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A Response to the Newspaper Rock Article

June 4th, 2011

I recently came across this article written by Rob Schmidt on Newspaper Rock

After much amusement, I could not resist the urge to set the record straight.

Rob Schmidt wrote:

In the introduction of the original “winnetou – the red gentlemen” from 1800 the author has a long prologue that the Native Culture is much better than the white conquerors. he describe the native culture as culture of honour and love to nature, and that he will inform all the people that this culture is much higher than our culture because they only take from nature what they need to survive – full of respect to mother nature! The bad guys in the story are mostly greedy white guys. And that opinion of an european is for my really surprising at that time.

Yes, the prologue is indeed long, but the above summation is far from accurate for Karl May wrote:

… If it is true that all living beings have a right to life, and this right is granted equally to the masses as well as to the individual, then the red man has that right no less than the white man. He may well speak out with authority about his social development in the context of his culture and according to his individuality. But it is openly stated that the Indian doesn’t possess the necessary qualities. Is that true? I say no! I don’t want to offer any proofs, since it is not my intent to write an all-encompassing dissertation on the subject. The white man has found time to evolve naturally. He went from hunter to herdsman, from herdsman to farmer and industrialist. But the red man did not find this time because it was not granted to him. Now he must make the giant leap from the lowest rung; that is, from hunter to the very top. And in making this demand on him, one has not considered that he could stumble and suffer life-threatening injuries. …


Rob Schmidt wrote:

As I understand it, May’s book portray a largely empty American West with a few bad ranchers, miners, and Indians who cause trouble. There’s no mention of the US government’s genocidal actions, Manifest Destiny, broken treaties, Trails of Tears, etc.

Any true Karl May enthusiast would immediately object to this oversimplified conception as the lengthy preface of “Winnetou I” refers to the genocide with the words

… To stand at a deathbed is a serious matter, a hundred times more serious when it is the deathbed of a whole race. That raises many, many questions. Foremost, what could this race have achieved had they been given the time and space to develop their inner and outer strengths? What unique cultures will be lost to mankind with their extinction? ….

and the broken treaties are likewise referred to with the following words

… White men came with sweet words on their lips, but at the same time with sharp knives in their belts and loaded guns in their hands. They promised love and peace, yet meted out hatred and bloodshed. The red man had to retreat step by step, ever further back. Oh, from time to time the authorities granted him rights in perpetuity on ‘his’ territory. But within a short time they drove him off again, further, always further back. They sometimes ‘bought’ his land and either didn’t pay him at all or bartered with worthless trade goods he couldn’t use. ….

Rob Schmidt writes

The first book shows you what you can expect. A good Apache tribe, mostly off-page, with made-up names and cultural traits. A bad Kiowa tribe, mostly on-page, with murderous savages. And nothing else–no mention of the hundreds of tribes that existed across the continent with a rich diversity of cultures and languages.

One must seriously laugh at the above for what Karl May wrote was not a history of America or a dissertation on the American Indian, rather he wrote a fiction with the purpose of opening the closed minds of the white man. Karl May’s intent was to take the reader on a journey through a foreign landscape populated by foreign tribes in order to encourage humanity to search and find its lost soul.

Furthermore, the Old Shatterhand character is not superior to the Winnetou character (as Mr. Schmidt writes), in fact Winnetou is Old Shatterhand’s teacher. That Old Shatterhand is a good pupil and that an exchange of knowledge occurs during the growth of the relationship is not surprising, for that is the natural progression of all relationships that are built on trust.

However, it is totally erroneous to state (as Mr. Schmidt does) that “ … Winnetou and his sister ultimately embrace Christianity to make them palatable to readers …”. Firstly, as Nsho-Tshi is about to expire she utters

“Winnetou … my … brother … !” she whispered. “Avenge … avenge …me!”

Hardly the words a good Christian would utter with their last breath. Secondly, Winnetou does not embrace Christianity in the first book either, in fact Winnetou’s says

Don’t speak to me of beliefs! Don’t try to convert me. I love you very, very much and wouldn’t like our bond to be broken. It is like Klekih-petra said. Your belief might be the right one, but we Indians don’t understand it yet. If the Christians didn’t crowd us out and cause our decline, we would consider them as good people and even hold their teachings as good. Then we would probably find the time and space to learn what one must know to understand your holy book and your priests. But those of us who are slowly and surely being forced into extinction cannot believe that the religion which is killing us is a religion of love.

Rob Schmidt also erroneously states

Here’s the key quote from the Winnetou prologue:
“[The Indian] became through no fault of his own a slinking, lying, mistrustful, murderous redskin.”

What Karl May actually wrote was

… They sometimes ‘bought’ his land and either didn’t pay him at all or bartered with worthless trade goods he couldn’t use. They brought him the insidious ‘firewater’ and with it, smallpox and other, more serious and debilitating diseases which decimated whole villages and tribes. If the red man dared to assert his rights, they answered him with gunpowder and lead. He had no choice but to yield again to the whites. Embittered, he took revenge on individual palefaces he happened across. The results were ritual massacres carried out by the red man. He went from being a proud, bold, brave lover of truth, honest, and to his friends always a loyal hunter, to being a secretive, sly, untrustworthy liar. He could do nothing about it because the white man, not he, was at fault. …

One must surely wonder what distorted, abridged or edited version Mr. Schmidt is obtaining his quoted material from. Clearly it is not Karl May’s original work.

And finally, there is this gaffe by Mr. Schmidt

Karl May didn’t just make “some mistakes.” He fabricated the entire history of the American West from his home in Germany. His books are one big mistake that have almost nothing to do with actual Indian cultures and history.

It never seems to occur to these critics that Karl May never wrote or intended to write a history of the Americas. What Karl May did write was an indictment of humanity, especially his own race, and a guide as to how we should live life if we desire to rediscover our lost soul.

And it is here that we encounter the problem that so many adaptations, abridged translations and outright plagiarism has wrought upon the image that has formed in the minds of those who have fed on these false tomes. Yes, Karl May wrote these tales of adventure in foreign lands without ever having visited any of them until much later. Yes, Karl May imagines himself to be the protagonist Old Shatterhand and Kara ben Nemsi. Yes, his tales are pure fiction loosely based in identifiable lands and with identifiable cultures. Yet one must ask why there is so much objection to the content of Karl May’s stories. Is it truly because his stories are pure fantasies? If so, then any story that embodies some reality should likewise receive the same disdain that is so readily meted out by all critics of Karl May’s work. Strangely though we hear little of such criticism.

The true Karl May has been available to the world since 1963, albeit in German. However, the work being done today by dedicated translators is at long last making Karl May’s original writings available to an English speaking world. It is high time that the critics study the real work and abandon the tomes that past editors and translators have abridged for the sake of the mighty dollar.

Karl May wrote in his autobiography

I have never put up with any corrections or abridgments. The readers are to get to know me as I am, with all faults and shortcoming, but not cut down to size at an editor’s whim.

We should therefore respect Karl May’s wish and get to know him, as he wanted us to know him. That is the least we can do.

Comments

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  • Victor Epp says on: June 4, 2011 at 3:42 pm

     

    It is particularly true that one should indeed get to know Karl May before judging his work. His entire personality is on display in volume I so it seems hard to translate his own journey to the reality of the American landscape. In reality, Karl May seems to have transposed his own personalities and those of the people around him onto a fictional landscape, and that is what can be read into those books.

  • Bill Thomas says on: June 8, 2011 at 10:38 pm

     

    Rob Schmidt’s view reminds me of the good wise old Rabbi who was approached by a young man who said to him: “Rabbi, I have become an atheist.” The Rabbi asked the young man: “My dear fellow – have you read the Bible and the Thorah?” “No, I did not” was the answer. “Than” the Rabbi said. “you are not an atheist – but an ignoramus.” Goes for Rob Schmidt also.

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