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The American West, Through German Eyes - 2004-01-01

The best-known German writer in the world may be Goethe, but the best-selling German author of all time, with 100 million books to his credit, is someone with less international name recognition. The writer Karl May gained huge popularity in the late 19th century for his adventure tales set in faraway locations, most famously, stories about cowboys and Indians in the American West. The writer's former home near the southeastern German city of Dresden is now a museum celebrating the writer, who was born in 1842 and died in 1912. VOA's Stephanie Ho recently visited the museum and has this report.

Karl May brought the big skies and vast landscape of the wild American West into the homes of his fellow Germans, who had little chance of ever visiting America.

"One hundred years before, the people also read the books here and they also can't visit America. They dream in the night about the stories from Karl May, and it was like television in our time," says 37-year-old Hanjo Leupert, who grew up reading Karl May stories. He was visiting the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, with his mother and his son.

Museum director Rene Wagner says Germans couldn't double-check the stories because the American West was a far-off land most readers knew nothing about. "We always have to consider that he lived in the time of the 19th century, and at that time, people were not traveling always to America, as they do today," he explains. "And so it was [a] much more different setting than we face today."

Whatever most Germans might think of Karl May and his stories nowadays, almost all of them know the names of his two main heroes: Winnetou, a noble Apache Indian chief, and a German-born settler named Old Shatterhand. Karl May's fans identified him as Old Shatterhand because he wrote his Westerns in the first-person and seemed to describe the rough and tumble American landscape from memory. He never discouraged them and actively helped maintain the charade.

Professor Meredith McClain, who teaches at Texas Tech University, has studied Karl May for more than two decades. She says his hugely popular stories are actually the result of research carried out while he was serving time in jail, not first-hand experience. Karl May never even visited the American West himself.

"Only very late in his life did one journalist put it together that Karl May had not been to any of those places," says Ms. McClain. "And, really, where he had been doing his research was in jail. So, his readers, who were just thronging to buy his books - he was a fantastic success - these readers were horribly shocked. And lawsuits that had to be lived through during the last years of Karl May's life were really, really terrible for him."

Despite these setbacks, though, German fascination with the American West has managed to weave itself into the country's modern history.

Professor McClain notes that, when Germany was divided following World War II, the communists in former East Germany equated the cowboys to capitalists and, by extension, Americans. Disliking cowboys, the East German communists embraced the Indian cause.

"The communists wanted to point up again that the Indians are the good native people and it's those nasty Americans who came over here, bringing genocide and horrible things to the Indians, have then built up their capitalist society," says Ms. McClain. "You know, the war, the Cold War, was all about communism versus capitalism. So, the communists appropriated the Native American innocence and interesting, close to the earth, pure way of life, and showed how it suffered under capitalism."

Nowadays, Professor McClain adds that crafty promoters in Germany are making what she describes as a "zillion" dollars with 11 outdoor theaters, where performers act out Karl May stories and visitors get the chance to ride horses and covered wagons. One of the most successful summer theaters takes place in a small northern town, Bad Segeberg, which draws 200,000 visitors each year.

"They just happen to have an outcropping of rocks in the middle of their downtown village. Actually, during Hitler's time, he turned it into a gathering place for propaganda events. And then, after the war, when villages were just devastated all across Germany and they were looking for some way to get their economies going, many, many, many of them started festivals," explains Ms. McClain. "And the people in Bad Segeberg put a little theater out in that open place with the mountains and that big hump of a kind of a hill in the middle. They tried to do Goethe and Schiller and, well, it didn't go very well. And then somebody has the idea, well, let's try Karl May. And they never looked back."

Professor McClain adds that there are also cowboy hobby towns all over Germany where people can come on the weekends to dress up and play act like cowboys and Indians. "They're bonding with their families in a way that they can afford to do," she says. "They're getting free of the bureaucracy. We Americans cannot understand the feeling of being closed in that Germans have - not only geographically, but they are [a] highly bureaucratized culture."

Back at the Karl May Museum, 26-year-old Antje Schaffer is now trying to introduce his stories to her four-year old daughter. "If you read this book, you can feel it. It is fantasy, but you think it is reality," she explains.

She has visited the United States, including some of the areas in the West that were settings for some of Karl May's novels. She says although he never saw the places he wrote about, she still feels that it was as if he was actually there.