Germans go tribal and go whole hog Romanticism takes a methodical turn

February 09, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

COLOGNE, Germany -- The neighborhood butcher was understandably perplexed the first time Wolfgang Wettstein placed his special order. Nobody had ever wanted to buy cow teeth before.

"I need them to sew my tepee with," Mr. Wettstein said, explaining how Plains Indians once fashioned pieces of buffalo tooth into needles.

Mr. Wettstein's painstakingly stitched tepee turned out to be more than his second home. It is his second life.

Grown-ups playing Indian is just one small part of an elaborate, expensive masquerade in which thousands of Germans quietly indulge with a serious passion.

There are accountants who drape themselves in animal pelts and gnaw on raw meat as weekend Huns; dentists in armor who march past Benetton shops as Roman legionnaires; businessmen in horns who honor their dead with mock Viking funerals on the Rhine.

All are dues-paying members of Germany's private "tribes" -- cultural chameleons who emulate lost ways of life to a sometimes obsessive degree.

When the wild calls, they answer.

What motivates these hobbyists is a question for historians, sociologists, psychologists and the tribes themselves to ponder. The reasons are as varied as the museum-quality costumes that members typically spend years making by hand.

For some, these fantasy worlds offer escape from a rigid, high-tech society. For others, cultural metamorphosis is the ultimate acting out of a love of history.

"It's typical German romanticism on one hand, and typical German thoroughness on the other," says Friedrich Wolfram Heubach, a psychology professor familiar with the "tribe" scene.

"The theory is that Germans are so successful in science and technology because they're so disciplined and industrious and driven," Mr. Heubach says. "It's a . . . repressed society," he adds -- and playing "barbarian" is a way to vent aggression.

"The joke is that it starts out as lots of fun, but, because they're Germans, before long there are statutes and rules," Mr. Heubach says. "They begin organizing their escape exactly like the life they were trying to flee."

That means long lists of nit-picky do's and don'ts, including punctual powwows for the Indians and democratic Hun elections for Attila. It means that would-be samurai can't wear their swords in public, and Mongolian hordes have to remember to get camping permits.

"You can't relive history," says Dr. Klaus Schwab, a dentist who is a recreational Roman legionnaire. "It all falls apart the instant the phone rings or the mailman comes."

Although some of the modern German tribes date back to the turn of the century, most are thought to have sprung up after World War II, primarily around Cologne. Dressing up and going wild is an annual pre-Lenten rite during Karneval, and Cologne is Germany's undisputed New Orleans.

"Cologne is a biosphere for wackos," boasts Heiner Doensdorf, a 40-year-old video producer who has been an ardent Hun since 1968. "If I spent a year in L.A., though, I'm sure I could start a Hun tribe there too. No problem."

Well, OK, there are some problems.

"It's really tough to get decent camel skins," Mr. Doensdorf complains, noting that no Hun household is complete without them.

His 18-member Hun tribe -- one of scores nationwide -- meets 15 times a year to discuss history, work on costumes and plan things like "who's going to order the beer for our summer fest."

Beer?

"We're still Germans," he said.

But tribe members privately admit that some people do cross the reality border.

There are tales of an entire family living as Vikings year-round, and German Indians who start talking like Tonto.

Some of the more serious tribes -- many have extensive libraries -- scoff at clubs that remain strictly Karneval groups.

"There is an abstract competition among tribes," Mr. Heubach says. "Who is more authentic? Who eats raw meat? Who knows the most about Huns? Which Indians have genuine eagle-feather headdresses?"

VTC Although the tribes vehemently deny it, it is sometimes difficult for outsiders to see the distinction between emulation and racism.

While some genuinely study primitive African tribes and say their imitation is out of curiosity and respect, others clearly consider it a good Karneval joke.

More common, though, are people such as Charly Wenzel, a 65-year-old retired truck driver who has been an ersatz Lakota Indian for 24 years.

Even when the tribe is not meeting, Mr. Wenzel affects a decidedly un-Teutonic image, tying back his long gray ponytail with a leather thong and sporting turquoise jewelry.

"We're Europeans, and we can't shed thousands of years of culture overnight," he says. "I'm not running away from my culture. But studying the Indian way of life has changed me."

Dr. Klaus Schwab, the dentist, spends "every lunch hour and weekend" working on his hobby, according to his wife, Monika. They have played ancient Romans for about five years.

The tribes' high standards of authenticity often put a serious strain on members' bank accounts.

Dr. Schwab estimates that making a legionnaire's armor, including a vest of 15,000 tiny steel rings, costs about $10,000. People in nomadic groups spend thousands on jewelry to pose as Genghis Khan, and genuine feather headdresses set back would-be Indians some $1,500.

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