German American, Notes on German Culture

Wild West books made Karl May one of the best-selling German writers of all time, with about 200 million books sold

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This German postage stamp portrays “Winnetou”, one of the characters created by author Karl May in the 19th century. In fact, his Wild West books made Karl May one of the best-selling German writers of all time, with about 200 million books sold worldwide…and he greatly contributed to the positive image of Native Americans in German-speaking countries.

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Karl May’s exciting tales centered on the good deeds of a German immigrant in the American Wild West, who at first was an enemy of the fierce Apache Indians, but later became a blood brother of Winnetou and helped the Indians correct wrongs perpetrated by evil men. Karl May’s stories were so vivid and real that It was a shock to me when I learned that Karl May was never actually in America …his books were the product of a vivid imagination, highly detailed research and great story telling talent. He is a big reason why German immigrants were fascinated with the American Wild West.

It is therefore not too surprising that Germans in the 19th century were attracted to America. Germans were influenced by the romance of the West …and by optimistic advertisements, especially by railroad companies selling land. Everyone heard that America was a land of freedom and wide open spaces with an abundance of good land and opportunities for those who had ambition. Thus the 19th century became a time of major German emigration to America, with the largest number arriving during the period 1840 to 1900. So many Germans emigrated that they became the largest ethnic group in the US, outnumbering even the Irish and English.

Among the Germans that arrived here during this period were talented artists who were inspired to capture the romance of the West. Painters such as Albert Bierstadt, known for his large landscapes of the American West…Emmanuel Leutze, famous for his painting of “George Washington crossing the Delaware” ….and Karl Wimar, who painted beautiful pictures of American Indians, like the two shown below:

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