Karl May's Imaginary America
in the late 1930s, zealous Nazi sycophants tried to give a new spin to the
Winnetou novels. Old Shatterhand was puffed up as an Aryan Superman. Yankees
became Jewish Yankees. But there wasn't much they could do to May's message
of interracial brotherhood. Today, no one I've ever met thinks much of Klaus
Mann's infamous 1940 "Kenyon Review" blast in which he labeled Karl May "the
grotesque prophet of a sham Messiah (Hitler)."
But the Nazi charge stuck in East Germany. The Communists decreed May a non-person, even though he'd lived his whole life in or around Dresden. No paper was made available to print his books. The Cold War simply made things worse.
Everything that came out of America was bad. That included Winnetou. But -if the East Germans had stopped one moment to think - Winnetou might have become the great ideological symbol of "cultural genocide" practiced by "Yankee imperialists" against their own people.
Even reading a May novel became a punishable offense. "We were not allowed to read him. But we used to get the books from friends, or from our grandparents," Christian Schmidt in Dresden told me. Schmidt borrowed one of the Winnetou novels and got caught by his teacher. "I was taken to the headmaster who warned me that if I continued to read May I would be thrown out of school!"
Today, Schmidt is the manager of the Rathen Open Air Theater outside Dresden. Last summer the theater staged a Winnetou play for the first time since 1939. It was packed.
In fact, throughout the former East Germany Karl May is suddenly being rediscovered. The tiny shoebox of a house in his birthplace has become a museum. The solid, bourgeois villa where he spent the last twenty years of his life in the Dresden suburb of Radebeul, has taken on the airs of a holy shrine. His books are bestsellers. East Germans can't get enough of May, Winnetou and Old Shatterhand.