Fascination for the frontier-era history of the United States remains as strong as ever in Germany. From weekend pow-wows to authentic ranch holidays, Germans are still wild about the West.
The Germans have an enduring passion for America's Wild West.
It would be hard to find a country that has more of a fascination with Native Americans than Germany. For more than a hundred years, Germans have been setting up Native American hobby clubs, Wild West towns, open air theater festivals and fairs. Even the most traditionally German events bring out the Cowboy or Indian in many, with traditional Native American dress and Stetson hats staples at Cologne's Karneval time.
Germany’s love of the Wild West has lead to the establishment of more than 200 cowboy and Indian clubs throughout the country, attracting some 80,000 members nationwide. At weekend escapes and at special events, German frontiersmen and Indian braves flock to ride bareback horses, learn to shoot bows and arrows, cook around a campfire, and drink in the large clubhouses which are decorated as Western saloons.
Aiming for Authenticity
For these clubs, authenticity is key. Despite the popular view of American Indians as all feathers and war paint, the clubs maintain that they try to avoid making things too hokey.
“We don’t play cowboys and Indians,” said Peter Timmermann, historian and curator at the Munich Cowboy Club, on the society's website. “Europeans have received a very distorted image of Indians. We do this properly. Of course it is a hobby but we really try to take it seriously.”
Dr. Ekehard Koch, a German expert on Native American – European relations, has said hardly any other place on the planet has the same sympathy towards the Indians as the Germans.
Koch’s believes that the so-called “myth of the noble savage,” the discontent with civilization, the restricted freedom caused by modern life and the wish to escape from the narrowness of German life have all contributed to Germany’s fascination.
Preparing for the real thing
That wish to escape has led to many Germans, who have been studying and practising for years in the cowboy and Indian clubs, to travel to the real Wild West for an “authentic” experience. Travel agent Bernd Walbert of American Ranch Holidays said that he sends more than 300 clients annually to dude ranches in America where the cost of a weekend of cowboy life can be between €150 - €300. A week on the trail driving cattle can cost the German city slickers as much as €1,000.
So what is it, besides a deeply rooted romantic view of a pre-industrial past and the imagery of classic Western movies that hold such a fascination for Germans?
Native American links
One reason could be traced back to the relationship forged by the Comanche Indians and the German emigrants from the Westerwald region over 150 years ago, when a peace treaty was signed that remains to this day. Or it could be the fact that some Germans have Native American ancestors, dating back to the hugely successful Wild West Show tours of Buffalo Bill in 1893 and 1913. It could even be linked to the deployment of Native Americans serving with the U.S. Army in Germany after World War II.
However, the most likely source of such obsession and fascination comes from the writings of a convicted criminal who created tales of the Wild West, not from personal experience but from extensive research undertaken in the prison library while serving time for fraud.
The legend of Winnetou
Pierre Brice in the film "Winnetou III."
Nineteenth century writer Karl May only went to North America once and that was on a visit to up-state New York long after his Western novels had made him famous. But his tales of Winnetou, a brave Apache chief, and Old Shatterhand, a German born frontiersman, created a legend and raised sympathy and respect for the American Indians and their way of life.
The stories, which portrayed Native Americans as heroes and whites often as villains, forged the image of the American West and particularly of the American Indian in the minds of the German population. May’s books tapped into a fascination that had been aroused by the works of early German travel writers such as Karl Anton Postl, Freidrich Gerstucker and Balduin Mullhausen.
Adding to their tales of the Wild West as a land of seemingly limitless space and freedom stretching without borders between two seas, May painted a picture of Native Americans that included savage and heroic traits, as well as their life in the wilderness.
Message for modern times
“May painted a romantic view of the West,” Helmut Stich of the Free Trapper Society, a Western club based outside Cologne, told Deutsche Welle. “But his message of the Indian as a strong and proud individual at one with his surroundings is something we can all strive for in modern times.”
After World War II, communist East Germany led the way in the creation of Indian fan clubs due to the fact they presented a legal opportunity to gather in large numbers, and May’s anti-Imperialist, anti-capitalist messages conformed to the Eastern-Bloc doctrine. East Germans, discouraged from travelling, devoured May’s books and the Indian ideal became hugely popular there as a tolerated form of escape into a pretended freedom, however illusive the actual experience.
A dream of freedom
The enthusiasm remains strong in the east. “Most people who are members (of Western clubs in the east) grew up with Karl May books,” Agathe Höfer, from the Blackfoot Society based near Cottbus, told Deutsche Welle. “With so many constraints in our lives, the image of an endless sky and wide open plains seemed to release something. The dream was one of freedom, one we continue to celebrate each time we meet.”
Henry Fonda in the Western "Firecreek."
In West Germany, the influx of American popular culture expanded the imagery of the American West, mostly through Hollywood Westerns. But there were other factors at work. An intense pro-Americanism developed in Germany after World War II, but at the same time there was much resentment of the U.S. military occupation. The notion of invaders on Native American soil created empathy within post-war Germany.
When Germany reunited in 1990, the two side came together to create a pan-German Wild West culture. Now the Teutonic love of all things Western continues to grow from north to south, as well as east to west.