Tepees, cowboys, cap guns hail their German mentor


June 10, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

RADEBEUL, GERMANY -- The guide at the Karl May Museu looks like a cowboy and talks like an anthropologist.

Helmuth Grimmer wears a Stetson, flannel shirt, faded jeans and cowboy boots, and he knows an awful lot about American Indians.

But no, he protests, he's no expert: "It's only a hobby. I've never been to America. I'd love to go."

That's all right. Karl May had never been to America either until the end of his life, long after he had written his books about Indians, mountain men, pioneers, frontiersmen and various other manifestations of the Wild West.

He wrote volumes, too, about desert sheiks, mysterious Araby and the inscrutable East before he ever traveled to the Orient.

He wrote adventure stories set in exotic far-off places that almost every German boy still reads. He was Germany's best-selling author, maybe still is, outsold only by the Bible.

About 80,000,000 hard cover copies of his books have been sold in the German language alone. And he has been translated into (( 28 languages. Millions of paperback sales have never been accurately counted.

At least 60,000 people have come to Radebeul for the annual Karl May Fest, which this year celebrates the 100th anniversary of Winnetou, the Apache chief who is the hero of a series of May's books. He created Winnetou, like most of his heroes -- and villains -- out of a little research and a lot of imagination.

On his 1908 American trip, 33 years after he first wrote a Winnetou story, Mr. May never got further west then Buffalo, N.Y. He did visit a Tuscarora reservation nearby. But he never saw the "dark and bloody ground" of the Wild West he wrote about.

Mr. May had the rich fantasy life that appeals to 9-year-old boys. He came to identify with his creations: "I am Old Shatterhand and Kara Ben Nemsi and I myself have lived all the adventures and heroic deeds that I have written about in my books."

Which wasn't at all true. Except for his tours of America and the Orient, Mr. May lived all his life in Saxony. But he loved to dress up as Old Shatterhand, his German frontiersman hero who was Winnetou's "blood brother," and Kara Ben Nemsi, an Arabian nomad sheik.

Mr. May (1842-1912) lived the last 17 years of his life here in an Italianate house called Villa Shatterhand.

Lots of people are in costume at this year's Karl May Fest, from kids with a couple of stripes of war paint to adult cowboys packing cap pistols to elaborately costumed "Lakota" tribe members played by Radebeul actors off-duty from their regular roles in Goethe's "Iphigene."

Tall, courtly Phil Lades, who is outfitted as a genuine Confederate colonel, introduces himself: "I am the commander of the Red River Troop."

He's from a Bavarian "Westernclub." Somewhere nearby is the Rio Bravo Troop, also from Bavaria. They're make-believe Yankees. The two troops get along fine together, proud to be fake Americans.

Mr. May's books always had a lot of Germans in them, adventuring around in exotic places, hob-nobbing with the "natives."

The Civil War troops are bivouacked together in a line of military-style tents, complete with smoky mess areas and what appear to be camp followers. The Lakota are camped nearby in tepees at the foot of a cliff that used to be a quarry. A hollow below the tepee village has been turned into a giant sandbox.

Dieter Schubert, the organizer of the fest, says "We're in a wein-wanderung landscape," a place to stroll among the vineyards.

"Radebeul is one of the most northern wine-making areas of Europe," he says.

The vineyards are terraced up the hillsides, just beyond the park-like woodland where the fest is held.

L "We make a small amount of wine, exotic, but good," he says.

Deep in what was Communist East Germany, Radebeul is a very handsome town. Before World War II, it was a kind of affluent suburb of Dresden, shared by winemakers, the rich and the arty.

The Communists proscribed Karl May until 1985. But, says Mr. Schubert, "Everybody read him anyway. We couldn't use Karl May's name, but we had Indianischen clubs."

Toward the end, the government decided Mr. May was acceptable: He was for peace, he had a proletarian background and he wrote about oppressed peoples.

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