Great Books: the Winnetou series by Karl May

  • Themes: Great Books

The adventures of Winnetou and his German-American friend Shatterhand have delighted German children since publication over a century ago. The recent criticism of the series misses the point. They're a well-written escape into a fantasy.

Winnetou books from the personal estate of Winnetou actor Pierre Brice.
Winnetou books from the personal estate of Winnetou actor Pierre Brice. Credit: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo.

‘This is…Winnetou, who already in his youth has accomplished more deeds of renown than any ten old warriors have in all their lives. His name will be known and honoured as far as the prairies and Rockies extend.’ Winnetou, a fictional member of an Apache tribe, was a hero to me when I grew up in Germany and I was not alone. He was the protagonist of many novels created by one of the most-read German authors of all time. Karl May’s books have sold an estimated 200 million copies since he wrote them in the late nineteenth century. They have been translated into over 40 languages. And yet he and the characters he created remain comparatively unknown outside of Germany.

Perhaps May’s relative obscurity stems from the fact that he ignored the old adage that writers should write about what they know. He chose to set his novels in a place thousands of miles away from his home in Saxony, one he had never once visited: the American Old West. Yet his heroes, Winnetou and his German-American friend and blood brother Old Shatterhand, have never lost their allure. The popularity of May’s Western novels has prevailed through two world wars and the many radical reinventions Germany underwent throughout the twentieth century. Socialist East Germans were as taken with them as other readers were, including their West German counterparts, Kaiser Wilhelm’s subjects, Hitler Youth children and the citizens of the Weimar Republic. The fact that a radical minority is now successfully pressurising publishers to self-censor and stop publishing May’s work is unlikely to detract from from his popularity. His Western novels rightly deserve their place in the pantheon of German literary classics.

On paper, May seems an unlikely author to have created the evocative prairies that captured the imagination of so many of his fellow Germans. Born in 1842 in the Kingdom of Saxony (now in eastern Germany), he was the fifth of fourteen children in an impoverished family of weavers. Nine of his siblings died in infancy, leaving him as the only surviving son, and the hope of the family. At the age of twelve he was trying to earn money to finance his private tuition in the hope of rising to the middle classes through education. He worked as a ‘bowling boy,’ putting the pins up and rolling the ball back to the players in nine-pin bowling alleys. It was in this rough, drunken environment that he first heard of the ‘New World’ from Germans who had returned from there. Despite his additional education, May struggled to build a successful career, running into trouble with the law repeatedly, which earned him spells in a workhouse and several prisons on charges of theft, fraud and vagrancy. Eventually, he moved back in with his parents in the 1870s and began to write for various publications. The breakthrough, and with it financial and social stability as well as fame, came only when his stories were published, collated as novels, from 1892 onwards. But it would take until 1908 before May could finally embark on a six-week trip to North America, travelling through the New World he had so vividly created in his writing.

It’s easy to see what made May’s Wild West so appealing to late-nineteenth century audiences. By the time he made his breakthrough in the 1890s, an estimated 2.3 million German-born people lived in the United States, over half of whom had left the country in the previous decade alone to seek their fortune. May wrote at the peak of a collective German romanticisation of the Americas as an untamed, wild landscape full of opportunities, rugged beauty and adventure. He wrote for those who could not leave. Trapped in the grinding work mills of Germany’s industrial cities, many workers found relief in the newly-popular genre of pulp fiction. After a long shift at the factory, what could be better than to escape into a fantasy world as far removed from one’s own as possible but credible enough to be a dream to pin one’s hopes upon? With a literacy rate close to 99 per cent, Germany allowed nearly all its citizens access to literature. Cheap printing and a multitude of libraries (including in factories) made it an affordable past-time too.

Many Germans had heard stories from relatives or neighbours who had emigrated to the United States and were thus keen to present this life-changing decision in glowing terms to those who had stayed behind. Tales of the vast open prairie were told in crammed, damp tenement flats. Adventure stories of German cowboys and their encounters with Native Americans provided much needed relief from the mind-numbing repetition on the assembly line. And who could have understood the workers’ longing for this real, yet unreachable world better than May who had himself worked tirelessly to escape poverty and failed for so long to make it in the world of the burgeoning middle classes.

May’s own longing for his imagined West was so great he gradually began to fall under the spell of his own creation. He began to claim he was in fact the first-person narrator of many of his stories: Old Shatterhand, Winnetou’s blood brother. He claimed to have written the novels based on his own experiences in the US and went so far as to fabricate items from the stories as ‘proof.’ He had the character’s famous rifles, Bärentöter [Bear Killer] and Henrystutzen [Henry carbine] made, as well as Winnetou’s Silberbüchse [Silver Gun] — all three can still be seen today at the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, near Dresden. May also had pictures taken in outfits that resembled those he described in books. For further corroboration, Winnetou often calls his friend Scharli, a German version of Charlie, meant as an allusion to May’s first name Karl. It’s hard to tell if his fans took his antics and marketing strategy seriously, or if they pretended they did in order to make the illusion of his Wild West absolute. Whatever motivated them, they wrote to May in their droves, pretending they were writing to the novels’ hero and author as one and the same person. May obliged and answered many of them personally, further feeding his own myth.

May’s huge fanbase was opposed by a critical minority, then as now. The 120 years or so that divide the critics of his time and those who want his work banished today do not appear to have changed their argument much. May is still derided as a fantasist whose descriptions of the US bear little resemblance to reality. His novels were, and are, depicted as a dangerous misrepresentation of the New World. His contemporaneous critics saw May’s moral shortcomings in what they claimed to be hypocritical depictions of Christian morality in the books; May got divorced and remarried, which added to the stereotypes people already had about his social background. Today, a minority of German intellectuals are concerned about the way Native Americans are depicted by this white German author who had never met an indigenous American in real life.

While it is certainly true that May’s work is fiction, rather than travelogue or sociological study, it is hard to see potential for moral outrage in it. Both Old Shatterhand and Winnetou are depicted as all-powerful heroes who fight together against injustice and greed. Winnetou in particular is inherently good and brave, morally superior to the white settlers. His friendship and blood brotherhood with Old Shatterhand is perceived as an honour by the latter. Yet renewed platitudes about ‘cultural appropriation’ on social media have recently caused the German publisher Ravensburger to withdraw a reproduction of the stories for children.

I am optimistic that May’s legacy will live on despite those who seek to be offended by it. Many films, audio plays, books and games have reproduced his world across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, giving countless children and adults a means to escape the tumultuous times they lived through. I have fond memories of listening to my cassette collection and watching both the East and West German film adaptations on TV. My best friend and I were so enamoured with the stories that we decided to become ‘blood brothers’ — I was Winnetou and he was Old Shatterhand, though we spat in our palms for the oath rather than cutting them. Together, we swore, we’d do good and help people. It was a harmless fantasy lived by many generations of German children, as made-up as the books it was inspired by. There is no harm in escaping to May’s Wild West. His readers know it for what it is: well-written fiction.


Katja Hoyer