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.

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 reports.

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 
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 se
e 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 Diariesconsidered
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 remained…fantasies.
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 Winnetou.”
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
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 
and Black Patriots and Loyalists; 
Fighting for Emancipation in the 
War of Independence.