Karl May

February 25 is the birthday of Karl May (pronounced “my”; 1842-1912). He was a prolific and very popular German writer and was considered the most-read German author. I developed an interest in him because he wrote WESTERNS! (Among many other adventure stories.) From Germany!

He never visited the United States west of Buffalo, NY (and that was late in his life), but depended on books, maps, and other sources for attempted verisimilitude, though he often was way off from reality. His most famous Western characters were Winnetou (supposedly a chief of the Mescalero Apaches) and Old Shatterhand (a frontiersman and blood brother of Winnetou). Old Shatterhand is thought to be May’s alter ego. Indeed, May even claimed to have lived the adventures he wrote about in his Westerns.

American soldiers occupying Germany after WWII were surprised that the game of “cowboys and Indians” in the Old West was well known to German children, thanks to Karl May. Germans’ impression of U.S. Native Americans was heavily influenced by May, who portrayed them as noble and usually innocent victims mistreated at the hands of the whites. May’s Western stories were used to criticize America during WWII.

[For that matter, Europeans know a lot more about and are more interested in U.S. history than Americans know or care about European history. For example, there are reenacting groups in Europe focused on the American Civil War.]

I got a kick out of the 2009 movie Inglorious Basterds (Brad Pitt). There is a scene in a basement night club in which some German soldiers on leave are playing a game of 20 Questions with Diane Kruger. The answer to the round is – wait for it – Karl May! How many people watching the movie realized that what the players were talking about was real and not from some scriptwriter’s imagination. The use of Karl May in the movie and the game was quite reasonable since Hitler himself was a big admirer of May and his books (so was Albert Einstein); he had copies of May’s novels distributed to his generals and troops. 

Happy Birthday, Karl!