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Censorship or Preventing Cultural Appropriation? - German Children’s Publisher Pulls Books Over Controversial Depiction of Native Americans

Famous German publisher Ravensburger Verlag pulled two books about the fictional Native American character, Winnetou, after protests occurred calling out the books’ racist, stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans. Ravensburger had originally intended to release the Winnetou books alongside the corresponding movie, “The Young Chief Winnetou”, which came out in German cinemas on August 11th. Now there are calls to drop the movie as well. Despite the widespread anger, however, many others are also annoyed that today’s “cancel culture” has led to the censorship of an important part of their childhood. As an avid reader and a very real participant of “woke” and “cancel culture”, I am sure my conflicted feelings about this controversy are shared by countless others. This article asks, what should we do when an important part of our culture is shown to be problematic?


Who was Karl May?

Let us first turn to Winnetou’s creator, the 19th-century German author Karl May (1842-1912). A quick Google search will show you just how popular May was, and still is, in Germany - May’s autobiographer Michael Petzel writes that May is considered to be “the most-read German author”, and even sceptics of such a claim admit that more than 200 million copies of May’s work have been in circulation, with translations in more than 40 languages.


Interestingly, May can best be described as a travel and adventure writer, although May never visited the places he wrote about. Instead, he relied on research and the power of his imagination to conjure up exciting adventures in foreign lands, which Britannica praises as having an uncanny amount of “realistic detail”. Britannica also writes that May spent several years in prison for fraud, where he made good use of the prison library. However, German media outlet Deutsche Welle (DW) additionally tells us that the ingenious writer, who was able to read and do extensive research on the outside world beyond Germany while in prison, also presented himself as a travel writer to explain his long absences from the public. Evidently, Karl May wanted to build a shining public image via his creative genius and thus disassociate himself with his low beginnings and criminal record.


Needless to say, May was extremely successful in this respect, as the products of his imagination generated unprecedented attention both during and after his lifetime. Winnetou, in particular, was embedded in many Germans’ childhood memories. May’s series of books about America and the Wild stars May himself as the narrator, called Old Shatterhand, who is originally a German engineer hoping to build a train line through Apache country. However, he acquaints himself with the Apache tribe and especially their chief, Winnetou. The two become blood brothers and Old Shatterhand ends up fighting for, not against, the rights of Native Americans.


The contemporary image of Winnetou

To audiences at the time, May’s story was simply a thrilling tale about a friendship that traversed ethnic differences and political disputes, jam-packed with action scenes in which the hero - Apache chieftain Winnetou - always led the “good guys” to victory. And such a conception of May’s works persisted throughout the 20th century - Hitler did not ban the books during his time as Germany’s Fuhrer even though their positive portrayal of Native Americans contradicted his racial beliefs, and during the Cold War the Winnetou books inspired numerous films about the Wild West, nicknamed “sauerkraut westerns”, in both East and West Germany. Clearly, the Germans’ love for the Wild West and Winnetou’s heroic image could not be erased by political hardship.


Quite the opposite, in fact - the Germans’ love for Winnetou may spawn from real German history. DW writer Susanne Spröer, in her defence of Karl May, quotes his biographer Petzel: “After the war, Germans wanted to be the good guys. And the German Old Shatterhand was a good guy. He travelled to a foreign country and brought justice. That wish goes all the way down to today’s Green Party, which campaigns on behalf of persecuted minorities. To a certain extent, we are all heirs of Karl May and Winnetou because we stand with those who are persecuted, and we want to do good.”


Spröer, who grew up alongside May’s books and film adaptations, says of her own experience, “Admittedly, as a child I found the peaceable and often kitschy stories from May’s later books quite boring. I wanted to fight the bad guys. When it comes to deciphering good and bad, children need clear orientation.” And instead of siding with the white colonists who threaten the Apache tribe’s livelihood, Spröer always played the role of an Apache fighter in her childhood: “When we played cowboys and Indians as children, I always took the part of Winnetou, who preferred to knock his enemies down rather than kill them, in line with the blood brothers’ code of honour.


“We loved the Winnetou stories, just like the generations before us.”


So why the decision to pull Winnetou from children’s bookshelves now?

It is increasingly often that we see people and organisations alike being called out online for the cultural insensitivity of their actions. We don’t need to look long to find examples of companies being called out for cultural appropriation - just a month ago, Dior stopped selling a pleated wool and mohair long skirt, after Chinese social media users and in-person protestors accused the brand of plagiarising a historic Chinese item of clothing known as a “horse face skirt”. More recently, TikTok influencer Gracie Norton was accused of ripping off the popular Mexican drink agua fresca for a video in which she introduced a similar drink called “spa water” as her own creation. And now, it is Ravensburger’s turn to fall victim to the onslaught of criticism, in which fans-turned-ex-supporters angrily list out the problems at hand and demand an apology, as well as for the offending article to be removed from the public eye.


Ravensburger’s crime is that they published books that romanticises the Native American struggle against the white colonists. Even the German Film and Media Evaluation (FBW) criticised the 2022 film adaptation as based on a “lie” that would “completely ignore the genocide of Native Americans and the inustice inflicted on them by the white settlers’ land grab and destruction of their natural habitat”. Die Zeit wrote that those critical of May’s Winnetou find fault with the story being a “lie, which completely edits out the genocide of the Indigenous people, the unjust settlement of their land by white settlers and the destruction of their natural habitat”.


To atone for their crime, the publishing company has removed the two Winnetou books relating to the film from their shelves. Alongside the withdrawal of the books, Ravensburger posted an apology on their social media. The publisher stated, “We appreciate you for your criticism. Your feedback has clearly shown us that we hurt the feelings of others with the Winnetou titles.” Ravensburger said that the Winnetou books could be offensive on grounds of “diversity or cultural appropriation”, while informing readers that they employed “Sensitivity Readers” who “critically examine our titles for the proper handling of sensitive topics.”


It seems like today’s “cancel culture” has triumphed over decades of love for Karl May and Winnetou.


Or has it?

I ask this because, when doing research on this topic, I failed to find any unabated criticism of Karl May or the Winnetou series. On the other hand, several writers do  acknowledge that May’s portrayal of Native Americans and white settlers is simplified and romanticised, but point out that this has not led to their believing any related stereotypes about Native Americans. Rather, Spröer, for one, says that reading Winnetou actually inspired her to actually learn about Native Americans’ history: “Even after growing out of my Winnetou phase, I remained interested in Native Americans. I studied their history and read personal accounts written by Native Americans about the horrible oppression and persecution they face.”


Furthermore, unlike those who disapprove of the Winnetou books, defenders of May show a good understanding of where the critics’ fury is coming from, but decide that May has inspired cultural appreciation rather than appropriation. DW writer Scott Roxborough states that “In the broader discussion around cultural appropriation and who has the right to tell which stories, it doesn't help May's case that he was a white man writing about a culture of which he had no first-hand knowledge.” However, he argues that “labelling May and his imaginary America as racist and imperialist ignores how radical, for its time, Winnetou was. [...] Karl May flipped the traditional depiction of "wild Indians" and "civilised cowboys," portraying Indigenous Americans (at least Winnetou and his friends) as the heroes, and white settlers mainly as the villains.” In fact, Roxborough’s article is very well worth reading if you want to know why people are angry in the first place - but at the end of the day, he chooses to stand on the side of Karl May.


An even more compelling counterargument to fans of cancel culture is provided by Native American actor Jay Tavare, who in 2012 wrote about the choice to have a white actor who had never experienced Native American culture firsthand before star as Winnetou. “Just like in the U.S., many Germans grew up playing cowboys and Indians, but because of Karl May's stories, they all wanted to be the Native American instead of the cowboy.” While pointing out that the Winnetou actor Pierre Brice has unfortunately never met the Mescalero Apache people upon whom Winnetou is based, Tavare is even more appreciative of Brice’s - and May’s - role in opening German audiences’ eyes to Native American culture. “Although [Brice] is of French descent, he captured the essence of an Apache warrior chief with all the right qualities: proud, strong, wise and fierce.”


Tavare ended his piece with a beautifully worded, yet sharp point: “I can't forget the sense of irony here, where the indigenous people of America are loved and respected by other nations more so than the country they live in. I wonder how many people around the world know the true scale of poverty and problems that are faced right now by the Indian Nations of North America.”


It is unfortunate that it is only after Ravensburger has announced their decision to succumb to online critics and drop the Winnetou books that the voices of those unwilling to see such a vital part of German literary memory disappear from today’s bookshelves are becoming more apparent. I started this article sympathetic towards May’s and Ravensburgers’ critics - I still am. However, probing more deeply into Winnetou’s impact on German society, I found that May’s fictional Native American hero actually inspired young Germans to not only love Native American culture, but in some cases to even learn in depth about their history, in a way that is not seen anywhere else.


Participants of today’s increasingly complicated debate about the fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation should remember to take a step back from the “offending” issue at hand, and look at how this product has shaped or impacted the society we live in. In Karl May’s case, young readers should definitely be taught that his views may be idealised and oversimplified portrayals of reality, but should still have the chance to read what is clearly an essential part of modern German culture, and to be inspired with a love and respect for foreign traditions that will hopefully help solve the appreciation-appropriation problem for good.


Image source: tinisanto via Flickr

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