americans, and if they felt insulted, because this part of the story for them outweighs the ingredient that is Karl May, then what? Would I let go of it, of the great opportunity it offers to connect with my mother and my childhood? I honestly don’t know.
 I wonder whether these films will become the new cultural reference for a new generation. They didn’t do it for my mother and I.
 I’m using this term here, ‘Indian’, because in German ‘Indianer’ is the term they use. It sounds a bit rude to my ears, though.
 In the 60s, it was a French actor who played Winnetou. Oh, and the German was played by an American. I love it.
One thought on “Winnetou & I, Or: A Special Kind of German Heritage”
I grew up in Brazil and not of German ancestry and read eagerly all the Karl May books, not just the American stuff but also the South American, South African, Balkan and Northern African adventures, etc. Karl May was an equal oportunity cultural appropriator.