The latest season of Germany's largest festival celebrating the adventure writer Karl May ended with a record audience. Over 430,000 visitors watched the adventures of the Native American character Winnetou, despite criticism of the story's problematic legacy from some sections.
BAD SEGEBERG — "It's simply amazing! You're dropped off in the middle of the Wild West," gushes Markus after his visit to the Karl May Festival in Bad Segeberg. He is one of over 430,000 people who have seen a stage adaptation of German adventure writer Karl May's Winnetou I on the open-air stage in Schleswig-Holstein this year. That number has broken all records for attendance in a single season of the festival.
Much was written a year ago about how the Karl May classic had fallen out of time. The trigger was a series of books and fan articles about the movie The Little Chief Winnetou, forcing the publisher Ravensburger to withdraw the titles shortly before delivery.
The reason offered by the company was that it did not want to "repeat and spread any trivializing clichés." A debate ensued as to whether and how a story from the 19th century, whose depiction of Native Americans is primarily based on the author's imagination, could be too racist, sexist and dismissive for our time.
A year later came the most wildly successful Karl May Festival in history. This summer, 430,321 people watched Alexander Klaws ride through the ring in moccasins. How can it be that a publisher withdraws a "problematic" book ostensibly in the face of public outrage, and yet more people than ever want to see the adventurers of the German greenhorn Old Shatterhand and his Apache friend Winnetou?
Dissecting the rush
Karl May expert Nicolas Finke credits the success of the show on its combination of theatrical grandeur, well-choreographed action, and the unique open-air experience. "A mixture that has been continuously developed and perfected over the years," says the historian. This concept is fascinating for all generations; you are practically in the middle of the action, immersed in the world of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. Added to this are the involvement of well-known actors and the allure of Schleswig-Holstein as a summer vacation destination.
The principle of good versus evil is timeless.
The massive audience numbers aren't an accident: Since 2013, each season of the festival has drawn greater attendance than the previous. "In my opinion, the current great success is the result of a continuous development and is not solely due to the Winnetou debate'" says Finke, co-author of the book series Karl May on Stage. However, the debate would naturally have increased awareness of and interest in the topic.
Kathleen Loock, American Studies expert at the University of Hanover, sees two reasons for the recent rush of visitors. On the one hand, there is a catch-up effect after the pandemic. But it could also be a reaction "to last year's debates, according to which Winnetou is supposedly to be banned." Winnetou is one of the Germans' favorite characters, says Loock, who published a research paper on Winnetou and the German 'Indian' image in 2019.
The original cover of Winnetou's 1893 edition.
Winnetou – a piece of childhood
"A great experience. Hopefully this event won't be banned and suppressed by green-left political over-correctness," says festival goer Norbert. He and Marcus are among the 12,700-odd people who have shared their impressions of visiting the festival online. Many of them praise the spectacle and the fireworks and reminisce about childhood memories.
The shared experience of the Winnetou films, festivals, and books connects generations in Germany. Even a decades-long break in print in the GDR era did nothing to change this; the so-called “Indian studies clubs” were particularly popular in East Germany at the time. "The dream world that Karl May created in his novels, with the heroes Winnetou and Old Shatterhand and the principle of good versus evil, is timeless," says Finke. Researchers also repeatedly refer to the "projection surface" of Winnetou.
While the novels comforted German society at the end of the 19th century wounded by the fact that Germany was not one of the great colonial powers, they served fantasies of reparation after the Second World War, theater scholar Katrin Sieg argued in 2006. After all, Old Shatterhand was a German engineer fighting side by side with Native Americans.
Then there are wholesome memories of family rituals, such as watching the Winnetou films at Christmas or the trip to Bad Segeberg. "I believe that this is still part of the fascination," says Loock. "Especially in a world with so many new things that you can't always share, it ensures continuity."
Karl May's "Indian" (literal translation) peoples have little in common with real Indian cultures.
Four-euro currywurst and parking lot march
The comments from this summer's spectators echo a similar sentiment. "Pure childhood memories, with a grandchild to pass on the memories," writes Thomas. "It brought back positive memories of childhood, when you were still allowed to say 'Indian'," says a visitor called Achim. "I went there often as a child and I still like it today," says Sandy. Very few people seem concerned with the question of political correctness.
The average visitor who comments is weatherproof ("bring a rain poncho!"), willingly pays 4 euros for a currywurst ("fair price"), and at most complains about the two-kilometer walk from the parking lot to the festival grounds. One of them is sore about the lack of bicycle stands.
The stereotype of the "noble savage", which May's Apache chief represents, is taboo today. Karl May's "Indian" (literal translation) peoples have little in common with real Indian cultures. Such misrepresentations had terrible consequences for the indigenous peoples in the past and still do, says Loock.
In Germany, many people can't understand the criticism. "People want to be like the good ‘Indians’," she explains. And if Winnetou has to be questioned, then one's own self-image also has to be critically examined. Does it make me a bad person if I like something that creates or reinforces false prejudices? "My own positive self-image must not be destroyed by changing my mind overnight," Loock adds. That's why many people have clung to Karl May so tenaciously.
The alt right tries to instrumentalize the debate for its own ends.
The political right has also recognized this moral dilemma. "Winnetou would vote AfD", the AfD Bautzen campaigned in September 2022. The Young Nationalists, the youth organization of the neonazi party NPD, distributed flyers in Bad Segeberg last year, according to the domestic intelligence services. Suddenly, the debate was no longer just about the Native Americans' struggle for self-representation but about "white identity, which sees itself threatened by accusations of cultural appropriation or racism", says Loock.
Karl May fans, who have been part of the mainstream for over a century, are suddenly being portrayed as a kind of oppressed minority. This way, the alt right tries to instrumentalize the debate for its own ends. The suggestion is that everyday life is threatened — not by cultural and social change but "by very concrete things such as an alleged ban on Winnetou", says Loock. This does not mean that the festival visitors in Bad Segeberg are celebrating cultural appropriation. However, the popularity of the story plays into the hands of those with a political interest in such discourses.
Karl May expert Finke calls the attempts to leverage the debate politically "as absurd as they are transparent." Karl May's works convey tolerance, international understanding, and friendship — values that stand in contrast to the aims of political parties who want to exploit his creation for their own partisan goals.
The festival itself responded to the battle of narratives by having the character of Karl May himself tell the audience at the beginning of the play how Winnetou came from his imagination. After that, the spectacle took its usual course, with much riding, kidnapping, and shooting.
"The killing and shooting is too cruel for small children," says an older man. "There were lots of tears among the youngest." One father takes a more pragmatic approach: "Don't forget the ear protection for the youngest children".