Germans in realistically looking native-american clothing, meeting to build tepees, dance and study foreign cultures. About an unusual hobby, celebrated in the GDR.
Where is the German fascination for Native Americans coming from? H. Glenn Penny, professor for European history at the University of Iowa designated a whole chapter of his book “Kindred by choice” to answer this question. He writes that we can go back until the time of ancient Rome, when searching for the reasons of the German’s “Indian-Fascination”. The Roman senator Cornelius Tacitus described the Germanic people in his piece “Germania” as “a noble tribal population with a clear connection to the woods and grounds of Central Europe”. Again and again, Tacitus described the Germanic people in a way how later German authors would describe Native Americans. Penny remarks that Tacitus’ and later the work of German Adventure Writers aren’t flawless. Nevertheless, the Roman piece will be mentioned at different points throughout the history of German literature.
Johann Gottfried Herder, for example, argues in his “Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache“ (engl.: Treatise on the origin of language), that Germanic tribes would still live in the woods, like Native Americans, if the Romans hadn’t brought their culture to them by brute force.
In the end, though, a centralized, militarily and economically superior power wins against a loosely connected bunch of tribes. Making a connection to the situation across the Atlantic isn’t that hard.
Native Americans and German literature
But enough with abstract analyses of the collective German psyche. Why and how stories about Native Americans spread in Germany can be proven more tangible. It all probably started with Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). His books about his American expedition, which started in 1799 and lasted five years, became international bestsellers. According to historian Aaron Sachs, they even became the reference books for Americans who studied Natives in the 19th century. Humboldts’ expeditions always inspired other Europeans to go abroad and imitate his travels. At the beginning of the 19th century, these travelers were mainly aristocrats, who also recorded their experiences on paper.
Humboldts famous multi-volume “Cosmos” work, would still be considered a scientific work, though. James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) would become one of the most translated American novelists of his time in Germany. Even though Cooper wasn’t the first author who wrote novels about Native Americans, with his writing style and his seemingly authentic portrayals, he struck a nerve with European readers. During the time, when Coopers’ books were very successful in Germany, between the years of 1870 and 1889 over two million Germans emigrated in to the US. Around 1900, 10% of the US population was German-American in the first or second generation. America was the place-to-be. And stories about the West weren’t just selling well, they also were sent by mail in families, where a part was already living there.
Buffalo Bill, an American virtuoso (Ex-Cowboy, bison hunter, gold digger…) developed a kind of circus show called “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West”. He travelled through the US and Europe with a group of real Cowboys, Native Americans, horses, and bison. In 1890 he toured the German Empire and played nearly everywhere in front of sold-out crowds. On posters, he advertised the show with 800 performers and 500 horses. Three Years after Bill’s first tour, a series of novels were released, that shaped the German reception of Native Americans and the Wild West like no other.
In 1893 Karl May released his Winnetou-series. The literary quality of these books is highly debated; still May is one of the most successful German Adventure-authors of all time. Alone in German, his books were sold more than 200 million times. According to H. Glenn Penny, May basically put all the books about America and its population, that existed before him, into a form that is easily consumable for German readers. All books follow a simple, similar plot line, and every time there are characters with which the German audience can identify itself. Old Shatterhand, one of the most famous characters, is a German living in the US who basically can’t do anything wrong. A German Superman in the Wild West.
Winnetou is the name of a main character of the series of novels named after him. In the stories is a Native American belonging to the tribe of the Apache.
Mays’ heroes fought against racism, oppression, and slavery. That didn’t do well among Conservatives in the German Empire, later though, his work was well liked by Adolf Hitler and other powerful National Socialists.
That was one of the reasons why, after World War II, May was viewed critically in the GDR, soviet, East Germany. In 1956 The Berliner Zeitung wrote, May “had been a pioneer of fascist sentiments.” and the Culture-Officials of the GDR seemed to agree. In their opinion, his work was characterized by “chauvinism and racism”. They never really banned Mays books, but the Ministry for Culture decided that they shouldn’t be published or sold. Only 27 years later, the government yielded to demand and allowed to print the still beloved books.
“Indianistik” in the GDR
According to the German dictionary, “Indianistik“ is a “science, concerned with the study of indigenous languages and cultures of North, Central and South America.” The term was also commonly used in the GDR to describe a movement, in which young people organized themselves in clubs to study and engage with the life of Native Americans. The first “Indianistik”-club was founded in 1956 in Radebeul, a small town close to Dresden and Karl Mays hometown. In the GDR, all cultural activities were considered suspect if they did not help build socialism. But the “Indianistik”-clubs were authorized by the SED, the governing party. At first reluctantly, but the party officials realized pretty quick, that there was propaganda-potential. Engagement with Native Americans can raise awareness of the negative effects of U.S. imperialism. The “Indianists” (people in the “Indianistik”-scene) were given a cultural free space and in return gave East Germany an exotic touch.
The clubs, now accepted as “Volkskunstgruppen“ (engl.: folk art group) in the GDR, gave themselves names of Native American tribes. Often the government gave them a specific territory, on which they studied that tribe. “Studyig” in this context means: they build tepees, tried to recreate traditional clothing as realistic as possible and learned about the language, traditions, culture, and history of the tribe.
This lack of material became apparent again, when people wanted to read about foreign cultures. Scientific literature about Native Americans was a scarce commodity in the GDR.
At the end of the 1960s, the American Indian Movement (AIM) was established in the US. It brought attention to poverty, racism and many other problems of Native Americans. Even though the GDR-“Indianists” had to fear governmental repression, they showed solidarity with the American movement.
In the 1980s there were around 50 clubs with in total about 1000 members. They met every year at the “Great Indian Council”, later called the “Indian Week” and with that gained some media attention. For visitors of these events, a program was organized. The newest research was presented to the general GDR citizen and shared with other clubs.
Friedrich von Borries and Jens-Uwe Fischer released their book “Sozialistische Cowboys” (engl.: socialist cowboys) in 2008. For research, they toured east Germany and collected reports of contemporary witnesses. What stands out when reading the book: The “Indianistik”-scene was more diverse than you would have thought. In the area around Bitterfeld, the center of the GDR’s chemical industry, people got involved in the “Indianistik”-group to draw attention to environmental pollution. Elsewhere, Western fans simply wanted their peace and quiet, moving into the East German wasteland with their teepees or simple wooden cabins to escape the daily grind of the “workers and farmers” state. As early as the 19th century, Friedrich Engels, in “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.”, discovered communistic potential in Native Americans. Convinced socialists found a place in the “Indianistik”-clubs just as much as those who just wanted to meet regularly to shoot Western guns.
Resistance to the dictatorship, adaptation to the system and enthusiasm for socialism. Everything united in one movement.
“The amateur Indians conveyed a breath of America and took the East Germans into a world that was inaccessible to most people behind the impassable national border. The fact that the Indian movement became so successful, especially in the GDR, is certainly due in no small part to the lack of freedom to travel.” says Sabine Uhlig.
Media from a socialist perspective
When Karl Mays’ novels and their film adaptions became really successful in West Germany, the GDR government realized that they had to do something. East German Western-fans shouldn’t consume the media of the class enemy. In 1951 the historian Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich won the prize for best youth-literature, issued by the ministry of education, with her novel “Söhne der Großen Bärin” (engl.: “Sons of the big bear”). That book was her first, with a story centered around Native Americans. In the next ten years, five more followed. In order to get involved in the film business, a working group called the “Red Circle” of DEFA, the state owned film company of the GDR, looked for original content to produce their own westerns. And they found Welskopf-Henrichs books.
The success of the film adaptation of Welskopf-Henrichs first “Indian”-novel, is said to have raised the profile of the “Indianistik”-movement by another notch.
Until that point, Gojko Mitić was a relatively unknown, Yugoslavia born, actor. He probably was also chosen for the role in multiple East German movies, because he already had played smaller roles in Western German productions and had a view behind the scenes of their production. The DEFA-“Indian films” became a huge success. “Their popularity was hugely dependent on main actor Gojko Mitić.” He played the main character in 12 out of 14 DEFA-“Indian films”. “For the East German audience, the real person Gojko Mitić merged with the roles as the “Indian” chief,” Dr. Räder says.
But how did they differ from American and West German Westerns?
Dr. Räder says that “there was an attempt to reverse the image of indigenous natives in comparison to American Westerns and to stage them as the sole sufferers of Euro-American expansionism to the West.” The adaptions of Karl Mays novels stayed really close to their written originals and were carried by the performance of Winnetou-actor Pierre Brice. “He embodied the courageous “Indian” chief who worked for peaceful reconciliation between white settlers and Native Americans.” In American Westerns, “’Indians’ […] were portrayed as stereotypically staged ‘savages.’”
The East German films on the other hand were used as anti-imperialist propaganda tools. They “[…] claimed to be more authentic and truthful than the Karl May adaptations and the classic Hollywood Westerns, especially with regard to the image of the indigenous natives. However, this was more in line with the political agenda of the GDR.” But according to Dr. Räder “the history of Native Americans […] can’t be reduced to the victim-perspective as well as the expulsion and genocide by Euro-American settlers.”
Even today, the East German films are very popular. If you turn on MDR, the public TV-station for regions of former East Germany, during the Christmas season, you can hardly escape them.