In Germany the Old West is an obsession--thanks to Karl May





... A few months ago the director of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Tex., told me in passing how his museum was frequently overrun by visiting Germans, so the curious German obsession with the Wild West — which newly arrived Americans repeatedly discover to predictable eye-rolling from Germans, for whom it’s hardly news — was not exactly unknown to me. Still, the extent of it is a little astonishing.

At powwows — there are dozens every year — thousands of Germans with an American Indian fetish drink firewater, wear turquoise jewelry and run around Baden-Württemberg or Schleswig-Holstein dressed as Comanches and Apaches. There are clubs, magazines, trading cards, school curriculums, stupendously popular German-made Wild West films and outdoor theaters, including one high in the sandstone cliffs above the tiny medieval fortress town of Rathen, in Saxony, where cowboys fight Indians on horseback. A fake Wild West village, Eldorado, recently shot up on the outskirts of Templin, the city where Angela Merkel, the chancellor, grew up.

The cause of this infatuation is a writer named Karl May (1842-1912), virtually unknown in the United States but the most popular author in German history.

A con man and Walter Mitty-like homebody who spent eight years in jail dreaming of Wild West adventures, May (the name is pronounced My) wrote dozens of tall-tale books that have sold more than 100 million copies, maybe twice that many if you count translations from the German. Kaiser Wilhelm II, like May a fantasist who loved to dress up in exotic costumes, adored May’s books. So did Einstein and Albert Schweitzer, Kafka and Fritz Lang. Hitler did too.

May’s hero was Winnetou, a fictional Apache chief, a household name here. To Germans Winnetou is like Paul Bunyan, Abe Lincoln and Elvis rolled into one. During the World Cup last year, an occasion for the Germans to debate, as they often do, the pitfalls of reviving their nationalist spirit, Der Spiegel, the leading newsmagazine, published an article titled “The Land of Winnetou.”...


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