My father says there were nine of them, mostly boys. Some carried bows and arrows whittled from willow twigs. Others brandished sticks trussed with broken cobblestones. Feathers poked from blond skulls. It was a weekday in a small German city in early 1945, and school was officially disbanded for weeks, maybe years.
The Indians whooped and danced around a lone captive tied to a lamppost. He was the scout, a surveyor who’d come to the American Wild West to make his fortune and fallen into the hands of people with fantastic leather outfits and feathered weaponry. He strained at the knots. He needed to break free and fight them and win.
All of a sudden, above their howls, the children heard an unmistakable shrieking. Tomahawks faltered as they looked up to see a low-flying British fighter plane streaking over their heads.
The Indians had a split second to choose. Some glanced at the boy at the stake before sprinting away. Others simply ran. Weapons clattered to the ground as they hurried into the closest house and jostled up the stairs. They huddled together behind a window, waiting for the plane to fly back and fire its bullets. No one looked at the boy now. They had left him behind.
The plane roared past and swung away. The boy blinked in its wake, alive. The city would be smashed by bombs three weeks later, then surrendered, then occupied. Yet the children’s imaginary America did not change even after real U.S. soldiers filled their streets, posing in photographs and doling out chocolate bars. That faraway country—of beautiful mesas, brave escapes, and colorful tribes—would always belong solely to the German people, and to an author of adventure stories named Karl May.
Although Karl May (pronounced “My”) remains, ironically, unknown in America, he was—and still is—one of the world’s most popular adventure writers, penning more than sixty books between 1875 and 1910. From Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany all the way through the Third Reich and beyond, May captivated adults and children alike with the exploits of Old Shatterhand, a German scout who’d traveled to the West as a surveyor, and Winnetou, the velvet-eyed Apache prince who becomes his blood brother.
May’s stories have been translated into two dozen languages and have sold more than 100 million copies. His books feature back-cover blurbs from Albert Schweitzer, Herman Hesse, and even Albert Einstein, who claims, simply, “My whole adolescence stood under his sign.” Over thousands of best-selling pages, Old Shatterhand and Winnetou gallop about on Mustangs and gun down grizzlies, spy from secret hiding places and try to stop scoundrels from ruling the Wild West.
While not all Indians are savages and not all white people are civilized in May’s world, his persuasive and vivid stories are elitist to the core, reinforcing the supremacy of the intellectual and the God-fearing haves over the illiterate, heathen have-nots. May divides his people between good whites and bad whites, and good Indians and bad Indians. Many of the good whites, after a bit of probing, are revealed to be Germans, with Anglicized names. The good Indians, namely Winnetou and his tribe, have been greatly influenced by an old Teutonic missionary who taught them sympathy for the palefaces and a few Christian values, besides. Together, the noble few fight a failing battle against the forces of greed. The reader knows the Indians are doomed even from the preface of Winnetou (1892), in which May writes of his red-skinned friends: “I can only lament, but change nothing; only grieve, but not bring a single dead back to life.”
Given the scalp-’em genre that so fascinated May, his lifelong commitment to pacifism is one of his greatest contradictions. He lectured and wrote copiously on the subject. When an editor invited him to contribute to a book that celebrated German victories after the Boxer Rebellion, May sabotaged the project by sending his manuscript in installments that slowly revealed an anti-imperialistic message: Et in terra pax, Latin for “On earth, peace.” Despite the life-or-death requirements of his frontier milieu, Old Shatterhand’s name-making blow was a punch to the temple that rendered its victim temporarily unconscious. Even so, most of May’s stories delivered a veritable bloodbath of expendable foes, killed by other expendables. The historian Ernest Stadler once calculated the total brutality in four volumes (totaling 2,012 pages):
61 shattered by the fist
8 starved to death
3 thrown to the crocodiles
1 thrown to the rats to be eaten
Nameless and quickly forgotten, May’s myriad casualties are bad men, and, in his Manichean universe, they deserve to die. By raising carnage to a symbolic level, the pacifist keeps his peace-loving status, and the cultural supremacist can kill off a race at the same time as he mourns its destruction. (“I can only lament…”)
But the biggest contradiction of all surrounded May’s identity. When May first became famous for his adventure novels in the 1880s and ’90s, he presented himself in public as the real-life Old Shatterhand; his books, he implied, were his own thinly fictionalized exploits. He wore a Western leather coat and kept a collection of authentic carbines. He showed off locks of Winnetou’s hair. He claimed to speak a mere forty languages, ranging from Greek to Finno-Ugric, dialect of the Laplanders.
Then in 1899, while May was embroiled in a public and mean-spirited battle with his publishers, a damning headline blazed across the Berlin press: old shatterhand scalped.
According to the exposé, the years May claimed to have been stuck galloping across mesas in America he had, in fact, been stuck in a German jail cell. Furthermore, May had never visited America and wouldn’t alight here until 1908, at the age of sixty-four, when most of his Wild West publications were behind him.
Today such sham behavior might permanently damage an author’s reputation, but May’s work not only survived the scandal—it flourished. Millions more readers came of age with his stories. At May’s last public speech, delivered at a pacifists’ conference in 1912, a young Austrian painter sat rapt in the audience. The painter, named Adolf Hitler, forever cherished his sighting of the famous May. He read May’s books over and over to remind himself of the German hero he wanted, someday, to be.
Karl May was born in 1842, the fifth child of a poor Saxony weaver and a midwife. The household suffered constant deprivation and close proximity to death, and soon after May’s birth, he contracted an illness that made him go blind for several years. His childhood’s few highlights were his beloved family, particularly his tale-telling grandmother, and the lending library at the tavern and bowling alley where he worked as a pin boy. There, he wolfed down adventure stories with salubrious titles like The Sins of the Archbishop and Bruno von Löweneck, Exterminator of Parsons. Each told of an innocent man who got sucked into conflict with the law through unavoidable circumstances, and who would later avenge himself against the evildoers.
May’s first documented crime was to steal candles from his school so his sister could light her Christmas tree. (He claimed he was just taking the leftover scraps.) After finding himself expelled, May finished his studies elsewhere and landed his first teaching job at a factory school. There, he “borrowed” his housemate’s watch, pipe, and cigarette lighter, and was summarily sent to prison. Upon his release, he continued to end up on the wrong side of justice for impersonating authority figures and acquiring goods under false names. His loot included a baby carriage, a pair of glasses, billiard balls, and a horse with a bridle and whip. All together, this bizarre larcenous behavior landed him a total of nine years under lock and key. While in prison, he devoured books by writers such as James Fenimore Cooper, Friedrich Gerstäcker, and Balduin Möllhausen. He began to conceive of adventure stories involving an Apache prince, a figure who had ridden out from his imagination, dressed in details lifted from books in the prison library.
At some point during this period, Karl May also turned his considerable creative powers upon his own biography. As he gradually transitioned from writing historical romances to Reiseerzählung (travel tales), he recast himself as their author-protagonist and delivered strength, intellect, Christian values, and a few thousand punches to the temples of enemies around the world. He became a crusader of his imagination, a model of global triumph for millions of young Germans.
While May’s immediate legacy survived the 1899 exposé, later critics took issue with his duplicity, going so far as to draw a direct line between May and the rise of fascism. In a 1940 issue of the Kenyon Review, Klaus Mann, author and son of Thomas Mann, wrote several pages condemning May and his influence on the young Adolf:
What the unsuccessful Austrian painter and potential dictator chiefly admired in Old Shatterhand was his mixture of brutality and hypocrisy: he could quote the Bible with the greatest ease while toying with murder; he carried out the worst atrocities with a clear conscience, for he took for granted that his enemies were of an “inferior race” and therefore hardly human…
Although Mann overstates the insidiousness of the adventure-writer’s intent, several historians have connected the fraudulent author and the Führer. Whenever Hitler’s overweening sense of purpose faltered, he dosed himself with a few hundred pages of May—he kept a special shelf in his room for the author’s books—and after the disastrous Russian campaign in 1943, he reputedly ordered his general staff to read Winnetou as a morale-boosting exercise.
The novel shows there is always hope for Germans on the losing side. In one of Winnetou’s most beloved scenes, the Apaches capture Old Shatterhand and, because of his association with a white murderer, name him their mortal enemy. They give him one chance to save himself: if he can cross the Rios Pecos and run to a cedar without being felled by the chief’s tomahawk, he will be granted his life.
Old Shatterhand understands the danger. From books he has read, he knows he will never be able to outrun the chief’s deadly aim. Instead he must succeed by intelligence and cunning. He feigns fear of the river, and when the chief pushes him in, he pretends to drown. The chief jumps in after him, eager to finish off the white coward. Our German hero sinks deep underwater and swims hard upstream. After he checks to make sure the chief is pursuing him in the wrong direction, he surfaces under some driftwood, hidden, watching, catching his breath. When everyone assumes Old Shatterhand is dead, the surprise gives him the advantage. After a series of fancy moves, he tackles the chief, knocks him unconscious, and becomes the best friend of the chief’s son, Winnetou.
The scene provides a perfect example of May’s elite heroism: Old Shatterhand’s strength often rests on the failure of others—they are cowards, or, like the Apache chief, their overconfidence leads to their downfall. The moral of Rios Pecos: If you can be patiently German long enough, your enemies will crumble before you. Your strength of character and mind will convert the best of them into dutiful friends.
At the height of May’s popularity during the desperate Weimar years, such scenes reinforced his people’s belief in their own values and civilization. By night, while out-of-work fathers fed their woodstoves with hunks of devalued currency, their sons rode across America with Old Shatterhand, the only righteous hero among its avaricious palefaces and tragic tribes. Such lessons might have set the stage for a fascist to rise, preaching nationalism and self-preservation. Locked inside Karl May’s compassion and devotion to pacifism was the innate sense that those who know better ought to be in charge of those who don’t.
Two decades later, when the Austrian painter became the Führer, a young Jewish philosopher named Leo Strauss fled his native Germany, eventually landing at the University of Chicago in 1949. There, over the course of fifteen books and countless seminars, he taught an approach to power that would one day inspire a cadre of American neoconservatives to remake their nation into a global cowboy.
Born in Kirchhain in 1899, Leo Strauss came of age when May’s reputation was at its height. Like May, who held the money-grubbing, self-serving Americans in great disregard, Strauss distrusted liberal democracy for the way it extolled meritocracy. Strauss’s warnings that nihilism would result from too much social freedom echoed May’s depictions of the deaths of Winnetou’s civilized father and sister to the lawless chaos of the West. It also hardly seems a coincidence that Strauss’s favorite television show was the long-running Western Gunsmoke.
“And [Strauss] felt that this was good, this show,” former pupil Stanley Rosen said in the BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares (2004). “This had a salutary effect on the American public, because it showed the conflict between good and evil in a way that would be immediately intelligible to everyone.”
Gunsmoke followed the life and exploits of Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) in the frontier town of Dodge City, Kansas, in 1873. “The hero has a white hat; he’s faster on the draw than the bad man. The good guy wins,” explains Rosen. “And it’s not just that the good guy wins, but that values are clear. That’s America!”
In his decades at the University of Chicago, Strauss cultivated a following that includes the likes of ex–deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz; Abram Shulsky, formerly of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans; and Richard Perle, formerly of the Defense Policy Board.
According to media outlets ranging from the Guardian to the Nation, Strauss justified, among other things, a hierarchical society led by an elite, and religion and perpetual war as essential measures in maintaining that elite’s control. Such measures would be taken in the best interests of the masses, who needed to be governed by virtues rather than by their individual desires. This philosophy could easily validate “noble lies” about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or Al Qaeda as a powerful and well-oiled Mafia infiltrating American cities.
Despite several counterarguments about the complex nuances of Strauss’s philosophy put forth by the New York Sun, the Economist, and an impressive 2006 tome by Yale’s Steven Smith, Reading Leo Strauss, the influence of Strauss on the neocons is uncontestable, and their actions characterize a worldview that posits America itself as an elite nation-hero, leading the world toward freedom and democracy. Put another way, America is Old Shatterhand, and the undemocratized masses of the world are either enemies or willing converts, as Winnetou was, accepting Christianity at his death.
Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, wrote in his diary in 1960 about the Führer and May:
Hitler would lean on Karl May as the proof for everything imaginable, in particular for the idea that it was not necessary to know the desert in order to direct troops in the African theater of war; that a people could be wholly foreign to you, as foreign as the Bedouins or the American Indians were to Karl May, and yet with some imagination and empathy you could nevertheless know more about them, their soul, their customs and circumstances, than some anthropologists who had studied them in the field. Karl May attested to Hitler that it wasn’t necessary to travel in order to know the world.
(Spandau: The Secret Diaries, 1976)
Rather than a traveler, Karl May himself was an armchair hero who could read and imagine, and inspire others to do the same. From the very first chapters of Winnetou, one learns that through consuming books in advance of his arrival in America, Old Shatterhand gained the knowledge and expertise that prepared him to track bison and shoot an angry grizzly between the eyes.
Such a nineteenth-century hero neatly prefigures the twentieth-century, post-Nietzschean vision that Strauss scholar Shadia Drury describes in an online interview with Danny Postel:
The real Platonic solution as understood by Strauss is the covert rule of the wise… The rule of the wise is intended as an antidote to modernity. Modernity is the age in which the vulgar many have triumphed. It is the age in which they have come closest to having exactly what their hearts desire—wealth, pleasure, endless entertainment. But in getting just what they desire, they have been unwittingly reduced to beasts.
The overt moral position of the neoconservatives is that the enemy is all around us with its anthrax and dirty bombs. Yet behind this lies a covert intellectual position: the enemy is our own vulgar masses, among them thousands of Winnetous who can be both sacrificed and saved for the great cause of our age.
While a direct connection between a fraudulent nineteenth-century German novelist and the American neoconservatives may seem a stretch, the national heroism that the United States espouses today undoubtedly shares a disturbing kinship with the life and tales of Karl May. We live in a country that now endorses both violence and deception for the sake of improving the world, and act out an adventure story written in part by authors who refuse to travel beyond their own ideologies.
So what is the responsibility of the reader these days, given such a fantastic and often inaccurate text of current events? It helps to look at Karl May’s oddly endearing 1910 autobiography, and his attempts to justify the superior purpose behind his lies.
In his mission to depict the uplifting of the human soul through books set in America and the Ottoman Empire, May chose to use a single, first-person German narrator. He states (the passages translated here by Gunther Olesch):
Even though this “first person” does not exist, everything which is being related about him shall still be based in reality and become reality.… [He] has to manifest himself, has to become reality in my readers, who are experiencing in their minds and souls everything just as he does, and who therefore, like my characters, are rising up and ennobling themselves.
May concludes that “Karl May” wrote his travel tales “as if they were not the product of his own mind, but as if they were dictated to him by this fictional ‘first person,’ which is the great question of mankind.”
With one rambling sentence, the modest fellow casts himself as a scribe taking shorthand from a divine narrator in Western chaps. In doing so, he commits the sin that later had Klaus Mann and others clamoring for his head. He claims that the symbolic justifies falsehood—that there is such a thing as a noble lie.
I am drawn back to 1945, and my father’s tale of his Winnetou game and the British fighter plane. When he first told me that story as a child, I did not imagine him among the children who abandoned the boy. Perhaps he did not say he was. I only envisioned the terror and the bravery of the scout himself, waiting for the bullets to pierce his body.
Yet as an adult, I asked him, “Were you actually there? Did you run inside too?” And he said, “Yes.” He told me about the knots, and how difficult they would have been to undo. He says they never talked about it afterward.
And I know that I read the story differently now, read it for collective responsibility, for the sadness of what he failed to do. If the reader has any enduring task, it is this: to become a partner in the tale-telling, to listen carefully, to listen for the whole story, and when we don’t hear it, to ask and ask again until it becomes clear—a shadow falling over the town, no Indians, no scout, no common courage at all, but the sounds of survival, arrows tossed down, boys running for their lives.
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