Arts & Culture

Why do Germans love the American West?

To those unfamiliar with popular European literature and film, it might seem strange:

Why would a German couplewith ties to Puget Sound be so enamored of the American West that they would collect about 300 works of art, buy a ranch, run a herd of 400 bison, and sport cowboy buckles and boots at museum events?

Erivan and Helga Haub aren’t alone in falling in love with the West.

The German fascination with the open range goes back centuries, but it was popularized in the late 19th century by Karl May, who wrote a series of best-selling novels about a German explorer who traveled the American West in the company of the fictional Apache warrior Winnetou.

Their adventures capitalized on the German Romantic imagination, as well as the desire for wide-open spaces and a strong idea of nationhood, says Karsten Fitz, professor of Native American studies at the University of Passau in the Bavarian region of Germany.

It was May’s books, say the Haubs, that spurred their love of all things Western from childhood onward.

“The West per se, for Germans, is the place of self-sufficiency, of openness, of availability of land, as it is for Americans,” Fitz says. “It’s where your dreams can come true.”

“The books of Karl May were an inspiration to several generations (of Germans),” says Christian Haub, the Haubs’ youngest son who with his wife, Liliane, has been highly involved in TAM’s Haub wing project. “Our parents passed them on to us.”

While the overall German attitude is a benign admiration of Native American culture, not all Native Americans appreciate it.

The Karl May Museum came under fire from a Chippewa tribe this summer for refusing to return its scalp collection to the tribe’s burial grounds, The New York Times reported.

And Fitz is even more pointed about the cultural phenomeon: “It’s problematic, this stereotyping,” he says. “It’s racist to limit an existing people to be the plaything of your imagination.”

At the center of May’s West is the Indian — an imaginary, romanticized character that embodied chivalric ideals and ecological soundness, and had little to do with actual Native Americans. May never traveled to the West.

May’s books were made into popular films in the 1960s, using Serbian actor Gojko Mitic as the dark, non-Germanic Indian hero.

Since then, says Fitz, who has written about and lectured in Tacoma on Native American imagery in German culture, Indians still pop up in commercials to indicate some kind of environmental knowledge or care.

Throughout Germany there are “Indian” clubs and Wild West clubs, hobbyists who dress up as Indians and take Indian names, Indian festivals, Karl May re-enactments and Wild West theme parks.

“It seems this is a very German theme and subject,” Haub says. “May created this tremendous infatuation with the American West in German-speaking countries.”

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