Karl May, the Zane Grey of Germany

William Urban

Lee L. Morgan Professor of History

and International Studies

Monmouth College

"On my many journeys and distant travels I have often met persons, even among the so-called wild and half-civilized, who became true friends and of whom even today I hold a fond memory and will remember fondly to my death. But none holds my love better than Winnetou, the famous chief of the Apaches." (author’s translation)

So began Old Surehand, one of the greatest western novels ever written. It is not a novel that many Americans have read, or ever will read. First, it is an old-fashioned western novel, written ninety years ago by a contemporary of Zane Grey and Owen Wister. There is no sex, not much real violence. The translations are long out-of-date—almost unreadable. Second, Old Surehand was written by a German who never left his homeland, much less visited America, at the time he was writing. Consequently, he made "minor" errors in describing the geography, the customs, and the people which would distract many Americans from the marvelous plots of his tales. Nevertheless, Karl May had a profound effect on the way we Americans understand our western frontier experience.

How does one explain this? How does it happen that a man who is not famous in America has an impact on us? It is because the Karl May novels have been read by generations of German youth. In fact, he is the second most-published author in German history; only Martin Luther's Bible has been published more often. May's Winnetou is today still the most popular adventure novel in Germany, and it, together with Old Surehand and Old Shatterhand, is the foundation upon which Germans base their rather good understanding of the American West.

The undying popularity of May's novels manifests itself not only in the continual reprinting of the works, but by festivals held every summer. The most important of these is in Bad Segeberg, a small city in the northernmost state of Germany, Schleswig-Holstein. On the Kalkberg, a chack mountain where the Slavic princes of the Abrodites and the Germanic counts of Holstein each once raised great fortresses, the admirers of Karl May have built an open-air theater where nightly performances of Old Surehand, Old Shatterhand, and Winnetou are staged. Next to the theater is an "Apache Village." If one is broad-minded enough to encompass all American Indians under the name "Apache," then it is a fine exhibit. There are several tepees, totem poles, birch bark canoes, and many tools and weapons. The items are all authentic, or so nearly so that only an expert could tell if they were not. The souvenir hawkers are so perfectly dressed that only their speaking in German gives them away.

The festival and the village, like the novels, are for fun and should not be mistaken for serious undertakings. However, there was once a time when readers took the novels seriously and were led to think that the author was a major hero of the American West. Today we recognize the stories as outstanding fiction only—and there is some controversy as to whether they possess significant redeeming values, partly because the reaction to Nazism has been so strong that many Germans object to anything which could be considered to endorse traditional values. This is somewhat ironic, as will become apparent. Also, there are some people who just don't like western stories.

Those who like early western stories (i.e., before the discovery of sex and raw violence) will probably like Karl May. Through each novel in the series there runs a current of humor that never dries up—a veritable fountain of sly wit and fun. There are tall tales and exaggerations that should have won the author honorary citizenship in Texas.

An example of the gentle wit occurs when Old Shatterhand (who is clearly to be identified with Karl May himself) arrives in the cavalry camp on the edge of the Llano estacado (the staked plains of West Texas):

When they notice me, a non-commissioned officer came and brought me to the commander, who, being called upon, came out of the tent with his officers. While I dismounted, he looked at me and my horse and then asked, "Where are you from, Sir?"

"Down from the mountains."

"And where bound?"

"Down to the Pecos."

"That will be difficult for you, if we can't drive away the Comanches. Have you found any sign of Redskins?"


"Hm! They seem to have gone southwards. We've set here almost two weeks without a sight of them."

"Ass!" I could have said to his face, because if he wanted to find the Redskins, he had to seek them out. They would have been foolish to run right into his hands here. If the officer hadn't been able to find out where they were, at least the Comanches knew exactly where he was. It had to be assumed that their scouts had spied out his camp at night. As if the commander had guessed a part of my thoughts, he continued: "We need a good scout, one I can rely on and who can find them for me. Old Wabble spent a night here. He would have been the right man for me. But he left before I learned who he was. The fellow figured out what I wanted and called himself Cutter. And a week ago a party came across Winnetou, the Apache. He would have been even better, but he left immediately. Wherever he's seen, Old Shatterhand isn't far away. I wish he would come along. What's your name, Sir?"


One should not expect cavalry officers to be very bright in a Karl May novel, but they should have recognized the extraordinary horse and weapons belonging to Old Shatterhand.

Humor is also found in situations, often in the middle of danger. When Old Shatterhand and the aged "Westmann," Old Wabble, swim out to rescue Old Surehand from Comanche imprisonment on an island in West Texas, this occurs:

We needed to creep under the raft only when we were so near the island that we could be seen by the guards. So for the moment we swam freely and pushed it ahead of us. I watched Old Wabble to see if he could really swim as well as he said. It might be all right. But after a time I noticed that his side of the raft sank deeper than mine.

"You're laying on it too much." I said. "Are you tired, Mr. Cutter?"

"Tired? What an idea!" he responded. "My damned braces are bothering me."

"In addition to a belt, who needs suspenders?"

"You don't understand. One can't get by in the West without a belt, but I don't have any hips that can hold up a belt. With my figure! Where are my hips?"

I still couldn't quite figure out why his suspenders should bother him so much in swimming, and was quiet, but not long afterwards he got more onto the raft so that ;my side came completely out of the water. I asked him, "Turn back, Mr. Cutter. There is still time. It's too much for you."

"Nonsense! Can't you see I'm going like a fish?"

"Because I am pushing the raft you're hanging onto!"

"That seems to be so. These braces! I'm going to let them down. Then it'll be better."

While he held onto the raft with one hand, with the other he took off the suspenders and put them into his pockets. They seem to have bothered and hindered him, because now it went better. Clearly I heard him gasping. He appeared to be straining. When I remarked about it, he assured me, "That is only one Lung. It's that loud sometimes. The other is good."

Now we swam a good five minutes without saying a word. Then I noticed that the old man was again lying deep in the water.

"Do you feel you are getting tired, Sir?" I asked.

"Is that any wonder? My clothes are dragging in the water behind me--the devil, what is that!" He grabbed the raft and reached back with one hand.

"What are you seeking, Sir?"

"I'm looking--ha--stop, Mr. Shatterhand. I have to put on my braces again."


"Because I'm losing my pants. They're coming half off me."

Karl May was enjoying himself writing these adventure stories—the first time in his life he could enjoy himself. Born in 1842 in the Harz Mountains of Saxony, the 5th of 14 children of a desperately poor weaver, he had a difficult childhood and youth. Much brighter than others of the village, he had dreams that far surpassed his possibilities. He wanted to be someone important, someone great. He wanted to travel, to have adventures. All that seemed impossible.

The school offered him his only hope for escape from a life of hard work, low pay, and boredom. More studious than the other pupils, he learned quickly and well. His teachers encouraged him to study for the highest occupation they could imagine which was available to a bright but poor boy from a country village—to become a schoolteacher. In Saxony that was a relatively honored career, and relatively well-paid.

In September, 1861, at the age of 19, May completed his university studies. He was not successful as a teacher, however, Why, we can only guess. Perhaps his ambitions were too great to be satisfied with such a minor achievement; perhaps his superiors noticed his tendency to dream and to invent fantastic stories of his own achievements. Whatever the reason, he was fired in 1862. That fall he served a six week jail term for a minor offense.

The twenty-year-old Karl May then disappeared from view—disappeared for good reason: the police were after him! Only in 1864 do we have accurate information about his whereabouts and activities. He was then again in Saxony, working a confidence game on tailors and shopkeepers. Taking up residence in a hotel or private home, he would order expensive new clothes and fur coats, and have them sent to his address. While the delivery boy waited for payment, May would excuse himself for a moment, gather up his belongings, his new clothes, anything handy that he could find in the hotel, and disappear. Naturally, he did not pay his hotel bills either. Disposing of the goods was a different matter, however, and in 1865 a suspicious buyer called the police. They searched his rooms and found the booty from his many forays. He was sentenced to four years in prison.

Karl May later claimed that he had been convicted unfairly, that there was merely a misunderstanding about a gold watch that had been given him. The court saw it differently. He was taken to the work house in Chemnitz.

Time did not hang heavy on prisoners there. This was a model prison, which trained its inmates in many different trades. It also had a school for the brighter prisoners, and a library of 2000 volumes, almost all history, geography, and religion. Karl May read deeply. But for what goal? His career as a schoolteacher was at an end.

He was released a year early, in November, 1868, under a general amnesty for model prisoners. He returned home briefly, and then disappeared without first informing the police officials of his new address, as was required. His good behavior ceased. Soon surrounding communities were visited by a strange policeman, who claimed to be a member of the secret police who was investigating counterfeiting. He would ask a householder to show him whatever 10 Thaler notes he possessed. He would inspect them, declare them to be false banknotes, and confiscate them. The outraged victims demanded that the police act, which was difficult, because the descriptions varied so widely as to suggest that the criminal was a master of disguise. There was a pattern to the crime, however, that indicated Hohenstein-Ernstthal was the base of the operation. The local police therefore suspected that the absent Karl May was involved.

The situation was complicated by an outbreak of "Karl May" robberies. There were at least three genuine Karl Mays, outlaws by the same name, who lived in the region. As other criminals fobbed off their crimes onto "Karl Mai," he became more famous than he actually deserved to be.

It was just at that moment that he met a father and son from Pittsburgh, who invited him to come to America as a tutor for the boy. He traveled as far as Bremen, hoping to take a boat to the west, but he was not allowed to embark. He had no passport, and passports could be issued only by the local police. They were not about to issue him one now! And the shipping company knew that the authorities at Ellis Island would send back everyone without documents at their expense, so they would not let him on board. Walking most of the way home, he discovered wanted posters bearing his name and face, and listing his crimes. To get away quicker, he added another offense to his list—horsetheft.

In the spring of 1869 May was captured, surprised while sleeping uninvited in the backroom of an inn. The police were coming in when May awoke and pulled out his pistol. Fortunately it misfired, or he would have paid with his life for the murder. Once in custody, Karl May did not appear too dangerous. A small man, tired, thin from hunger and hard walking, the law officers decided against sending the usual armed escorts as he was led from town to town for the citizens to identify as the culprit of the many thefts and armed robberies (many of which he did not and could not have committed), as well as the con games. It was a mistake for the police to be so sure of themselves, and Karl was able to overpower the lone policeman, break the iron chain from his wrist, and escape into the woods of the Harz Mountains. He no longer had his fancy clothes, his false beard, and his weapons, but he was free.

He spent the summer of 1869 in the forests near his home. His hideout was a cave, a nest for robbers of the distant past. His father brought him supplies from time to time, whenever he was not watched. Once twenty-five policemen searched the area, and later five hundred men assembled for a shooting festival scoured the hills. Karl May eluded them all. He was becoming skilled in the ways of the woodsman, and had many narrow escapes that later were used in his books.

His very survival depended on his being able to move through the forests undetected, and to find food there. Also he often visited his fiancee in a nearby town, slipping in unseen. No Indian could have done better.

Winter was a different matter altogether, and so May came out with a new confidence game. Impersonating a returning immigrant from America, he wandered through the German states surrounding Saxony. It was not altogether successful. One night, exhausted and penniless, he took refuge in an attic. Discovered by the owner, he was arrested. Although he persisted in his cover story, the police eventually identified him as the much sought-after Karl May.

He was given another four year term in prison, this time in the maximum security pen in Zwickau. The social workers put him to hard labor and occasionally in solitary confinement to observe his behavior. However, even in Zwickau, "reform" was the word, not "punishment." It was fortunate that this was the case. As often happens in the world, out of a desperate situation in which all appeared hopeless came something that gave May a purpose in life and eventually led to fame and happiness. May started to write. Soon he learned that the same talent which could deceive shopkeepers, old women, and worldly-wise policemen could entertain an audience. His Harz Mountain Stories titillated readers with mildly shocking and gossipy tales about the mountain folk he knew. The Dresden publisher, Münchmeyer, liked his style and commissioned him to write a series of penny dreadfuls. When May was released, he returned to Saxony, to big cities where he was still unknown. He told no one about his past, but led everyone to think that he had been traveling abroad. From the stories he told, based on his prison reading, he learned that he had a remarkable talent for spinning adventure tales about countries he had been visited. By the early 1880's he had made a success of himself..

His first tales were set in the Near East, and later in Africa and the Far East. His heroes always narrated the story in the first person, and it was no secret that the hero was actually Karl May himself. The small, handsome man with the high forehead and white mustache was only reporting what he had seen and experienced in those exotic parts. His favorite hero was Old Shatterhand, a small German intellectual with a high forehead and a white mustache, who was the best shooter and tracker the American West had ever seen (except for Winnetou, who died in 1874 shortly after being converted to Christianity by Old Shatterhand). To eliminate any doubt about the true identity of the hero, Karl May named his country home in Dresden-Radebeul Villa Shatterhand.

He did not assume this identity quickly, and perhaps not willingly. One of the first hints came in a novel when a character recognized Old Shatterhand as a German Scholar he had met previously—"You had, if I'm not mistaken, two names, your real one and another—and your family name? If I'm not mistaken, weren't you named after one of the twelve months?" "March, I said."

Later his fans practically assaulted his house. 600, 700, 800 visitors a day filed through his museum and many asked to shake his hand. Hundreds of letters arrived with questions and requests for his autograph—no, not his autograph, but Old Shatterhand's autograph. Therefore, he finally "confessed"—"I have really visited each country and speak the language of the peoples.... The figures which I described either lived or are still living, and they were my true friends." Further, he said, "I still bear the scars of the wounds I received."

Lastly, he boasted of his learning: "I speak and write French, English, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Rumanian, six dialects of Arabic, Persian, two dialects of Kurdish, six dialects of Chinese, Malayan, Namaqua, some Sunda idioms, Swahili, Hindi, Turkish, and the Indian languages of the Sioux, Apache, Comanche, Snakes, Utes, Kiowas, and three South American dialects. I won't count Lapplandish. How many nights of work this cost me? I still work three nights through each week—Monday from 6 AM until 12 AM Tuesday, and so Wednesday to Thursday, and Friday to Saturday."

His greatest literary success came after Buffalo Bill's Wild West toured Germany in the 1890's. Karl May recognized in the American West a better setting for his stories than he had employed so far. In 1893 he published Winnetou, which, with 6,000,000 copies sold, made it the run-away best-seller of the century. It was translated into twenty-five languages among which was English. It sold well in the United States, too, especially among the immigrant population.

Now one of the most prominent writers in the country, May became a popular guest and speaker. He always talked about morality and manliness, about Christianity and courage, and he never failed to have a new story from his many adventures. Politicians and intellectuals alike applauded him—or rather applauded Old Shatterhand, the model of uprightness and clean living that lead infallibly to straight shooting, a knock-out punch, and the ability to outwit any villain.

This impersonation of Old Shatterhand climaxed between 1896 and 1899, when his popularity was at its height, and when the public gave him little choice other than to play the role. It was a most dangerous role, of course, and brought forth an increasing number of attacks by those who doubted his truthfulness. Even these enemies at first limited their charges to exaggeration, and few doubted that he had at least visited the places he described, that he had at least heard of stories similar to those he wrote. He was physically strong, and his iron grip wrung the hand of more than one doubter who confronted him in the reception lines. In short, it was much like the role a Hollywood star is required to play. Karl May, alias Old Shatterhand, was required to be the model for German youth.

The model, unfortunately, had a past. It was the secret past of the unreformed confidence man, Karl May. The pose could be maintained long, perhaps indefinitely, if he had remained a small town journalist, or a hack-writer of dime novels. But as Old Shatterhand, the moral hero of German youth, Karl May was inevitably doomed. How could he admit that he had learned his tracking while hiding from the police, and that his fabled shooting skill consisted of one shot at a lawman with a gun that misfired?

After a year of attacks on his books, the truth about his life came out in 1900. Vengefully, the black headlines blared out the dreadful story of his thefts, his confidence games, his arrests, and his imprisonments. Not content with the truth alone, the yellow press accused him of infidelity, homosexual tendencies, forgery, and other assorted moral crimes.

Karl May fought back. He got many persons to concede that his personal success in life should be an inspiration to others who had equally bad starts. He admitted that his books were fiction, that in "a series of 30-40 books, no rational man should have the idea that one single person could have experienced all that. No." Only a fool could take his books for biography.

Nevertheless, the moral puritans and the yellow press would not allow him to escape punishment for his long impersonation of Old Shatterhand, and his denials were not so clear and straight-forward that one could be absolutely certain that he was not the world's greatest shooter and tracker. The confidence man Karl May was uncovered, but not yet defeated. A long controversy ensued.

The attacks on his past gave new life to the already lively controversy about the worth of his books. More and more critics began to consider his writings as rubbish, rubbish that could only harm young readers. That is an opinion that still persists today among literary critics: that the dime novel is trash. Perhaps Karl May was neither Old Shatterhand nor Leo Tolstoi, but he had his share of courage and resourcefulness and he knew how to write. He fought back in the press, in personal appearances, and by publishing more books. Finally, when the attacks went beyond all decent bounds, he sued.

The libel suit probably opened more controversy than it resolved, and dragged on for twelve years. It revealed that May had not converted Winnetou to Christianity, that he had never been to the Black Hills, to St. Louis, or to Texas. However, May's claim that he had indeed been to America repeated shook the defensive attorneys, who in consternation asked for an adjournment to rethink their situation. He had indeed made 22 visits to "Amerika," but all of them to a small village by that name in Saxony! To the real America he went only once, in 1908, after his western novels were all in print.

May proved to be a remarkably difficult witness. Asked if he stole after he was released from prison, he said "no." Naturally everyone was surprised, because the record indicated otherwise. But he explained later that he had been released from the work house, not from prison. With such hair-splitting, he dragged the case out, until he finally won, in 1912.

The libel suit probably had less to do with clearing May's reputation than the mere passing of time did. After a decade of controversy, there seemed to be little more to be said. His novels could be judged on their own merit, aside from the question of their being biographical novels or travellers' tales. Also May was on the point of death, passing away within a year of his legal victory. He was given one last triumph, a literary prize awarded by the Austrian Emperor. May traveled to Vienna, where three thousand prominent men and women listened to his speech and applauded.

After his death, the Villa Shatterhand became the Karl May Museum. For many years it was an important tourist center, one rivaling the museums and neo-classical buildings in Dresden's center; and after the bombing of 1945, it was almost the only one to escape intact. Nevertheless, relatively few tourists visited Villa Shatterhand until after German reunification in 1990. The government of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) did not approve of Karl May's middle-class, Christian philosophies and consequently gave little money for the Villa's upkeep. They kept it open, as a "Indianermuseum," because the many Indian artifacts were still of scientific interest, but they sold all of May's personal effects in 1960 to the West German publisher of May's books. It was, therefore, only in 1995 that visitors could again see May's study in its original condition. The extensive restoration cost DM250,000 ($190,000).

Naturally, his books made their way onto film. Lex Barker starred in six movies based Old Shatterhand between 1963 and 1968, and Stewart Granger portrayed Old Surehand in 1965. Not bad movies, if you don’t mind seeing totem poles and birch-bark canoes in an Apache village. Not in academy award categories, but no gratuitous sex or violence. His moral was always, real men stand tall, fight fair, bathe and wear clean clothes. Bad guys slouch, cheat, and always look dirty; or they wear excessively fancy clothes that shout, "watch out for this crumb!"

Still, May's influence was not always good. Like Tarzan and other turn-of-the-century heroes, the Karl May creations were Supermen, and doubtless fed the Superman myth that already existed in the Germany of Kaiser Bill. Hitler thought so highly of his heroes that when the generals in Stalingrad were surrounded by their overwhelming foe, Hitler radioed them to read Karl May to see how real fighters would conduct the battle!

No wonder that the East German government discouraged the Karl May cult. But that is surprising in another sense: the communists were true moral puritans, who deplored western books and movies, believing that they glorified cruelty and depravity; they considered movies of the American West even worse.

But for most critics, the question is not whether Karl May stories are suitable, but whether any dime novel is good for youth to read. Not that adults and old people even do not read him, but for many years there was a particular age when one read Karl May—between 12 and 15. For a long time German psychologists called this the "Karl May phase," a period in which youngsters read literature that allows them to identify with powerful, superhuman heroes. But that is not the only reason that people read his novels. He wrote exciting prose. No one ever had to wait around for the action to begin.

When Old Shatterhand caught up with the evil Comanches, he described it thus:

It was high time that we got under way, because Old Surehand and his Apaches had already vanished from sight. The cavalry formed a line that would widen out during the ride into a half-circle. I placed myself at the front and went forward at a gallop over the worn down path to Hundred Trees.

We arrived so quickly that the Redskins were completely surprised and had no time to think. We flew like a storm over the plain, quiet and noiseless. Only the hoofbeats could be heard. The ground disappeared behind us. Our line bowed. The two points went ahead faster than the middle. We approached the camp with growing speed. They looked at us, without being able to see who we were. Then, when the Comanches saw that they had to deal with palefaces, they raised a penetrating howl, grasped their weapons, and ran to their horses. Too late, however, because our half-circle had already closed. Now they tried to retreat. Then there rang over the whole camp and out into the desert the war-cry of the Apaches. It sounded like a high-pitched, drawn-out Hiiiii, made by striking the hand repeatedly against the mouth. When the Comanches heard this yell, they fled back from the bushes, because they knew they were trapped on this side too.

Naturally, Old Shatterhand remained master of the situation and brought about the Comanche surrender without a single casualty. But that was not easy, and required using all his knowledge and cunning. Knowing that the Comanche chief would resist to the last, he pointed out the hopeless situation, and then threatened to hang him. That shook the chief, but did not overcome his pride. Then Old Shatterhand threatened to scalp him, and finally to "burn his medicine." His life was nothing, but his honor and his immortality were important. Besides, he was surrounded, and he had to save the lives of his braves. He laid down his arms.

Karl May also equipped his heroes with marvelous weapons. Old Shatterhand's Henry (bought in St. Louis) fired 100 rounds a minute, held a magazine of 25 shots, and was effective at over 1500 yards! Moreover, the bullets were so small that Old Shatterhand could carry 1728 rounds on his person. Public excitement was further aroused by periodic announcements that the secret design would be given to the German Army. Old Shatterhand also carried a bear gun of fabulous destructive power. And in his photographs, Karl May (Alias Old Shatterhand) usually carried six revolvers as well as the two heavy weapons. All this firepower, the unusual clothing, the white mustache—and still the cavalry officer did not recognize him!

No wonder that so many people still read the books! It may be like a fairy-tale, that the heroes are too strong and too smart, that they ride and shoot too well, and that they are immune to death by shooting, drowning, and literary criticism...but if so, what would we rather have youth use as models?—the drug-using, amoral, gang types that seem to be increasingly dominating our towns and cities?

Like Zane Grey, who also began writing about the west without having visited it, his works are filled with a marvelous combination of realism, imagination, and idealism. Karl May created an American West that never was, or could have been—but it was a picture that for many people was the true West. This picture has come down to us through the medium of Hollywood. The Jewish producers and movie moguls who immigrated from Germany and made Hollywood the movie center of the world, who were they reading while they were young? Karl May, of course. Old Shatterhand's Hatatitla was a smarter wonder horse than Trigger, and Gabby Hayes could be the spitting image of Old Wabble. The weapons were marvelous, unique to their owners, and not to be duplicated. The men never needed to chase after women, to wash, or even to shave. They were always polite, honest, ready for an emergency, and always on hand just at the right moment. Impossible scenes, unlikely plots, and cardboard characters—all were there—but what wonderful stories!


Websites are numerous, with new ones coming on all the time. Two to look at:

http://www.winnetou.tv/ Karl May publishing house. In German.

http://www.karl-may-stiftung.de/treffen.html List of meetings of Karl May fans.

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