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Karl May’s Winnetou Draws Eye of the Woke

Leftist keyboard warriors have lifted their fingers for another scrap. 

After coming under heavy bombardment for its ‘racist’ stories based on Winnetou—the fictional Indian Chief created and popularized across Europe by best-selling author Karl May—German publisher Ravensburger has caved in. Various tie-ins for a recent film adaptation have been pulled from the market.

Subsequently, two children’s books, a puzzle, and a sticker book—released alongside The Young Chieftain Winnetou, which hit theaters on August 11th—are no longer available to the public. According to Clemens Maier, chief executive at Ravensburger,  these stories paint an overly “romanticized” picture of what happened to Native Americans during the 19th century.

To be sure, Native Americans experienced hardship after the arrival of the Europeans, who settled on the largely unexplored continent. Yet, do we then infer that historical romps such as the adventures of Winnetou which are tailored to children, require an overhaul? Should we demand that the horrors offered by the real world, which adults are called upon to confront, must inhabit the little ones’ imaginations as well? 

What might be called a “neglect of history” is a problem the German publisher seeks to avoid. Ravensburger has since indicated that Winnetou will no longer be part of its future offerings since, in its current form, the story inflicts “racist stereotypes” upon unsuspecting consumers and propagates material rife with “cultural appropriation.” 

In a statement posted on Instagram, Ravensburger explained that its editors “deal intensively with topics such as diversity and cultural appropriation,” and are currently discussing future projects while revising their existing product line title by title. Then, ending on what amounts to a rather pitiable mea culpa, the publisher added that “we would no longer make the decision to publish the titles in the same way today. At the time, we made a mistake but can assure you: we are learning from it!”

Meanwhile, Meulenhoff Boekerij, one of the largest publishers in the Netherlands, has followed suit and halted the sale of its own Winnetou books. “We are following the German example,” it said, providing no further explanation in a response to Algemeen Dagblad

Several bookshops have since stopped ordering the books. Webshop Amazon has already removed the Ravensburger editions from its stock, though those published by others remain available for the time being.

The specialist press Karl-May-Verlag is understandably troubled by Ravensburger’s actions. CEO Bernhard Schmid told Bild that they “cannot understand our colleagues from Ravensburger,” and that naturally, his publishing house remains steadfast. “Our books stay on the market and continue to be available,” he said.

Schmid, whose grandfather ran the Karl May publishing house, finds the current discussion “unspeakable” and “completely unnecessary,” as it “lacks any real basis.” He decries the criticisms being leveled, which “fail to provide any proof.” 

Over the past 130 years, Karl May has repeatedly been the target of false accusations. At the end of the [German] empire, he was accused of being too pacifist and concerned about international understanding. Today he is accused of being a colonialist and a racist. This is sheer nonsense!

He advises such critics to “take a look at Karl May’s work, preferably in ‘Winnetou I’, in which he extensively addresses and denounces the Indian natives’ genocide.”

Robin Leipold, a historian who works for the Karl May Museum has also come to the author’s defense. He told Junge Freiheit that he has the impression that “many know very little about Karl May’s work and Karl May as a person.”

The historian criticized the publisher’s decisions as “hypocritical,” since it acts  “as if it cares about having the debate, but does not do so at all.” Instead of taking May’s works off the market, it would have been better to integrate stories by indigenous authors into the book trade. The writer, who died in 1912, clearly opposed colonialism and campaigned for peace, according to Leipold.

He further argues that the author must be seen as a child of his day and that while from today’s perspective, May’s early works might contain “racist elements,” his books and characters have evolved over time.

Worries that the classic film series, starring Pierre Brice as Winnetou and Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand, might face cancellation forced public broadcaster ZDF to come out with a statement. So far, it wants to continue showing these. One of the films, Winnetou and the Half-Blood Apanatschi (1966), will be shown on October 3rd on German Unity Day (which celebrates West Germany and East Germany’s 1990 reunification), a spokeswoman said. “ZDF has broadcasting rights for various Karl May films that will be broadcast in the next few years.”

Just before ZDF’s statement, another public broadcaster, ARD, announced that it currently was not showing any Winnetou films. Yet, their stated reason is an expiration of the broadcasting rights in 2020, which were since acquired “by a competitor.” It said there are no intentions to renew them in the future, which could be interpreted to mean that it does consider these to not be in line with the spirit of the times.

Bayerischer Rundfunk told Der Bild that it would continue to broadcast the classic films. “In individual cases, all films are always checked to see whether the respective film fits into our program,” a spokeswoman said. 

Winnetou, as well as his many adventures with his German blood brother, Old Shatterhand, has captured the popular imagination since 1875. With his important contribution to Germany’s cultural heritage, Karl May became one of the country’s most successful writers. His Winnetou books have sold about 200 million copies worldwide while spawning multiple movie adaptations.

Tristan Vanheuckelom writes on film, literature, and comics for various Dutch publications. He is an avid student of history, political theory, and religion, and is a News Writer at The European Conservative.

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