“The Fuhrer’s Cowboy” may not have been as well known as Louis L’Amour, Willliam Raines and Zane Grey, but today the works of Karl May are still avidly read, particularly in Europe.
His literary creations had such colorful Western names as Old Shatterhand (a trusty frontiersman who vanquished dozens of enemies with his bare fists) and the faithful, self- abnegating Indian Chief Winnetou, although his first popular hero was an Oriental figure called Kara Ben Nemsi.
Ultimately, 80 million copies of his works were printed in 70 books totaling 60,000 pages in over 100 languages worldwide, but---like American Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs (who never went to Africa)---Karl May, too, wrote about people he never met and places he’d never visited. Unlike Burroughs, however, May finally toured the Middle East and the American West in 1908, when he was already ailing and had but four years to live.
His books enthralled three generations of German readers---among them Kaiser Wilhelm II, Albert Einstein, Carl Zuckmayer, Hermann Hesse, and Adolf Hitler. The latter maintained later that the idea for the Nazi dream of Eastern conquest in Russia generated in part from the “Manifest Destiny” movement that took the American west away from the Indians and Mexicans. In fact, so popular a writer did May become under the Nazis, that he was known as “the Fuhrer’s Cowboy,” and a Karl May Museum was opened under the auspices of the Third Reich as well.
Therein were displayed cases extolling the noble American savage, and costumed guides held cowboys and Indians enthralled with the retelling of the Shatterhand-Winnetou sagas.
May’s reputation survived the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, however, and today both the Karl May Festival continues to be held annually at Bad Segeberg near Hamburg and German films of his Wild West books are delighting new audiences of young Germans. From Imperial Germany, the legend of his fame spread first to Europe and then worldwide. There have been at least 70 biographies of him penned as well.
His life was both successful and unhappy. The wife he had married at 19 when he was 34 became the heroine in many of his books, but the marriage itself later ended in failure. Revered for his folk hero works beginning in 1892 in the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the creator of Old Shatterhand and Winnetou faced a dual crisis in the last years of his life despite his fame and riches.
Notes German writer Franz Fegeler, “May…was confronted by a public campaign, lasting 10 years, which…criticized both…his uncompromising pacifist attitudes and the fact that he had never ridden through the desert, and Old Shatterhand was certainly not a portrait of himself, although he foolishly maintained that it was.” May, it seems, like other writers before and since, believed he was the hero he had created.
But there was an even greater public scandal in store for the embattled May when it was revealed that he had spent seven years in a German prison as a convicted criminal,
and thus it was in a jail cell that the unknown Karl had begun his career as a writer. He received his first royalties, in fact, upon his release from incarceration.
The Saxon writer of the American West was born at the small town of Hohenstein-Ernsttahl in the Erzebirge Mountains on Feb. 25, 1842, the son of a poor, alcoholic weaver and a midwife, the fifth of 14 children. Blind for the first four years of his life, young Karl was also a bright, talented child to whom a local Protestant church gave a scholarship to attend a teacher education college at Waldenburg.
Before his graduation, the May family broke apart due to his father’s drinking excesses, but at 19, Karl was posted as a teacher in a school for factory workers’ children at Chemnitz. Shortly after his teaching began, May’s career took a sudden, unexpected turn for the worse that ended in disaster.
States Fegeler, “He ended up in jail charged with theft and fraud and later went to prison. It has never been resolved whether he committed these crimes from sheer material need or a kind of psychological desperation, difficult to explain. Whatever the case, Karl May was in prison seven years. In his cell, he began to write humorous short stories and tales about village life. They were published.”
The Kara Ben figure led to Winnetou in a trio of volumes in 1893, and it was the success of the Indian chief that enabled the ex-convict writer to buy a villa in Radebeul outside Dresden in East Germany that he later named for his third and most famous character, Old Shatterhand, Hitler’s favorite.
The house had a Wild West library, stuffed exotic animals, shotguns and hookahs, all devoted to the glorification of his characters---and himself as a famed German author.
It was in his library that his imagination was given full rein, and his voracious reading included travel works, specialist books and lexicons, a process of production, in fact, used today by several famous female romance novelists.
May’s milieu was a time of worldwide adventure, for not only was there the exploration and conquest of the American West, but also Henry Stanley’s several trips to Africa (after writing as a reporter in America), and Prince Otto von Bismarck’s trio of wars (1864 with Denmark, 1866 with Austria, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71) to unite the new German Reich.
May’s German readers were understandably thrilled by these stirring events, and wanted to emulate the heroes of the day, especially the Germans. Many of them were forced to work in the dreary factories of the emerging German industrial revolution of the Wilhelmine Reich, and thus the tales of Karl May provided the perfect escapist literature they craved. The writer had met his market.
States Fegeler, “It is easy to explain today May’s initial success. At the turn of the century, Central Europeans, tired with civilization, were enthusiastic about the supposed wide open spaces of the still undeveloped ‘New World’ in North America…the description of a simple hero’s life, steeped in legend, fascinated readers.
“Like no other writer before him or since, May satisfied an original curiosity for ethnological entertainment and instruction. His simple images of the forest and the desert
triggered dreams that every male could formulate according to his taste…He glorified the uncomplicated and unspoiled life of distant regions and continents…His great heroes remain upright and law-abiding in the middle of every kind of major upheaval…May wrote much that would not stand up to critical examination today
“In many of his symbolic novels---bordering on the surrealistic---he advocated Christian principles and a hyper-German-ness with anti-American overtones. The anti-heroes in his novels were frequently the perfidious, rapacious ‘Yankees’…Karl May gives to his readers the gift of dreams, and they cannot always be easily measured by a literary yardstick.”
The “Fuhrer’s Cowboy” died at age 70 on March 30, 1912, never having met the future Nazi leader, who was then a starving artist in Vienna, but his influence was felt for decades, and still is. Perhaps May realized this, as the last words he supposedly uttered on his deathbed were “Victory! Great victory! I see everything rosy red,” a true novelist’s happy ending.
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