Re: US: The Cherokee Indian population and Karl May

Was Hitler's extermination of the Jews inspired by American treatment of the Cherokee Indians?  Holger Terp says: Hitler might as a boy have read the popular Indian novels by the German author Karl May (1842-1912), the German James Fennimore Cooper. The novels of May were very popular in Germany, but I doubt his books have been translated into English. Christopher Jones says: I will defer to Randy's numbers and only add that I found those figures on Wikipedia.  Like the total of those killed in the Dresden bombing, numbers fluctuate wildly.  Nevertheless, the spirit of deportation befind the Indian relocation act with the emphasis on the superiority of the white settlers is indeed very reminiscent of the Nazi policy in Russia.

RH: At least two books of Karl May have been translated into English. Here is an account of him By Danica Tutush

His Wild West novels have sold over 100 million
copies and have shaped the way millions of
Europeans view the American frontier

Karl May dressed up as "Old Shatterhand"
Karl-May-Verlag, Joachim Schmid & Co.

How did German become a part of Santa Fe's tri-cultural heritage? Part of the answer comes from the nearly two million Deutschlanders who visit the United States each year.  But if you go beyond the figures, it becomes apparent that roots of this Teutonic wanderlust date back more than a century to one of Germany's best-selling authors, Karl May (1842-1912) a prolific author and a favorite read of many famous Germans, including Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, and Herman Hesse. According to the Karl May Press based in Bamberg, his works have sold over 100 million copies across the globe, and his 60 novels have been translated into over 30 languages, including a recent series in Chinese. "Not all Europeans have read the Bible," says Vanja Aljinovic, who resides in Santa Fe and read May's novels translated into his native tongue as a 12-year-old boy in Croatia, "but we have all read Karl May."

Scholars know May as a storyteller whose intention was to write for children. "That's one main reason why his stories appear so black and white to adult readers," says Dr. Meredith McClain, professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. But readers of all ages have been drawn to May's legendary tales about a noble Indian named Winnetou and his virtuous German blood-brother, Old Shatterhand.


"To me the stories have that universal appeal of good versus evil, like Star Wars set in the Wild West," says Regina Arentz of the Karl May & Co. Magazine, a quarterly based in Cologne, Germany.

Yet it is the story of the man himself that proves almost as compelling.

May was born in Hohenstein-Ernstthal to an extremely poor family of 14 children, and was one of only five to survive infancy. He suffered from malnutrition and temporary blindness as a child.

May survived his childhood and regained his eyesight. His talents and ambition enabled him to attend a teachers' school where he secured a teaching job.

It was during a Christmas break that May first ran afoul of the law. While visiting his family, his roommate reported a watch missing. He pointed the finger at May.

"He was probably borrowing it," speculates McClain, "and hoping to impress his family with a sign of his newly achieved position." May ended up in the slammer for several weeks but even worse, the incident cost him his precious teacher's license during a politically oppressive period in Germany.

Without a livelihood, May used his wits to survive. He was arrested again and behind bars for several more years, this time for impersonating a police officer in an attempt to confiscate "counterfeit" Deutsche Marks.

May scholars believe his literary seeds began to sprout during his incarceration. "We think he may have read German travelers' accounts of their experiences in the West and popular novels," says McClain. The Last of the Mohicans, for instance, was one inspiration. There, in prison, Winnetou and Old Shatterhand may have been born.

In 1874, May finished his prison sentence, then found work as an editor in Dresden, Germany. There he began publishing his first stories like Old Firehand (1875). His first book, Im fernen Western (In the Distant West), was a reworking of this tale and appeared in 1879. Here, readers first encounter Winnetou:

"His bronze-coloured face bore the imprint of special nobility."

Pierre Brice as Winnetou, shot in Frmanya Canyon, Croatia
Michael Petzel, Karl-May-Archiv
Christopher Frayling, author of Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone (I.B. Tauris, 1998) believes Winnetou was based on the life of Cochise. Old Shatterhand was modeled to be a German superman cowboy who made his American counterparts look like bumbling fools or brutal thugs. Take May's explanation of how Old Shatterhand is named in Winnetou:

"'To knock out a bruiser like that with one blow. No mean achievement...!'

'Shatterhand!' cried Sam. 'Not bad! Our greenhorn has a nom de guere at last!'"

Scholars have pointed out the errors in his works. He mistakenly assumed that Llano Estacado resembled the Sahara Desert. He situated Apache "Pueblos" there though none ever existed. And he stereotyped Native Americans quite broadly. But May did write fiction. Just as importantly, he did not venture to the United States until 1908, well after he had penned his Western novels. Fans, however, are also quick to admit that, despite errors, his books captured a real spirit for the West.

"He created a longing for the West in the German soul," says Michael Petzel, author of Karl May in Film.

As Herman Hesse once noted of May, "He is the most brilliant representative of a truly original type of fiction -- fiction as wish fulfillment."

"In the 1890s May experienced the kind of adoration from the public that we would associate today with rock stars like Mick Jagger," says McClain. According to a German newspaper clipping from 1904, May's annual income was estimated to be 160,000 DM (approximately $87,000 today).

George Sassoon writes: In my travels in Germany I was made aware of the profound influence that Karl May had on German views of America.  I gained the impression that Hitler had read him, and as a result, formed the opinion that the U.S. was only a primitive society populated only by cowboys and Indians, not an industrial nation on a par with the whole of Europe.Of course, the Führer's travels were very limited and never took him there.  Did this influence his conduct of the Second World War? This is a very important  question, related to our Learning History project. Many world leaders in the era before commercial aviation traveled little or at all abroad, and formed their opinions of other countries on the basis of casual reading.  What did Hitler know about Russia?Did Stalin and Mao travel abroad?

George Sassoon wrote: In my travels in Germany I was made aware of the profound influence that Karl May had on German views of America.  I gained the impression that Hitler had read him, and as a result, formed the opinion that the U.S. was only a primitive society populated only by cowboys and Indians, Randy Black comments:  When I moved from Dallas, Texas to Omsk, Russia, the industrial capital of western Siberia in 1993, the most common question I was asked for the first month was How many horses do you own, how big is your ranch, how many oil wells do you have on your ranch and do the Indians still live in teepees made from animal skins?

Ronald Hilton 2005


last updated: June 8, 2005