U.S. west, German imagination

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This is a guest opinion from the Iowa City Press-Citizen by UI history professor H. Glenn Penny

The relationships between Germans and American Indians over the last two centuries — and the many ways in which Germans helped to channel and shape pervasive notions and ideas about American Indians and the American West — will be the starting point for a broader discussion of “The American West of the Imagination” during the next WorldCanvass broadcast at 5 p.m. Friday in the Old Capitol Museum.

Every year, nearly a thousand or more Germans dressed like 19th-century American Indians gather in a forest clearing in one of Germany’s eastern states. These hobbyists spend their time socializing, exchanging information about their handicrafts, rituals and historic events, trading artifacts and taking classes in leatherwork, beadwork, and indigenous American languages, such as Lakota. “The Week,” as participants have called this event for decades, always titillates journalists, inspiring them to produce sensational accounts for their readers year after year.

This event, however, is only one recent manifestation of the German fascination with North American Indians.

That fascination was already well established in the early 19th century, when stories set among American Indians became popular among Germans, and literature about them ubiquitous. James Fennimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales” set the trend. They were immediately translated into German, and they quickly became classics of German literature, familiar to the literate classes in all German states across the 19th and 20th centuries.

A host of other translations and travel narratives focused on American Indians in German books, magazines and newspapers immediately followed Cooper’s work. By the middle decades of the 19th century, German naturalists, artists, journalists and others flocked to the American West, producing, in many cases, iconographic images of American Indians and the American West for both the United States and Europe.

A series of German novelists across the 19th century became best-selling authors by writing about the American West. The most prominent of these was Karl May, whose books sold more than 70 million copies by the 1980s, about 20 million more than Louis L’Amour. May’s books also inspired the most successful set of movies in postwar West Germany, a similar set in East Germany, and ultimately “The Manitou’s Shoe,” a spoof on those popular films that broke all records in the German film industry in 2003.

Such successes are not surprising when we recognize that by the turn of the 20th century, tales about American Indians were widespread in Germany. They were incorporated into the production of toys, theater, circus, high and low art and the new cinema. Across Germany, children of all ages “played Indian,” emulating characters in ethnologies, novels and theatrical productions. So too did adults, and not simply those individuals who joined the first hobby clubs in the early 20th century.

Well-known artists such as Georg Grosz, Otto Dix and Rudolf Schlichter, for example, turned to their childhood engagement with American Indians while dealing with their personal crises and the crises of modernity. Art historian Aby Warburg traveled to the Zuni Pueblo for the same reason; others like artist Max Ernst followed, while Adolf Hitler simply continued to read May’s “Winnetou” for insights into crisis situations, recommending it to his general staff during World War II.

American Indians, in short, became deeply ingrained in German culture, their stories became ciphers for modern struggles, and that long cultural history continued unabated until the present, providing the critical context for the popular success of “The Manitou’s Shoe,” the hobbyists who spend part of each summer at “The Week,” or the thousands of German tourists who flock to American Indian reservations and reserves every year.

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