Each summer, in fields in cities such as Radebeul, Saxony, Germans by the hundreds don costumes and reenact a historical period that has fascinated many. Not famous war battles, as might be expected—but rather, a romanticized version of the American Old West. Cowboys and Native Americans, it turns out, are a major part of the Deutsche Kultur, a phenomenon courtesy of author Karl May.
The lasting impact of the prolific German writer of novels about the American West—whose works have captivated millions of Germans, including Adolf Hitler and Albert Einstein, for more than a century—will be examined as part of a two-day event at Case Western Reserve University.
The Max Kade Center for German Studies will commemorate the 170th anniversary of the birth and the 100th anniversary of the death of May, who wrote dozens of volumes of adventure novels and travel “accounts” and created popular characters such as the noble Chief Winnetou and his white blood brother, the trapper Old Shatterhand.
“Why Germans Love Cowboys and Indians: Karl May, the American Wild West, and the German Imagination,” a symposium featuring public lectures, film screening and discussions, will take place Oct. 24-25 on the Case Western Reserve campus.
With 200 million copies sold, May remains one of the best-selling German authors of all times. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a German who did not know some May characters—if not from his books then from the many films that are based on his stories or from attending re-enactment summer festivals. Although May never visited the places he described till late in life, his imagined depictions of the American West gave rise to an enduring if improbable German fascination with cowboys and Indians that extends to the present day.
“Karl May’s legacy truly cannot be underestimated and spans generations. I myself read the editions my father had devoured as a child and passed on to me as a precious treasure,” said Susanne Vees-Gulani, associate professor in German and Comparative Literature and co-director of the German Studies Program. “My friends and I wanted to be blood brothers like the noble Winnetou and Old Shatterhand and re-enacted—luckily without the use of a knife—this ritual frequently. We knew exactly how it was supposed to work, also from watching the Karl May films on television. We girls were all in love with the piercing eyes of the French actor Pierre Brice as Winnetou, who through these movies, strangely, became the quintessential German image of the Native American.”
The symposium will take a close look at the fascinating phenomenon of Germany’s love for Karl May and the American West, explain what it meant for East Germans to escape into a recreated Wild West and Native American world, and why and how reenactments of May’s stories today still capture the imagination of an entire nation.
The schedule of events is as follows:
Wednesday, Oct. 24
4:30-5:30 p.m.: Public lecture with subsequent question and answer session: André Köhler, Karl May Museum Radebeul: “Interpreting Karl May in Germany.”
8–10 p.m.: Karl May Film Screening: Der Schatz im Silbersee – Treasure of Silver Lake (with an introduction by Kenneth Ledford and Susanne Vees-Gulani).
Thursday, Oct. 25
4:30–6:30 p.m.: Public lectures with subsequent question and answer sessions: Alina Dana Weber, Department of German, Florida State University: “‘Indians’ on German Stages: The History and Meaning of Karl May Festivals”; and Petra Tjitske Kalhovens, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester: “Playing at Cowboys and Indians in Germany.”
All events will take place in Clark Hall 309.
The symposium is sponsored by the Case Western Reserve Max Kade Center for German Studies, College of Arts and Sciences Office of the Dean, Office of the Provost, Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities, Department of History and Department of Modern Languages and Literatures.