By Nicole Grewling
When I tell people about my dissertation topic—“I write about German colonial fantasies of North America, Germans and Indians"—I frequently get the response: “Oh, you mean Karl May? Winnetou?" Actually, Karl May is not one of the authors in my dissertation, but this reaction demonstrates the formative influence his novels have had on generations of young German readers. German-Indian relationships loom large in the German mind, and my dissertation taps into this strange fascination by investigating (pre-)colonial fantasies in 19th-century German fiction about northern America.
If every dissertation has some autobiographical element, what is mine? I, too, read Karl May novels as a child, and I was fascinated by the story of the blood brothers Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. I did not understand it then, but it was precisely the underlying ideological assumptions about the good German who educated and in some way colonized the world that were part of this attraction.
I have always been interested in the foreign and the exotic. Growing up, I watched travel reports from other countries, read adventure stories, and was fascinated by what I encountered when I was traveling abroad. Later I began to comprehend the complexities of this fascination as a combination of genuine curiosity and the desire to control an Other through learning about it in the face of the impossibility of ever completely understanding it. This showed me nonetheless how important it is to attempt to bridge this gap by maintaining cross-cultural relations. At the same time, it opened up a fascinating new field for my own research.
Eventually, my dissertation on representations of America mirrored in some respects what I do every day on a personal level as a foreigner living in this country. Dealing with those books about Indians and the Wild West that I had read as a child, but from a completely different angle, brought the personal and the intellectual together.
Until recently, Germany’s time as a colonial empire was perceived as a short-lived and unimportant episode in German history. When I began exploring the more specific aspect of colonialism, namely, (pre-)colonial fantasies, I encountered curious representations of North America in German texts from the middle of the century until shortly after Germany’s acquisition of colonies in 1885. In my dissertation, I examine the representations by Germans of North America’s nonwhite population, particularly the native population, arguing the need to understand them in the context of German colonial fantasies and imperialist thinking. I investigate these images in connection with categories such as social status and gender to expose hidden colonial desires that find their expression in the portrayal of these ethnicities, thus allowing the perceived German national self to insert itself into the colonial discourse as a positive image.
The portrayals are as diverse as the authors writing about North America. I focus on the work of three writers who were widely read in their time but are mostly forgotten today. Unlike them, Karl May has remained famous—something I find puzzling, because May did not write from firsthand experience as did the authors I examine, who were inspired by the exciting and adventurous lives they led (at least temporarily).
The work of travel writer Friedrich Gerstäcker (1816–72) predates actual German colonial experiences. Drawing on Homi Bhabha’s concept of colonial mimicry, which recognizes the ambiguity in the colonizer’s perspective, I explore the complex interplay of Gerstäcker’s cosmopolitan perspective and exploitative colonial discourse in his works—an interplay that produces an uncharacteristically nuanced image of different ethnicities and German colonial aspirations. Balduin Möllhausen (1825–1905), a writer of popular literature, works with ethnic stock figures who are generally united into interethnic family scenarios that disguise German dreams of colonial rule. I conclude my analysis with an examination of Friedrich Pajeken (1855–1920), a writer of popular youth literature, whose ideologically charged texts sound clearly racist and nationalistic tones, in tune with colonial aspirations that had become reality by the 1890s.
Some might say that 19th-century texts about subtle or not-so-subtle German colonial aspirations are a thing of the distant past. I disagree. These texts connect us to colonial desires and ideas of the national self and help us understand the wider topic of German nationalism. By focusing on ethnicity, I explore the history of German attitudes toward foreigners in a way that might illuminate the racial politics of the Third Reich or present-day German discussions about foreigners and multiculturalism. The past is visible everywhere; I even found connections in the 2001 German movie Der Schuh des Manitu (Manitou’s Shoe). This film, a hugely successful parody of—here we are again!—Karl May’s Winnetou novels, retells the imagined German-Indian relationship from the perspective of a postwar, pop culture, consumerist Germany. The epilogue of my dissertation, in which I examine this film, is thus not the ending of my project but rather the beginning of a further adventure into the Wild West.