The Cowboy Novels That Inspired Hitler
The adventure stories of Karl May set in the American Southwest have charmed millions of Germans, but especially Hitler, who patterned Nazi policies on their plots.
The aura of Indian names—Massachusetts, Monangahela, Arapahoe County, Mississippi, Minnesota—hangs over America, even after the indigenous people are often gone. A Founding Amnesia has long erased the stories of Native Americans in history texts and the media. From silent movies until the ’60s, “cowboys and Indians”—John Wayne as a hero, “Apache blood” as a sign of “savagery”—were fixtures and fixations of Hollywood films, the last bastion of the ugly, 19th century military watchword Manifest Destiny.
Thanks to the resistance of the American Indian Movement, however, the record has been corrected, at least in part, to reflect the actual stories of white America’s encounters with native people: tales of expropriation, admirable resistance, and genocide from coast to coast. Nonetheless, the Smithsonian still has a collection of 20,000 indigenous skulls, cut off in massacres, the flesh boiled down. Many had initially been sent to Dr. Samuel George Morten to concoct 19th century anthropometry, a pseudo-science of “racial” measurements alleging “Anglo-Saxon” superiority. But in 1990, Congress at last passed NAGPRA, the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act. Slowly, slowly, body parts are being returned to indigenous communities for burial.
The U.S. is not alone, however, in whitewashing its encounters with Native Americans. Most remarkably, perhaps, the ethnic cleansing of the “Wild West” has long been an exotic theme in Germany for more than a century thanks largely to the novels of a very strange man named Karl May—which were beloved by none other than Hitler.
Born in 1842, May was the fifth child of an impoverished weaver from Saxony. He was also a fluid imposter. In 1859, after pilfering candles and then a watch, May was deprived of his first job as a teacher. He then masqueraded as a police lieutenant investigating counterfeiting: May would say a householder’s treasured 10 Thaler note was fake and make off with it. He also posed as a doctor and a notary’s assistant living in a hotel, ordering fur coats and other expensive, hand-sewn apparel, and abruptly stealing off without paying.
May was captured by the police but escaped. He lived in a cave in the woods near his home—material for his later suspenseful tales—and narrowly evaded 500 would-be captors.
His elusiveness came to an end, however, when he was jailed from 1865 to 1869 in Osterstein Castle in Zwickau, a reform institution. There he spent much of his time in the prison library reading fantasy novels about America—James Fenimore Cooper and the like—histories, and travel books. He was again imprisoned in Waldheim, Saxony between 1870 and 1874. In 1876, after telling people he had been traveling abroad, he reinvented himself prolifically as a travel writer, a Catholic novelist—his five books sold on horseback by colporteurs—and an author in boys’ magazines.
Equipped with a gorgeous imagination, May conjured fantasies of the Orient and with himself dressed up as the hero, Kara Ben Nemsi [Karl from Germany]. Between 1880 and 1888, he published an Orient cycle of six volumes. Prefiguring J.K. Rowling, he had made a list of plots to write, and at the age of 51 began to compose what could be called the Harry Potter books of Germany: the Winnetou novels, the first of which was published in 1893.
Set in an Aryanized American Southwest, these books center on the blood brotherhood of Old Shatterhand, a German surveyor, and Winnetou, a noble Mescalero Apache. Unsurprisingly, “Shatterhand’s” German name was Karl.
For the past 123 years, generations of German children have re-enacted the exploits of these heroes. May’s books, still in print, have sold 200 million copies. The ’60s Winnetou movies, which starred French actor Pierre Brice as Winnetou and American actor Lex Barker (a former Tarzan) as Shatterhand, resuscitated the post-World War II German film industry. At Bad Segeburg, every summer since 1952, 300,000 fans attend a Karl May festival, as many as celebrate the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth.
May’s young German narrator was treated by other cowboys as a “greenhorn” who, like May, had only read about the West. But Old Shatterhand, as the narrator would soon be named, would surprise you. He could kill a grizzly bear or a maddened buffalo by himself where others scattered like leaves. He could shatter your jaw with a blow. He was no drunkard. And he had German efficiency compared to “shiftless American cowboys.”
May contrasted Winnetou’s nobility, too, to “untrustworthy Kiowas.” Winnetou’s skin is not dark but a “subdued, light brown with [but] a tinge of bronze”—and to drive home the point, the series is subtitled “The Red Gentleman.” As he is dying, Winnetou is converted to Christianity, while settlers sing “Ave Maria” over this frontier Christ-figure. In Edward Said’s phrase, he is an “Orientalized” indigenous person (May also set novels in the Middle East) as imagined by a predatory Occidental culture. In May’s novels, as in so much American history teaching, indigenous people do not speak diversely for themselves.
A wide variety of Germans, including Karl Liebknecht, Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, and Hitler, loved the May novels. Even today, many young people, notably women, are drawn to Winnetou.
Aping the horrific beliefs of American Manifest Destiny, which saw the “Anglo-Saxon race” push its frontier all the way to the Philippines, May imagined indigenous Americans as romantically—and inevitably—doomed, with Winnetou’s nobility passing away irrevocably.
Klekih-Petra, another German who flees into the American wilderness, also loves Winnetou and dies with the Apaches. He sees the hopelessness of their struggle:
I saw the Indian desperately resist his destruction. I saw the murderers tearing at his intestines, and my heart filled with anger, compassion and pity. He was doomed; I could not save him. But I could make his death easier; I could bring the radiance of love and reconciliation to his final hour.
Shatterhand was drawn to Nsho-tshi, Winnetou’s sister. He describes her beauty, too, as European:
There was no trace of the high cheekbones common among Indians. The soft, warm, and full cheeks came together in a chin whose dimples would have suggested playfulness in a European woman… When she opened her beautifully shaped mouth in a smile, her teeth glistened like pure ivory. The delicate flare of her nostrils seemed to point to Greek rather than Indian descent. The color of her skin was light copper-bronze with a touch of silver.
Nsho-tshi tried to go to St. Louis to learn about white women, to become good enough to marry the Aryan hero. But she was murdered by the grasping Yankee Santer on the way. May allowed no sex or “race-mixing” between “superior” and “savage.”
Like indigenous Americans, Shatterhand values wild nature: Unlike white American frontiersmen, he does not slaughter the buffalo with repeating rifles. And that, too, with humans being the bizarre exception, was an important Nazi value.
But however strong, Shatterhand does not kill people. Yet Winnetou takes revenge and scalps Parranoh, the murderer of a woman he loved. Shatterhand is bemused by this sign of Winnetou’s “savagery.” For, like his German hero, May himself was a man of peace, a Christian who eschewed killing.
In 1893, at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, historian Frederick Jackson Turner of the University of Wisconsin famously lectured on settlers killing Indians across the United States as they extended an ever-westward American frontier and how that frontier was coming to an end. He was in touch with Friedrich Ratzel, the German historian who coined the terms Biogeographie (biological geography) and Lebensraum (a large, conquered space for an otherwise constricted German life). This was to be continental expansion and ethnic cleansing of “lesser” peoples.
Lebensraum was explicitly Turner’s idea of an American-defining Western frontier transposed to a German-defining East in Poland and Russia. For both Turner and Ratzel, this was transcontinental, settler colonialism, not some distant empire across the seas. Ratzel was a founder of the Pan-German League, which had unhappily seen German immigrants settle in the Wild West, and imagined Germans surging eastward in conquest during World War I like 13th century Teutonic knights invading Poland. As Turner reciprocally put it, “American colonization [of the West] has become the mother of German colonial policy.”
Karl Haushofer, Ratzel’s student, taught Rudolf Hess, who became Hitler’s secretary. When Hitler and Hess were jailed for the Munich putsch of 1923, Haushofer would give them five-hour tutorials on geopolitics each week. It was then that Hitler began to speak of Lebensraum, and Haushofer would subsequently propagate the idea of Lebensraum widely in the Third Reich.
The Karl May novels had long possessed Hitler’s imagination. As he recounts in Table Talk, I’ve just been reading a very fine article on Karl May. I found it delightful. It would be nice if his work were republished. I owe him my first notions of geography, and the fact that he opened my eyes on the world. I used to read him by candle-light, or by moonlight with the help of a huge magnifying-glass…The first book of his I read was The Ride Through the Desert. I was carried away by it. And I went on to devour at once the other books by the same author. The immediate result was a falling-off in my school reports.
As Fuehrer, Hitler kept the whole collection of May’s works in his bedroom, and they inspired his ideas about the frontier. To Hitler, Lebensraum meant settlement and bread: “For a man of the soil, the finest country is the one that yields the finest crops. In twenty years’ time, European emigration will no longer be directed towards America, but eastwards.”
Of Ukrainians, Hitler insisted, “There’s only one duty: to Germanize this country by the immigration of Germans, and to look upon the natives as Redskins.”
Astonishingly, Hitler’s idea of settling the eastern European frontier even came decked out in the clichés of Western conquest: “We’ll supply the Ukranians with scarves, glass beads, and everything that colonial peoples like.”
In Ukraine, Nazi allies led by Stefan Bandera (whose statue still looms in Kiev) murdered some 184,000 out of 187,000 Jews. The Nazis exported the killing of Jews to the “Wild East.”
To justify the slaughter of Poles, Hitler conjured North America: “I don’t see why a German who eats a piece of bread should torment himself with the idea that the soil that produces this bread has been won by the sword. When we eat wheat from Canada, we don’t think about the despoiled Indians.”
German novels by Clara Viebig in the early 20th century made Poles “blacks” because of their dark hair, Polish women “seductresses.”As opposed to “blond” Aryans, the latter were even imagined as “vampires.” Two leading genocidal impulses in America, toward Indians and blacks, became one in German racism.
When Nazi troops were losing to the Soviet resistance, Hitler sent 300,000 copies of Karl May novels to the officers, who may have shaken their heads in disbelief. That was Hitler’s leading strategic thought: “The struggle we are waging there against the [Soviet] Partisans resembles very much the struggle in North America against the Red Indians. Victory will go to the strong, and strength is on our side.”
Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, proclaimed, “The East is a plantation of pure Germanic blood, the melting pot of all German and Germanic tribes.” Hitler’s idea was to kill 30 or 40 million Russians, confine the rest on reservations, and settle Aryan farmers on the soil. Some 20 million Russians died in the Nazi onslaught. Heinrich Boll, a wounded soldier and later Nobel Prize-winning novelist, dreamed of “a colonial existence here in the East after a victorious war.” Nazis commissioned books to “acquaint small children with the ideas behind the settlement plan and transfer the cowboys-and-Indians romanticism of the ‘American West’ to eastern Europe.”
They settled some 400,000 Germans in Ukraine and Crimea. Settlers took the keys to Ukrainian houses. But partisan resistance was too fierce.
Jews, said Hitler’s Governor General for Poland, Hans Frank, were “flatfooted Indians,” and in 1939, Hitler forced 90,000 Jews into the Lublin-Reservat [reservation/camp] in Poland—a maneuver modeled on Kit Carson’s 1863 driving of the Navajos to the inarable Bosque Redondo.
Hitler advocated eugenics or Social Darwinism. Focused on anthropometry and IQ testing, eugenics was also the basis of the American immigration law of 1924 that aimed to preserve the “pure Nordic stock” of the United States, where 30 states had laws against “miscegenation” (interracial marriage). Between 1909 and 1979, California would sterilize 20,000 immigrant women for being “feeble-minded”; Hitler would murder some 25,000 “defective” “Aryan” children and 300,000 mental patients as “wertlos” (devoid of value). There is considerable interplay and overlap in American and German academic life, politics and law between racist ideas and practices—parallels that exist to this day. In Imperial Grunts: on the Ground with the American Military (2006), Robert Kaplan eerily traces a 1931 map of the German Ost by Karl Haushofer as parallel to the vast American empire of bases today in what soldiers often name “Indian country.” Donald Trump’s repeated refrains from the Right are drawn from the Klan, Britain First, and the American National Alliance, whose president, William Pierce, author of the Turner Diaries, considered Hitler the greatest leader of the 20th century.
But the driving idea behind Hitler’s conception of Social Darwinism was the extermination of American Indians in the “Wild West.” And the vehicle for this was Karl May’s fantasy novels. When Hitler went to celebrate at May’s gravesite in Radebeul, he discovered that May’s best friend, buried next to him, was Jewish. The Nazis dug up that corpse.
During the Cold War, American students, myself included, were taught the silly idea that the Soviet Union and Germany were the same, as opposed to the American “open society.” Eugenics and the similarity of American and Nazi laws were whited out. Yet students and some faculty have long fought American eugenics. Only recently has there been scholarly recognition of colonial genocide, brought home to Europe in the “Wild East.”
American scholars, diplomats, and politicians did not read Hitler or put out of their minds any mention of Indians. They did not notice the Karl May craze in Germany, much less connect it, as Europeans do, to Hitler: there was, despite Indians dancing on the German screen, no “Wild East.” They “forgot” all this because settler-genocide was too close to home. And in Israel, the idea of settler-colonialism, including comparison of Palestinians to American Indians, also seized the imagination of leaders. They do not know—I speak here as a Jew—the close connection to this central Nazi idea and World War II.
Ever the imposter, May dressed as the cowboy Shatterhand and named his house Villa Shatterhand. He had beautiful rifles made like Shatterhand’s Baerentoeter—bear-killer—and told his listeners that he himself, a shrimpy 5’ 5,” was Shatterhand. He also possessed the dead Winnetou’s rifle, a Silberbuechse/Silverbox (in November 2015, Pierre Brice’s “Silberbuechse” from the movies was auctioned on German television for 65,000 euros). When asked for the hair of Winnetou, May gave a happy visitor to his house black strands from a stallion’s mane. He told large audiences he was an Apache chief. He was fluent, he said, in some 40 languages: “I speak and write French, English, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Rumanian, six dialects of Arabic, Persian, two dialects of Kurdish, six dialects of Chinese, Malayan, Namaqua, some Sunda idioms, Swahili, Hindi, Turkish, and the Indian languages of the Sioux, Apache, Comanche, Snakes, Utes, Kiowas, and three South American dialects. I won’t count Lapplandish. How many nights of work this cost me? I still work three nights through each week—Monday from 6 AM until 12 AM Tuesday, and so Wednesday to Thursday, and Friday to Saturday.”
For these impostures, the fantastic Karl May was no longer arrested. It was, we might say, performance art.
In 1899, wealthy and at age 57, May, at last, visited Egypt. He found it dirty and distasteful. In 1908, four years before his death, he set foot at Niagara Falls and met a Tuscarora chief. In a photograph with Karl, the Tuscarora wore suspenders. If only Hitler’s fantasies about the Wild East had similarly remained…fantasies.
In 1911, shortly before his death, May sued a defamer who called him a “born criminal.” A German court ruled in his favor: “But such things would not be a crime in a poet, and I think Karl May is a poet.”
May’s house and grave are now a museum at his birthplace in Radebeul. The public relations director, Andre Koehler, conjures himself, as many do, an avatar. He wears a white shirt with an Indian-head bolo tie, Wranglers, a mustang belt buckle, and leather moccasins. With unintentional hilarity, Koehler intones: “I was born a hundred years and one week after the death of Winnetou.”
The May museum also featured scalps of Native Americans as late as 2014, when, after years of protest, some were at last returned to indigenous Americans for burial.
Alan Gilbert is John Evans Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, and author of Democratic Individuality, Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy and Black Patriots and Loyalists; Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence.