Hitler's Inspiration - a reflection about Karl May

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Sat Aug 16 04:52:31 MDT 2003

Karl May's trivialliteratur about "noble savages" is quite possibly the
number 1 best-selling German literary product of all time, but a noteworthy
fact is that he never visited most of the places he talks about in his
novels, which contain numerous errors of fact, and he actually visited the
USA only once or twice (Johannes Schneider probably has more details). Nor
does he really capture what Indian character and spirituality is really
about, in my opinion. It's a bit like a spaghetti Western.

Quite possibly Hitler's fascination with Karl May's books played some role
in the censoring of Karl May novels within the former DDR, where they were
regarded as politically incorrect and ideologically unsound for a long time.
In his social history of detective novels, Ernest Mandel remarks somewhat
contemptuously in a footnote, that Karl May just lived out his "hoped-for
life" in his fictional fantasies (I don't have the page reference here at
home, Peter Drucker went off with my copy).

Generally any cultural artifact which captures the imagination of a large
mass of people quickly becomes a subject of political controversy and
attempts at ideological capture. But this may not lead to any objective
assessment of its intrinsic merits and demerits, and of course, if you
follow Marx, you need to go beyond the literary content itself, to examine
the social forces and social consciousness shaping the pattern of supply and
demand for a particular literature.

As a 9-11 year old child, I recall reading all 50 Karl May novels published
in a Dutch series at that time, my older brother and I collected them bit by
bit towards the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, some new, some
second-hand. I think they genuinely stimulated my imagination and interest
in geography, ethnography and history, and my sympathetic appreciation of
North American "Indians".

But, actually, what as a child impressed me greatly about May's fictional
descriptions of Indians, was their apparently austere and stoic capacity for
enduring pain, and their rituals and self-imposed trials for hardening
themselves against pain. I vividly recall resolving that I should attempt to
emulate the Indians in this sense, and "harden" myself against pain. I did
this by cutting my skin with a pocket knife, and by sticking pins in my leg,
attempting to do all this without flinching or batting an eye-lid, just as
in the books I read.

I noticed as a child something incongruous about Karl May's portrayal of
Indians, because, on the one hand, his Indians were like medieval knights,
motivated by nobility, humanity and valour, yet on the other hand, exhibited
extreme cruelty in torture and scalping rituals and in brutal, merciless war
savagery. I suppose it was this contradiction which helped make his books so
fascinating to children learning to understand and master their emotions.

It is only later that I realised Karl May to a large extent caricatured
Indian life with 19th century (and sometimes medieval) German sentiment, and
that many of his descriptions reflected a twisted emotional world and
sublimated sexuality,  a romantic fantasy divorced from reality, in a
specific pattern. A "realistic" consideration of political and material
interests is almost totally lacking in his sentimental stories.

Checking out Karl May's life a bit lateron, it emerged not just that he was
a convicted thief and an outrageous liar at times, but also a
hypersensitive, unstable, often rather withdrawn dreamer, with a very
serious and prolonged identity crisis and limited capacity for objectivity,
who sought for some kind of personal redemption, forgiveness or salvation -
an extremely unevenly developed person, in some aspects of emotional
development similar to figures like Wagner, Nietzsche, Marx, Wittgenstein
and (dare I say it) Adolf Hitler himself, who could resolve the
contradictions of his own personality, and affirm himself, only by recourse
to fantasy, and by raising the challenge to his critics of what is fact and
what is fiction anyway. In Hitler's case, of course, this fantasy is
combined with the will to power, the will to realise the dream, but Karl May
found solace in Christian religion and projected his dreams in his fiction
writing, rather than in domination over other people, which he was not
capable of anyway.

In the banale, shallow, murderous and biological-racist culture of modern
bourgeois society, I suppose that the sensitivities of Karl May's life would
be retrospectively explained largely in sexual-reductionist terms. In which
case, I suppose I should say that, given the choice between reading Karl May
and soft porn, I'd prefer Karl May on Kara Ben Nemsi, the hero of the


More information about the Marxism mailing list