The Daily Beast: The Cowboy Novels that Inspired Hitler

The Cowboy Novels that 
Inspired Hitler
The adventure stories of Karl May set in 
the American Southwest have charmed 
millions of Germans, but especially Hitler,
who patterned Nazi policies on their plots. 
ALAN GILBERT 08.20.16 10:01 PM ET
The aura of Indian names—Massachusetts, Monangahela, 
Arapahoe County, Mississippi, Minnesota—hangs over
America, even after the indigenous people are often gone.
A Founding Amnesia has long erased the stories of Native
Americans in history texts and the media. From silent
 movies until the ’60s, “cowboys and Indians”—
John Wayne as a hero, “Apache blood” as a sign of
“savagery”—were fixtures and fixations of Hollywood
films, the last bastion of the ugly, 19th century military
watchword Manifest Destiny.

Thanks to the resistance of the American Indian 
Movement, however, the record has been corrected, 
at least in part, to reflect the actual stories of white 
America’s encounters with native people: tales of 
expropriation, admirable resistance, and genocide
 from coast to coast. Nonetheless, the Smithsonian 
still has a collection of 20,000 indigenous 
skulls, cut off in massacres, the flesh boiled
down. Many had initially been sent to Dr. 
Samuel George Morten to concoct 19th century 
anthropometry, a pseudo-science of 
“racial” measurements alleging “Anglo-Saxon” 
superiority. But in 1990, Congress at last passed 
NAGPRA, the Native American Grave Protection 
and Repatriation Act. Slowly, slowly, body parts
are being returned to indigenous communities 
for burial.

The U.S. is not alone, however, in whitewashing 
its encounters with Native Americans. Most 
remarkably, perhaps, the ethnic cleansing of 
the “Wild West” has long been an exotic theme 
in Germany for more than a century thanks
largely to the novels of a very strange man 
named Karl May—which were beloved by 
none other than Hitler.

Born in 1842, May was the fifth child of an 
impoverished weaver from Saxony. He was 
also a fluid imposter. In 1859, after pilfering 
candles and then a watch, May was deprived
 of his first job as a teacher. He then 
masqueraded as a police lieutenant investigating 
counterfeiting: May would say a householder’s 
treasured 10 Thaler note was fake and make 
off with it. He also posed as a doctor and a 
notary’s assistant living in a hotel, ordering 
fur coats and other expensive, hand-sewn 
apparel, and abruptly stealing off without paying.

May was captured by the police but escaped.
 He lived in a cave in the woods near his home—
material for his later suspenseful tales—and 
narrowly evaded 500 would-be captors.

His elusiveness came to an end, however, when 
he was jailed from 1865 to 1869 in Osterstein 
Castle in Zwickau, a reform institution. There 
he spent much of his time in the prison library 
reading fantasy novels about America—James 
Fenimore Cooper and the like—histories, and 
travel books. He was again imprisoned in 
Waldheim, Saxony between 1870 and 1874. 
In 1876, after telling people he had been 
traveling abroad, he reinvented himself 
prolifically as a travel writer, a Catholic 
novelist—his five books sold on horseback
 by colporteurs—and an author in boys’ 

Equipped with a gorgeous imagination, 
May conjured fantasies of the Orient 
and with himself dressed up as the 
hero, Kara Ben Nemsi [Karl from 
Germany]. Between 1880 and 1888, 
he published an Orient cycle of six 
volumes. Prefiguring J.K. Rowling, 
he had made a list of plots to write, 
and at the age of 51 began to compose 
what could be called the Harry Potter
 books of Germany: the Winnetou
 novels, the first of which was published
 in 1893.

Set in an Aryanized American Southwest, 
these books center on the blood brotherhood 
of Old Shatterhand, a German surveyor, and 
Winnetou, a noble Mescalero Apache. 
Unsurprisingly, “Shatterhand’s” German name 
was Karl.

For the past 123 years, generations of 
German children have re-enacted the exploits
 of these heroes. May’s books, still in print, 
have sold 200 million copies. The ’60s 
Winnetou movies, which starred French 
actor Pierre Brice as Winnetou and American 
actor Lex Barker (a former Tarzan) as 
Shatterhand, resuscitated the post-World War 
II German film industry. At Bad Segeburg, 
every summer since 1952, 300,000 fans attend 
a Karl May festival, as many as celebrate the 
Wagner Festival in Bayreuth.

May’s young German narrator was treated 
by other cowboys as a “greenhorn” who, 
like May, had only read about the West. 
But Old Shatterhand, as the narrator would 
soon be named, would surprise you. He 
could kill a grizzly bear or a maddened 
buffalo by himself where others scattered 
like leaves. He could shatter your jaw 
with a blow. He was no drunkard. And 
he had German efficiency compared to 
“shiftless American cowboys.”

May contrasted Winnetou’s nobility, too, 
to “untrustworthy Kiowas.”  Winnetou’s 
skin is not dark but a “subdued, light brown 
with [but] a tinge of bronze”—and to drive 
home the point, the series is subtitled “The 
Red Gentleman.” As he is dying, Winnetou 
is converted to Christianity, while settlers sing 
“Ave Maria” over this frontier Christ-figure. 
In Edward Said’s phrase, he is an “Orientalized” 
indigenous person (May also set novels in 
the Middle East) as imagined by a predatory 
Occidental culture. In May’s novels, as in so 
much American history teaching, indigenous 
people do not speak diversely for themselves.

A wide variety of Germans, including Karl 
Liebknecht, Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, 
and Hitler, loved the May novels. Even today, 
many young people, notably women, are drawn 
to Winnetou.

Aping the horrific beliefs of American Manifest 
Destiny, which saw the “Anglo-Saxon race” 
push its frontier all the way to the Philippines, 
May imagined indigenous Americans as romantically
—and inevitably—doomed, with Winnetou’s nobility 
passing away irrevocably.

Klekih-Petra, another German who flees into the 
American wilderness, also loves Winnetou and 
dies with the Apaches. He sees the hopelessness 
of their struggle:

I saw the Indian desperately resist his destruction. 
I saw the murderers tearing at his intestines, and 
my heart filled with anger, compassion and pity. 
He was doomed; I could not save him. But I 
could make his death easier; I could bring the 
radiance of love and reconciliation to his final hour.
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Shatterhand was drawn to Nsho-tshi, Winnetou’s
sister. He describes her beauty, too, as European:

There was no trace of the high cheekbones common 
among Indians. The soft, warm, and full cheeks came 
together in a chin whose dimples would have suggested 
playfulness in a European woman… When she opened 
her beautifully shaped mouth in a smile, her teeth 
glistened like pure ivory. The delicate flare of her 
nostrils seemed to point to Greek rather than Indian 
descent. The color of her skin was light copper-bronze 
with a touch of silver.
Nsho-tshi tried to go to St. Louis to learn about white
women, to become good enough to marry the Aryan
hero. But she was murdered by the grasping Yankee
Santer on the way. May allowed no sex or
“race-mixing” between “superior” and “savage.”
Like indigenous Americans, Shatterhand values wild
nature: Unlike white American frontiersmen, he does
not slaughter the buffalo with repeating rifles. And that,
too, with humans being the bizarre exception, was an
important Nazi value.
But however strong, Shatterhand does not kill people.
Yet Winnetou takes revenge and scalps Parranoh, the
murderer of a woman he loved. Shatterhand is bemused
 by this sign of Winnetou’s “savagery.” For, like his
German hero, May himself was a man of peace, a
 Christian who eschewed killing.
In 1893, at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago,
historian Frederick Jackson Turner of the University of
Wisconsin famously lectured on settlers killing Indians
across the United States as they extended an ever-westward
 American frontier and how that frontier was coming to
 an end. He was in touch with Friedrich Ratzel, the German
 historian who coined the terms Biogeographie (biological
geography) and Lebensraum (a large, conquered space
for an otherwise constricted German life). This was to
be continental expansion and ethnic cleansing of “lesser”
Lebensraum was explicitly Turner’s idea of an
American-defining Western frontier transposed to a
German-defining East in Poland and Russia. For
both Turner and Ratzel, this was transcontinental,
settler colonialism, not some distant empire across
the seas. Ratzel was a founder of the Pan-German
League, which had unhappily seen German immigrants
settle in the Wild West, and imagined Germans surging
eastward in conquest during World War I like 13th
century Teutonic knights invading Poland. As Turner
reciprocally put it, “American colonization [of the West]
has become the mother of German colonial policy.”

Karl Haushofer, Ratzel’s student, taught Rudolf Hess,
who became Hitler’s secretary. When Hitler and Hess
were jailed for the Munich putsch of 1923, Haushofer
would give them five-hour tutorials on geopolitics each
week. It was then that Hitler began to speak of Lebensraum,
and Haushofer would subsequently propagate the idea
of Lebensraum widely in the Third Reich.

The Karl May novels had long possessed Hitler’s imagination.
As he recounts in Table Talk, I’ve just been reading a very fine 
article on Karl May. I found it delightful. It would be nice if 
his work were republished. I owe him my first notions of 
geography, and the fact that he opened my eyes on the world.
 I used to read him by candle-light, or by moonlight with the 
help of a huge magnifying-glass…The first book of his I read 
was The Ride Through the Desert. I was carried away by it. 
And I went on to devour at once the other books by the same
 author. The immediate result was a falling-off in my school 
As Fuehrer, Hitler kept the whole collection of May’s works
 in his bedroom, and they inspired his ideas about the frontier.
To Hitler, Lebensraum meant settlement and bread: “For a
man of the soil, the finest country is the one that yields the
finest crops. In twenty years’ time, European emigration will
no longer be directed towards America, but eastwards.”
Of Ukrainians, Hitler insisted, “There’s only one duty:
to Germanize this country by the immigration of Germans,
and to look upon the natives as Redskins.”
Astonishingly, Hitler’s idea of settling the eastern European
frontier even came decked out in the clichés of Western
conquest: “We’ll supply the Ukranians with scarves, glass
beads, and everything that colonial peoples like.”
In Ukraine, Nazi allies led by Stefan Bandera (whose statue
still looms in Kiev) murdered some 184,000 out of
187,000 Jews. The Nazis exported the killing of Jews
to the “Wild East.”
To justify the slaughter of Poles, Hitler conjured North America:
 “I don’t see why a German who eats a piece of bread should
torment himself with the idea that the soil that produces this bread
 has been won by the sword. When we eat wheat from Canada,
we don’t think about the despoiled Indians.”
German novels by Clara Viebig in the early 20th century made
Poles “blacks” because of their dark hair, Polish women
“seductresses.”As opposed to “blond” Aryans, the latter
were even imagined as “vampires.” Two leading genocidal
 impulses in America, toward Indians and blacks, became
one in German racism.
When Nazi troops were losing to the Soviet resistance, Hitler
sent 300,000 copies of Karl May novels to the officers, who
may have shaken their heads in disbelief. That was Hitler’s
 leading strategic thought: “The struggle we are waging there
against the [Soviet] Partisans resembles very much the struggle
in North America against the Red Indians. Victory will go
to the strong, and strength is on our side.”
Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, proclaimed, “The East is a
plantation of pure Germanic blood, the melting pot of all German
and Germanic tribes.” Hitler’s idea was to kill 30 or 40 million
Russians, confine the rest on reservations, and settle Aryan
farmers on the soil. Some 20 million Russians died in the Nazi
onslaught. Heinrich Boll, a wounded soldier and later Nobel
Prize-winning novelist, dreamed of “a colonial existence here
in the East after a victorious war.” Nazis commissioned books
 to “acquaint small children with the ideas behind the settlement
plan and transfer the cowboys-and-Indians romanticism of the
‘American West’ to eastern Europe.”
They settled some 400,000 Germans in Ukraine and Crimea. Settlers
took the keys to Ukrainian houses. But partisan resistance was too fierce.
Jews, said Hitler’s Governor General for Poland, Hans Frank, were
“flatfooted Indians,” and in 1939, Hitler forced 90,000 Jews into
the Lublin-Reservat[reservation/camp] in Poland—a maneuver modeled
on Kit Carson’s 1863 driving of the Navajos to the inarable
Bosque Redondo.
Hitler advocated eugenics or Social Darwinism. Focused on
anthropometry and IQ testing, eugenics was also the basis of
the American immigration law of 1924 that aimed to preserve
the “pure Nordic stock” of the United States, where 30 states
had laws against “miscegenation” (interracial marriage).
Between 1909 and 1979, California would sterilize 20,000
immigrant women for being “feeble-minded”; Hitler would
murder some 25,000 “defective” “Aryan” children and 300,000
mental patients as “wertlos” (devoid of value). There is
considerable interplay and overlap in American and German
academic life, politics and law between racist ideas and
practices—parallels that exist to this day. In Imperial Grunts: 
on the Ground with the American Military (2006), Robert
Kaplan eerily traces a 1931 map of the German Ost by Karl
Haushofer as parallel to the vast American empire of bases
today in what soldiers often name “Indian country.”
Donald Trump’s repeated refrains from the Right are drawn
from the Klan, Britain First, and the American National Alliance,
whose president, William Pierce, author of the Turner Diaries,
considered Hitler the greatest leader of the 20th century.
But the driving idea behind Hitler’s conception of Social
Darwinism was the extermination of American Indians in the
“Wild West.” And the vehicle for this was Karl May’s fantasy
novels. When Hitler went to celebrate at May’s gravesite in
Radebeul, he discovered that May’s best friend, buried next to
him, was Jewish. The Nazis dug up that corpse.
During the Cold War, American students, myself included, were
taught the silly idea that the Soviet Union and Germany were the
same, as opposed to the American “open society.” Eugenics and
the similarity of American and Nazi laws were whited out. Yet
students and some faculty have long fought American eugenics.
Only recently has there been scholarly recognition of colonial
genocide, brought home to Europe in the “Wild East.”
American scholars, diplomats, and politicians did not read Hitler
or put out of their minds any mention of Indians. They did not
notice the Karl May craze in Germany, much less connect it, as
Europeans do, to Hitler: there was, despite Indians dancing on
the German screen, no “Wild East.” They “forgot” all this because
settler-genocide was too close to home. And in Israel, the idea of
settler-colonialism, including comparison of Palestinians to
American Indians, also seized the imagination of leaders. They
do not know—I speak here as a Jew—the close connection to this
central Nazi idea and World War II.
Ever the imposter, May dressed as the cowboy Shatterhand and
named his house Villa Shatterhand. He had beautiful rifles made
like Shatterhand’s Baerentoeter—bear-killer—and told his listeners
 that he himself, a shrimpy 5’ 5,” was Shatterhand. He also possessed
the dead Winnetou’s rifle, a Silberbuechse/Silverbox (in November
2015, Pierre Brice’s “Silberbuechse” from the movies was auctioned
on German television for 65,000 euros). When asked for the hair of
Winnetou, May gave a happy visitor to his house black strands from
a stallion’s mane. He told large audiences he was an Apache chief.
He was fluent, he said, in some 40 languages: “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.”

Karly May Museum


For these impostures, the fantastic Karl May was no longer arrested.
It was, we might say, performance art.
In 1899, wealthy and at age 57, May, at last, visited Egypt. 
He found it dirty and distasteful.  In 1908, four years before
his death, he set foot at Niagara Falls and met a Tuscarora chief. 
In a photograph with Karl, the Tuscarora wore suspenders.  If only
Hitler’s fantasies about the Wild East had similarly
In 1911, shortly before his death, May sued a defamer who called
him a “born criminal.” A German court ruled in his favor: “But
such things would not be a crime in a poet, and I think Karl May
is a poet.”
May’s house and grave are now a museum at his birthplace in
Radebeul.  The public relations director, Andre Koehler, conjures
himself, as many do, an avatar. He wears a white shirt with
an Indian-head bolo tie, Wranglers, a mustang belt buckle, and
leather moccasins. With unintentional hilarity, Koehler intones:
“I was born a hundred years and one week after the death of
The May museum also featured scalps of Native Americans as
late as 2014, when, after years of protest, some were at last returned
to indigenous Americans for burial.
Alan Gilbert is John Evans Professor at the Josef Korbel School of 
International Studies, University of Denver, and author of
Democratic Individuality, Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy
and Black Patriots and Loyalists; Fighting for Emancipation 
in the War of Independence.