Karl May's Imaginary America

"The tragedy in the Indian life appeals to the romantic part of the German soul." I'd been told in Dresden by an old man who'd helped found an Indian club back in 1928. Edgar Aich, the corporate lawyer, agreed. He defined Romanticism as "a love of Nature, of freedom and the ability to do what you like." All the more attractive, I suspected in a society that prides itself on social regulation and conformity.

Aich may have looked the corporate lawyer, but he was heavily into Romanticism. The next day, in his Lakota Sioux buckskins, and accompanied by his wife Renata, in a full-length dress straight out of A Henry James novel, Aich sidled up to me while I was watching a cowboy perform rope tricks.

"I think German men are by nature romantic. We like to be fantastic and exaggerate things. That is the German nature. That is the relationship between man and wife." Renata looked on indulgently as Edgar continued his confession. "When we are younger, I think women are more romantic, and the man is realistic. But then, after forty years old, maybe it changes. The wife becomes realistic and the man romantic."

In Edgar Aich's case this seemed obviously true. He'd been well into his forties, walking in Manhattan. He stopped outside a store on 42nd Street called "Taipei Town". "I always wanted to wear Indian clothes and wear a headdress," he'd confessed to Renata. "Go in then. Indulge." And he followed her advice.

History might have been very different if Adolf Schilkgruber, another kid who'd grown up devouring Winnetou and Old Shatterhand had also followed Renata's advice and sublimated his fantasies into dressing up on weekends. But he didn't, of course, and went on to achieve notoriety as Adolf Hitler.

Today, that Hitler kept the Winnetou books by his bedside, is usually dismissed with a shrug. Just about every young German boy this century grew up obsessed by Karl May. That didn't make them monsters or anti-Semites. Indeed, there's plenty of evidence that Winnetou would have been banned if Hitler hadn't made his little weakness known to his sycophantic aides.

One of History's other little ironies is that the paths of Hitler and Karl may actually have crossed, in Vienna in 1912. May gave a speech in favor of Pacifism and World Peace. Hitler apparently attended. Two months later, May was dead.


Karl May's Imaginary America

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The American West in the American Imagination

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