Wild West Adventure from Germany! - Karl May
- "I suppose you know what a tenderfoot is. He is one who speaks good
English, and wears gloves as if he were used to them. He also has a
prejudice in favor of nice handkerchiefs and well-kept finger-nails;
he may know a good deal about history, but he is liable to mistake
turkey-tracks for bear-prints, and, though he has learned astronomy,
he could never find his way by the stars. The tenderfoot sticks his
bowie-knife into his belt in such a manner that it runs into his
thigh when he bends; and when he builds a fire on the prairie he
makes it so big that it flames as high as a tree, yet feels
surprised that the Indians notice it." (from Winnetou, the Apache
German adventure author shared tales (some tall) of America
By SARAH HANAN / The Dallas Morning News
RADEBEUL, Germany America's Wild West is kicking in eastern
In this quiet town northwest of Dresden, lassos and a certified
Texas flag hang in a German pub that calls itself a saloon. A man
dressed as an American Indian smiles down from billboards pitching
Freiberger beer. "Bad guys" on horseback have been known to attack
the historic steam engine that puffs through this rolling Saxon wine
country, only to be driven off by the cavalry.
And behind a centuries-old church, totem poles and wolves of stone
point the way to the Karl May Museum, a tribute to the local legend
who wrote wildly popular adventure stories about the American
frontier without ever actually having seen it. Only a few of his top
sellers have been translated into English, including Winnetou and
The Oil Prince , but his more than 80 works are estimated to have
sold almost 100 million copies, mainly in central Europe.
His fans included Albert Einstein and Adolf Hitler, and his writings
have been made into plays and movies whose characters still pop up
in TV commercials.
"Almost everybody used to read Karl May," says museum curator Hans
Grunert. "He captures this great feeling of adventure and freedom.
It used to be that people couldn't afford to travel around the
world, so they loved to read his books about foreign places and
"Kids these days, they don't read much anymore, but they know his
characters from TV."
Karl May (pronounced "my") bought a villa in Radebeul in 1895 on
Church Street, now Karl May Street, at the height of his literary
career and worked there until his death in 1912 at age 70. He called
his home Villa Shatterhand in honor of one of his first-person
heroes, a German cowboy with a mighty fist named Karl who earned his
nickname fighting evil on the frontier with his Indian friend
Winnetou. Inside Villa Shatterhand, fact blurs even more with
fiction as it did in Mr. May's life, which is recounted in a
timeline on the second floor.
In 1862, Mr. May was a financially struggling schoolteacher who lost
his license after being jailed for the theft of a roommate's pocket
watch. He spent more than seven of the next 13 years in jail,
charged with impersonating a police detective and a medical doctor,
among others. Biographers say he probably developed his literary
talent behind bars, reading travel stories and the novels of James
By the time Mr. May bought his villa, his Western tales and others
set in Arabia, which star Kara (Karl) Ben Nemsi, had made him a 19th-
century celebrity. His reception rooms and upstairs study and
library, all historically restored in 1985, are packed with travel
books, maps, animal skins, ornate furniture and other alleged
souvenirs of his adventures as these characters. Mr. May didn't
visit the Middle East, however, until 1899 or the United States
until 1908, and then just the Northeast.
Here, too, are the portraits Mr. May had commissioned of himself
dressed as Old Shatterhand and Kara Ben Nemsi. Displayed in a glass
case before them are the Old West's "most famous weapons": the
Silver Nails Rifle, Bear Killer and the Henry Short Rifle, which Mr.
May had made in Dresden. None can be safely fired, and, as careful
fans wondered, wasn't old Silver Nails buried with Winnetou in
America at the end of the third volume? Mr. May's tricks were
exposed before his death, but that didn't seem to hurt his
On this visit, most tourists are graying German men trying to
explain their favorite childhood books and movies to their somewhat
reluctant kids in tow.
The Western movies, filmed in the 1960s in Croatia, starred Pierre
Brice as Winnetou and Lex Barker (better known to Americans as
Tarzan) as Old Shatterhand.
Mr. May's books, with their many long descriptive phases, aren't an
easy read even in English. They contain stereotypes and historical
inaccuracies; in Winnetou, for example, the Apaches live in pueblos.
But what's strange, really, is how much he imagined correctly.
"When you read May's books as a youngster, you don't know what's
right from what's wrong," says Mr. Grunert. "You just get a sense of
excitement, of true friendships and understanding of other people.
When you grow up and travel to these places, then you notice the
Behind Villa Shatterhand, the kids visiting with their folks seem to
be having more fun playing hide-and-seek in a tepee and climbing on
an Indian statue in front of a large log cabin. This is Villa
Bärenfett (Bearfat), which the museum guides describe as the largest
collection devoted to North American Indians in Europe. Mr. May's
wife, Klara, bought the artifacts from an Austrian adventurer and
May fan and opened the cabin in 1928.
"Europe developed a romantic ideal of America's Indians in the 18th
and 19th centuries," says Mr. Grunert, "a lot of which was later due
to Karl May. He showed them as an oppressed people facing
extinction, and his readers are sympathetic."
Inside Villa Bärenfett are numerous animal heads, a stuffed brown
bear named Mischka from a German zoo and an impressive display of
Indian tools, clothing, canoes and weapons organized by tribe and
The exhibit concludes with a moving tribute to the sufferings of the
Lakota and Cheyenne after the Battle of Little Big Horn. A video
plays in English, which the guides will kindly turn up over the din
of the steady stream of tourists.
More than 90,000 people, most of them Germans, visit the museum
The materials accompanying the exhibits are otherwise all written in
German, though the displays can be enjoyed as visuals alone. For
those interested in an in-depth English tour, museum guide Andre
Kohler can lead groups of up to 25 for about $60.
Before heading a few blocks away to Mr. May's gravesite in the city
cemetery, good May fans stroll across the street through Karl May
Park, which has seen better days, and then fuel up around the corner
at Karl May Saloon. Wild Turkey and Jack Daniel's are on the menu
here next to local wines, and Western music blares over speakers. A
waitress in a cowboy hat serves chicken wings, spare ribs and chili,
which owner Doris Herenz learned to make from the wife of an
American based in Radebeul on business.
Residents and tourists alike love the food, the scene and the line-
dancing lessons upstairs, says Mrs. Herenz. "It's a dream for us
all," she says. "A dream of the Wild West, of freedom, to live there
in big spaces and wander."
The Strange Life and Legacy of Karl May:
As Herman Hesse once noted of May, "He is the most brilliant
representative of a truly original type of fiction -- fiction as
Karl May (1842-1912)
There are many Web sites devoted to various aspects of Karl May and
his works in German and English. Our listing below is divided into
several categories. In addition to the many Web links below, don't
forget to look at these Karl May pages from your Guide: