By Nino Lo Bello
February 9. 1968
WEST BERLIN GERMANY – Was ist los Geronimo? Wie geht’s, Davy Crockett? Guten Morgen, Herr Sitting Bull.
Achtung, the Old West has come to Germany. Call it “cowboy-ism” or whatever you want, but here when a tall bowlegged stranger in a 10-gallon hat rolls a cigarette with one hand and twirls a six-shooter in the other, you’re in the wild and wooly Deutschland.
Yup, go into one of the Wild West hobby clubs that dot this country and don’t be surprised to find a couple of cowpokes mulling around a card table - on which a pot of knockwurst is boiling. You may have walked in on the meeting of the local Cowherren and Injung Bund being presided over by Herr President Curt “Chief Red Cloud”Noehauer – with the minutes of the meeting being recorded by Herr Secretary Hans Meindl, who calls himself “Schnell Fuss” (in western lingo that comes out, Swift Mocassin)
‘Corn on Cob’
This country has gone cowboy-loco. Germans today probably know more about the folklore, history, customs and ethnology of the early Noth American West than many Americans do. Mention the name of Gen. George C. Custer to a German paleface today and he’s likely to respond with a rousing “Him good man!” and then proceed to show his savvy by telling you more about Custer’s Last Stand that Custer himself ever knew.
Much of this love-affair with the Old West is due to a German writer who penned 70 novels (probably with an eagle feather), most of them about cowboys and Indians, which have sold nearly 20 million copies and which are now being made movies right here on location in Berlin. Although he went to the last roundup in 1912, Karl May these days is Germany’s best selling author. His books have never been translated into English.
Filled with inaccuracies and anachronisms (such as Abe Lincoln’s “problem” with the Apaches, or the “wars” between the Mohawk Indians of Upper New York and the Navajos of Arizona), the Karl May books are strictly corn-on-the-cob, but they have now had three generations of avid fans.
Tenderfoots like Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Richard Strauss, Albert Schweitzer, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler were known to have been Karl May readers. Hitler even had a seven feet of book shelves in his library devoted to Karl May, and it is believed he read every single line of each book.
Oddly enough, maverick May wrote nearly all of his Wild West novels long before he had a chance to visit the United States. He made the first trip with money he had earned on his cowboy stories. That he did not incorporate more errors and fluff into his westerns is indeed surprising. His fans forgive him anyway – even is frontiersmen like John C. Fremont (1913-1890) did have a spat with Pocahontas (1595-1617) in one of the books, or if Kit Carson (1809-1868) did reminisce about his boyhood in a description of Dodge City (founded in 1872).
Karl May’s most popular book is a trilogy called “Winnetou” which is about a redskin – do good Indian chief who roams the wide-open spaces on his hoss with a white man sidekick called “Old Shatterhand” both of whom fight the bad guys with their quick wits and their quick Winchesters. The Winnetou yarns – which are now on celluloid with an American actor who used to play Tarzan (Lex Barker), as the white scout – are full of fantastic episodes and a mishmash of hairbreadth adventures during which they take turns saving each other.
This quotation from the first chapter (a description of what a “tinhorn” is) is typical of the Karl May prose style: “A tinhorn is an hombre who loads his rifle by putting in the shells upside down: who very stilled English and who hates Yankee talk; who after being slapped by an Irishman runs to the sheriff instead of beating him to the draw…”
There’s on thing however, neither Karl May nor the script writers for the Winnetou movies have not been able to figure out. And that is, how do you say in German. Podner, “They went that-a-way.”