Karl May

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This article is about the German writer. For the Russian educator Karl May, see Karl May School. For the film, see Karl May (film). For the asteroid, see 15728 Karlmay.
Karl Friedrich May
Karl May edit.jpg
Born (1842-02-25)25 February 1842
Ernstthal, Kingdom of Saxony
Died 30 March 1912(1912-03-30) (aged 70)
Radebeul, German Empire
Occupation Writer; author
Nationality German
Genre Western, Travel Fiction, 'Heimatromane', Adventure Novels

Karl (Carl) Friedrich May (/m/ MY; German: [maɪ]; 25 February 1842 – 30 March 1912) was a popular German writer, noted mainly for adventure novels set in the American Old West (best known for the characters of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand) and similar books set in the Orient and Middle East (with Kara Ben Nemsi and Hadschi Halef Omar). In addition, he wrote stories set in Latin America and his native Germany. May also wrote poetry, a play, and composed music; he was a proficient player of several musical instruments. Many of his works were filmed, adapted for the stage, turned into audio dramas or into comics. A highly imaginative and fanciful writer, May never visited the exotic places featured in his stories until late in life, at which point the clash between his fiction and reality led to a complete change in his work.

Life and career[edit]

Karl May's birth house


Karl May was born the fifth child to a poor family who were weavers by trade in Ernstthal, Schönburgische Rezessherrschaften (then part of the Kingdom of Saxony). He had thirteen siblings of whom nine died in infancy.

During his school years, he received private music and composition tutelage. At twelve, May was making money at a skittle alley, where he was exposed to rough language.[1]


In 1856, May commenced teacher training in Waldenburg, but in 1859 was expelled for stealing six candles. After a petition he was allowed to continue his education in Plauen. After a short time as a teacher, May was jailed in Chemnitz for six weeks and his license to teach was permanently revoked when his room mate accused him of stealing a watch. During the following years, May worked as a private tutor, an author of tales, a composer and a speaker with little success leading to thieving and fraud. From 1865 to 1869, May was jailed in the workhouse at Osterstein Castle, Zwickau. With good behaviour, May became the administrator of the prison library and had the chance to read. He planned to become an author and made a list of potential titles of the works he planned to write (Repertorium C. May.) Only some came to fruition. On his release, May continued his life of crime. He was captured but when he was transported to a crime scene during a judicial investigation, he escaped and fled to Bohemia, where he was detained for vagrancy. From 1870 to 1874, May was jailed in Waldheim. There he met the catholic prison's catechist Johannes Kochta, whose influence helped May.

Early years[edit]

After May's release in May 1874, he returned to his parents in Ernstthal and began writing. The first known publication of a Karl May tale (Die Rose von Ernstthal) "The Rose from Ernstthal", appeared in November 1874.[2] It was at a time when the German press was on the move. Industrialisation, increasing literacy and economic freedom had led to many publishing start-ups, especially in the field of light fiction. Between his two long imprisonments he contacted the publisher Heinrich Gotthold Münchmeyer in Dresden. As a result, Münchmeyer hired May as editor in his publishing house, and for the first time May experienced financial security. May managed several entertainment papers (e. g. Schacht und Hütte), "Bay and Cabin" and wrote and edited numerous articles, some published under his own name, some under a pseudonym (e. g. Geographische Predigten, 1875/76) or "Collected Travel Stories". May quit in 1876, when his employer Münchmeyer tried to bind him to his company through marriage with Münchmeyer's sister-in-law and due to the firm's bad reputation.[2] During his second engagement as an editor in the publishing house of Bruno Radelli, Dresden, in 1878 he became a freelance writer and moved to Dresden with his girlfriend Emma Pollmer, whom he married in 1880. His publications did not result in a regular income and he came into arrears on his rent and other payments.[2]

In 1879 Deutscher Hausschatz or "German Treasure House", a catholic weekly journal from the press of Friedrich Pustet in Regensburg, published May's tale Three carde monte. After some additional stories, they made May the offer that he should present all future works to them exclusively. In 1880 he began the Orient Cycle, which ran, with interruption, until 1888. At the same time he wrote for other journals, under different pseudonyms to gain multiple payment for his texts. Until the time of his death, more than one hundred of his tales were published in instalments in diverse journals. May was also published in the journal Der Gute Kamerad, or "The Good Comrade", of Wilhelm Spemann, Stuttgart, later named Union Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft, a magazine intended for secondary school boys. It was there that his first tale was published in 1887 (Der Sohn des Bärenjägers) or the "Sons of the Bear Hunter", to became one of his most famous stories: Der Schatz im Silbersee (1890/91) or "The Treasure of Silver Lake". In 1882 he entered a new contact with H. G. Münchmeyer during which May began the first of five large colportage novels for his former employer. One of which, Das Waldröschen (1882–1884) had a total print run of several hundred thousand copies until 1907. Unfortunately, May had made only a verbal agreement with Münchmeyer which later led to trouble.

In October 1888 May moved to Kötzschenbroda (a part of Radebeul) and 1891 into Villa Agnes in Oberlößnitz. His breakthrough came in 1891 through contact with Friedrich Ernst Fehsenfeld, who offered to print the Deutsche Hausschatz or "Son of the Bear Hunter"-stories as books. With the start of the new book series Carl May's Gesammelte Reiseromane or "Collected Travel Accounts" in 1892 (since 1896 Karl May's Gesammelte Reiseerzählungen) for the first time May experienced financial security and recognition. But after a short time he had problems differentiating reality from fiction and went so far as to say that he himself had experienced the adventures of Old Shatterhand and Kara Ben Nemsi, his fictional characters. This became the so-called "Old Shatterhand Legend". A gunsmith in Kötzschenbroda who manufactured the legendary guns of the heroes in his novels, first the "Bärentöter" (Bear Killer) and the "Silberbüchse" (The Silver Gun), later on the "Henrystutzen" (Henry Rifle). Many readers equated the author with the protagonist and sent numerous letters to him assuming them to be one and the same. In the following years he conducted talking tours in Germany and Austria, and allowed autographed cards to be printed and photos in costume to be taken. In December 1895 he moved into the Villa "Shatterhand" in Alt-Radebeul, which he purchased from the Ziller Brothers.

Later years[edit]

In 1899/1900 May travelled to the Orient. He was at first accompanied by his servant Sejd Hassan, as they moved between Egypt and Sumatra. In 1900 he met with his wife and friends, Klara and Richard Plöhn. Together they continued the journey returning to Radebeul in July 1900. For that year and a half May wrote a travel diary, extant in fragments and transcription. According to his second wife Klara, May twice had a nervous breakdown during the journey, each lasting over a week. Hans Wollschläger and Ekkehard Bartsch believed that it was due to an eruption of reality into May's dream world.[3] May overcame the crisis without medical care.

While May was on his Orient journey, attacks in the press began, mostly from Hermann Cardauns and Rudolf Lebius. They criticised – with different motivations – May's self-promotion and the associated "Old Shatterhand Legend". Simultaneously they reproached his religious sham (he wrote as protestant for the catholic Deutscher Hausschatz and several Marian calendars), his supposed immorality and his criminal history. These polemics and several trials about unauthorized book publications lasted until the time of his death. His marriage was dissolved in 1903 through a suit brought by May. According to May, Emma, a friend of his adversary, Pauline Münchmeyer (widow of H. G. Münchmeyer), had embezzled documents, which could have proven the verbal agreement with Münchmeyer. In the same year, Mays married the widow Klara Plöhn.

Since his initial employment as an editor, May had illegally added a doctoral degree to his name. In 1902, he received an Doctor honoris causa from the Universitas Germana-Americana in Chicago for his work Im Reiche des Silbernen Löwen or "In the Realm of the Silver Lion." Christian Heermann assumes this to have happened at the behest of May or Klara Plöhn to give the false doctoral degree a legal basis.[4] This university was a known diploma mill, where degrees could be bought for money.

Karl May and Sascha Schneider, 1904

In 1908 Karl and Klara May travelled for six weeks in North America. They visited among other cities, Albany, Buffalo, the Niagara Falls and friends in Lawrence. But May did not travel as far as the Wild West. May used the journey as inspiration for his book Winnetou IV.

Tomb of Karl and Klara May

Since his Orient journey May wrote in another way. He called his former works "preparation" and started then writing complex, allegoric texts. He was convinced that he could solve or at least, discuss the "question of mankind". He turned deliberately to pacifism and wrote several books about the raising of humans from "evil" to "good". His friendship with the artist Sascha Schneider lead to new symbolistic covers for the Fehsenfeld edition. May experienced approval on 22 March 1912 and was invited by the Academic Society for Literature and Music in Vienna to hold a talk, Empor ins Reich der Edelmenschen ("Upward to the Realm of Noble Men"). Thereby he met with his friend, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bertha von Suttner. Karl May died one week later on 30 March 1912. According to the register of deaths, the cause was "cardiac arrest, acute bronchitis, asthma". Today an (unrecognised) lung cancer is not excluded. May was buried on the graveyard at Radebeul-East. The tomb was inspired by the Temple of Athena Nike Klara had seen during his travels to the Orient.



May used many different pseudonyms, including Capitan Ramon Diaz de la Escosura, D. Jam, Emma Pollmer (name of his first wife), Ernst von Linden, Hobble-Frank, Karl Hohenthal, M. Gisela, P. van der Löwen, Prinz Muhamel Lautréamont and Richard Plöhn (a friend). Today most pseudonymously or anonymously published works are identified.

For the novels set in America, May created the characters of Winnetou, the wise chief of the Apache Tribe, and Old Shatterhand, the author's alter ego and Winnetou's white blood brother. Another successful series of novels is set in the Ottoman Empire. Here the narrator-protagonist calls himself Kara Ben Nemsi, i.e. Karl, son of Germans, and travels with his local guide and servant Hadschi Halef Omar through the Sahara desert to the Near East, experiencing many exciting adventures.

There is the development from an anonymous first-person narrator, who is simply an observer and reporter (e. g. Der Gitano, 1875), to the acquisition of heroic skills and equipment, to the fully formed first-person narrator-heroes of Old Shatterhand and Kara Ben Nemsi. Some of May's first-person narrator-heroes are called "Charley" (English for Karl) by friends and fellows. For a long time equipment (e. g. Henry rifle and Bear Killer) and skills (e. g. dash struck) were the same for all first-person narrator-heroes, but in Die Felsenburg / Krüger Bei (1893/94) May allowed the first-person narrator in the American Old West, in the Orient and in Germany. Therefore, he identified Old Shatterhand, Kara Ben Nemsi and Charley with the Dr. Karl May in Dresden.

With few exceptions, May had not visited the places he described, but compensated successfully for his lack of direct experience through a combination of creativity, imagination, and documentary sources including maps, travel accounts and guidebooks, as well as anthropological and linguistic studies. The work of writers such as James Fenimore Cooper, Gabriel Ferry, Friedrich Gerstäcker, Balduin Möllhausen and Mayne Reid served as his models.

Non-dogmatic Christian feelings and values play an important role, and May's heroes are often described as being of German ancestry. In addition, following the Romantic ideal of the "noble savage" and inspired by the writings of writers like James Fenimore Cooper or George Catlin, his Native Americans are usually portrayed as innocent victims of white law-breakers, and many are presented as heroic characters. May also wrote of the fate of other suppressed peoples. Deeply rooted in Karl May's works is the belief that all mankind should live together peacefully; all of his main characters try to avoid taking life, except when necessary.

May deliberately avoided ethnological prejudices and wrote against public opinion (e. g. Winnetou, Durchs wilde Kurdistan, Und Friede auf Erden!). Nevertheless, there are in his work some phrasings, which today are seen as racist. These phrasings underlay the paradigms of his time. For example, there are broad-brush pejorative statements about Armenians, black people, Chinese people, Irish people, Jews and mestizos. Therefore, May was not uninfluenced by the nationalism and racism, which were characteristics of Wilhelmine Germany at that time. But in his novels there are also positively depicted Chinese and black people and mestizos, who contradict the common clichés. In a letter to a young Jew who intended to become a Christian after reading May's books, May advised him first to understand his own religion, which he described as holy and exalted, until he was experienced enough to choose.[5]

In his later works (after 1900) May turned away from the adventurous style to write symbolic novels with religious and pacifistic content. The break is best shown in Im Reiche des silbernen Löwen. Herein the first two parts are adventurous and the last two parts belong to the mature work. In the context of this stage in May's literary development his friendship with art nouveau painter and sculptor Sascha Schneider who painted symbolic covers for May's books, is important. Karl May himself repeatedly stressed the importance of his mature work, though it was never as popular with the general public as his earlier adventure stories.

For a long time, literary critics tended to regard May's literature as trivial, but recent research has reversed this assessment, at least partially.

Early work[edit]

In his early work Karl May tried several genres until he showed his proficiency with travel stories.[6] During his time as editor he published many of these works within the periodicals, for which he was responsible. The last publications that attributed to the early work were released in 1883.[7]

Das Buch der Liebe (1875/76, educational work)
Geographische Predigten (1875/76, educational work)
Der beiden Quitzows letzte Fahrten (1876/77, not finished by Karl May)
Auf hoher See gefangen (1877/78, also titled as Auf der See gefangen, parts later revised for Old Surehand II)
Scepter und Hammer (1879/80)
Im fernen Westen (1879, revision for the youth of Old Firehand (1875), later revised for Winnetou II)
Der Waldläufer (1879, revision for the youth of "Le Coureur de Bois", a novel by Gabriel Ferry)
Die Juweleninsel (1880–82)

The shorter stories of the early work can be grouped as follows:

Adventure fiction and early travel stories (e. g. Inn-nu-woh, der Indianerhäuptling, 1875)
Crime fiction (e. g. Wanda, 1875)
Historical fiction (e. g. Robert Surcouf, 1882)
Humorous stories (e. g. Die Fastnachtsnarren, 1875)
Series about "the Old Dessauer", i. e. Leopold I, Prince of Anhalt-Dessau (e. g. Pandur und Grenadier, 1883)
Stories of villages in the Ore Mountains (e. g. Die Rose von Ernstthal, 1874 or 1875)

Many of these works belong to more than one group. For example, May wrote some historical fiction as humorous stories and many of the village stories concern crime. Especially in his early work May used home settings, but there are also exotic scenes. The eponymous hero of his first non-European story Inn-nu-woh, der Indianerhäuptling is a rough draft of Winnetou. Im fernen Westen and Der Waldläufer are the first book editions of Karl May texts known.[2] Later some of the shorter stories were published in anthologies, e. g. in Der Karawanenwürger und andere Erzählungen (1894), Humoresken und Erzählungen (1902) and Erzgebirgische Dorfgeschichten (1903).

Furthermore, to the early work belong articles such as natural philosophic tractates or popular scientific works about history and technology (e. g. Schätze und Schatzgräber, 1875), published answers to letters sent to him as editor and poems (e. g. Meine einstige Grabinschrift, 1872).

Colportage novels[edit]

Cover for Waldröschen

There are five large (many thousands of pages) colportage novels May wrote mostly pseudonymously or anonymously for the press of H. G. Münchmeyer from 1882 to 1888. When May's authorship of these works emerged, he was publicly confronted, because contemporaneously the novels were seen as indecent, especially as they were written parallel to the commendable works in Deutscher Hausschatz.

Das Waldröschen (1882–84, a part was later revised for Old Surehand II)
Die Liebe des Ulanen (1883–85)
Der verlorne Sohn oder Der Fürst des Elends (1884–86)
Deutsche Herzen – Deutsche Helden (1885–88, also titled as Deutsche Herzen, deutsche Helden)
Der Weg zum Glück (1886–88)

From 1900 to 1906 Münchmeyer's successor Adalbert Fischer published the first book editions. These were revised by third hand and published under May's real name instead of using the pseudonym. This edition was not authorised by May and he tried to stop the publication.[8]

Travel stories[edit]

Cover of Orangen und Datteln by Fritz Bergen (1893)

In the book series Carl May's Gesammelte Reiseromane, later entiteld Karl May's Gesammelte Reiseerzählungen, 33 volumes were published from 1892 to 1910 in the press of Friedrich Ernst Fehsenfeld. Most of them were published before in Deutscher Hausschatz, but some of them were directly written for this series. The most famous titles are the Orient Cycle (volume 1–6) and the Winnetou-Trilogy (7–9). Beyond these shorter cycles, there is no general reading order, because May himself produced unintentionally chronological inconsistencies. Most of them arose when he revised earlier texts for the book edition (e. g. within the Winnetou-Trilogy).

  1. Durch Wüste und Harem (1892, since 1895 titled as Durch die Wüste)
  2. Durchs wilde Kurdistan (1892)
  3. Von Bagdad nach Stambul (1892)
  4. In den Schluchten des Balkan (1892)
  5. Durch das Land der Skipetaren (1892)
  6. Der Schut (1892)
  7. Winnetou I (1893, temporarily also titled as Winnetou der Rote Gentleman I)
  8. Winnetou II (1893, temporarily also titled as Winnetou der Rote Gentleman II)
  9. Winnetou III (1893, temporarily also titled as Winnetou der Rote Gentleman III)
10. Orangen und Datteln (1893, an anthology)
11. Am Stillen Ocean (1894, an anthology)
12. Am Rio de la Plata (1894)
13. In den Cordilleren (1894)
14. Old Surehand I (1894)
15. Old Surehand II (1895)
16. Im Lande des Mahdi I (1896)
17. Im Lande des Mahdi II (1896)
18. Im Lande des Mahdi III (1896)
19. Old Surehand III (1897)
20. Satan und Ischariot I (1896)
21. Satan und Ischariot II (1897)
22. Satan und Ischariot III (1897)
23. Auf fremden Pfaden (1897, an anthology)
24. „Weihnacht!" (1897)
26. Im Reiche des silbernen Löwen I (1898)
27. Im Reiche des silbernen Löwen II (1898)
25. Am Jenseits (1899)
28–33 are travel stories, which belong to the mature work

There are some shorter travel stories, which were not published within this series (e. g. Eine Befreiung within Die Rose von Kaïrwan, 1894). On this edition (so called "green volumes") bases the series Karl May's Illustrierte Reiseerzählungen (illustrated "blue volumes", since 1907). This edition was revised by May himself and is the definitive edition. It contains just the first thirty volumes which have partly another numbering.

After foundation of the Karl May Press in 1913 in the new series "Karl May's Gesammelte Werke" many volumes were revised (partly radically) and many got new titles. Texts from others than Fehsenfeld Press were added to the new series.

Stories for young readers[edit]

Cover of Der blaurote Methusalem by Oskar Herrfurth

These stories were written from 1887 to 1897 for the magazine Der Gute Kamerad. He intentionally wrote for young readers. Most of the stories are set in the Wild West, but here Old Shatterhand is just a figure and not the first-person narrator as he is in the travel stories. The most famous volume is Der Schatz im Silbersee. In the broadest sense the early works Im fernen Westen and Der Waldläufer belong to these category.

Der Sohn des Bärenjägers (1887, since 1890 within Die Helden des Westens)
Der Geist des Llano estakata (1888, since 1890 correctly titled as Der Geist des Llano estakado within Die Helden des Westens)
Kong-Kheou, das Ehrenwort (1888/89, since 1892 titled as Der blaurote Methusalem)
Die Sklavenkarawane (1889/90)
Der Schatz im Silbersee (1890/91)
Das Vermächtnis des Inka (1891/92)
Der Oelprinz (1893/94, since 1905 titled as Der Ölprinz)
Der schwarze Mustang (1896/97)

Between 1890 and 1899 Union Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft published them as illustrated book edition.

Parallel to this major work May also published shorter stories and some puzzles anonymously or pseudonymously from 1887 to 1891. These were written mostly to given illustrations. One of the pseudonyms was "Hobble-Frank", which was a popular character in his stories for the youth with Wild West setting. Also his answers to letters by the readers were published within Der Gute Kamerad.

Mature work[edit]

Ardistan und Dschinnistan, 1909, cover by Sascha Schneider showing Marah Durimeh

The so-called mature work Spätwerk consists of the publications after May's travel to the Orient, from 1900 on.[9] Many of them were published in the press of Fehsenfeld. Within the series Karl May’s Gesammelte Reiseerzählungen the volumes 28–33 belong to the mature work.

Himmelsgedanken (1900, poem collection)
28. Im Reiche des silbernen Löwen III (1902)
Erzgebirgische Dorfgeschichten (1903, anthology)
29. Im Reiche des silbernen Löwen IV (1903)
30. Und Friede auf Erden! (1904)
Babel und Bibel (1906, drama)
31. Ardistan und Dschinnistan I (1909)
32. Ardistan und Dschinnistan II (1909)
33. Winnetou IV (1910)
Mein Leben und Streben (1910, autobiography)

Some shorter stories also belong to the mature work (e. g. Schamah, 1907), also some essays and articles (e. g. Briefe über Kunst, 1906/07) as well as texts he wrote in the context of lawsuits against him, to defend himself before the public (e. g "Karl May als Erzieher" und "Die Wahrheit über Karl May" oder Die Gegner Karl Mays in ihrem eigenen Lichte, 1902).

Other works[edit]

Karl May wrote also musical compositions, especially when he was member of the singing society "Lyra" about 1864. Well known is his version of Ave Maria (together with Vergiss mich nicht collected within Ernste Klänge, 1899).[10]

During his last years May held talks about his philosophic ideas.

Drei Menschheitsfragen: Wer sind wir? Woher kommen wir? Wohin gehen wir? (Lawrence, 1908)
Sitara, das Land der Menschheitsseele (Augsburg, 1909)
Empor ins Reich der Edelmenschen (Vienna, 1912)

After May's death there were publishings of his residue: Fragments of stories and dramas, lyrics, musical compositions, his self made library catalogue and mostly letters.


Number of copies and translations[edit]

It is stated that Karl May is the “most read writer of German tongue”. The total number of copies published is about 200 millions, half of this are German copies.[11]

The first translation of May’s work was the first half of the Orient Cycle into French 1881 (just ten years after the French-German War), which was published in the French daily Le Monde[12] (published 1860–1885, not to be confused with the current daily Le Monde). Since that time May's work has been translated into more than thirty languages including Latin, Esperanto and Volapük. In the 1960s the UNESCO stated May being the most translated German writer.[11] Outside the German-speaking area he is most popular in the Czech language area, Hungary and the Netherlands. In France, Great Britain and the US he is nearly unknown.[12] In 2001 Nemsi Books Publishing Company located in Pierpont, South Dakota, opened its doors to become one of the first English publishing houses dedicated to the unabridged translations of Karl May's original work.

List of languages in which Karl May's work has been translated: Afrikaans, Brazilian, Bulgarian, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English (British), English (American), Esperanto, Estonian, Finnish, French, Greek, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Latvian, Lithuanian, Malay, Modern Hebrew, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovakian, Slovene, Spanish, Swedish, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, Volapük, Yiddish[11][13]

There are also braille editions[11] and editions read for visually impaired or blind people.[14]


Karl May had a substantial influence on a number of well-known German-speaking people – and on the German population itself.[15] The popularity of his writing, and indeed, his (generally German) protagonists, are seen as having filled a lack in the German psyche which had few popular heroes until the 19th Century.[16] His readers longed to escape from an industrialised capitalist society, an escape which May offered.[17] He was noted as having "helped shape the collective German dream of feats far beyond middle-class bounds"[16] and contributed to the popular image of Native Americans in German-speaking countries.

The image of Native Americans in Germany is greatly influenced by May. The name Winnetou even has an entry in the main German dictionary Duden. The wider influence on the populace also surprised US occupation troops after World War II, who realised that thanks to Karl May, "Cowboys and Indians" were familiar concepts to local children (though fantastic and removed from reality).[15]

Many well-known German-speaking people used May's heroes as models in their childhood.[18] Physicist Albert Einstein was a great fan of Karl May's books and is quoted as having said "My whole adolescence stood under his sign. Indeed, even today, he has been dear to me in many a desperate hour..."[16] Many others have given positive statements about their Karl May reading.[19]

Adolf Hitler was an admirer, who noted that the novels "overwhelmed" him as a boy, going as far as to ensure "a noticeable decline" in his school grades.[20] According to an anonymous friend, Hitler attended the lecture given by May in Vienna in March 1912 and was enthusiastic about the event.[21] Ironically, the lecture was an appeal for peace, also heard by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bertha von Suttner. Claus Roxin doubts the anonymous description, because Hitler had told much about May, but not that he had seen him.[22] Hitler defended May against critics in the men's hostel where he lived in Vienna, as the evidence of May's earlier time in jail had come to light; although it was true, Hitler confessed, that May had never visited the sites of his American adventure stories, this made him a greater writer in Hitler's view since it showed the author's powers of imagination. May died suddenly only ten days after the lecture, leaving the young Hitler deeply upset.[23]

Hitler later recommended the books to his generals and had special editions distributed to soldiers at the front, praising Winnetou as an example of "tactical finesse and circumspection",[24] though some note that the latter claims of using the books as military guidance are not substantiated.[16] However, as told by Albert Speer, "when faced by seemingly hopeless situations, he [Hitler] would still reach for these stories," because "they gave him courage like works of philosophy for others or the Bible for elderly people."[24] Hitler's admiration for May led the German writer Klaus Mann to accuse May of having been a form of "mentor" for Hitler.[15]

In his admiration Hitler ignored May's Christian and humanitarian approach and views completely, not mentioning his – in some novels – relatively sympathetic description of Jews and other persons of non-Northern European ancestry.

The fate of Native Americans in the United States was used during the world wars for anti-American propaganda. The National Socialists in particular tried to use May's popularity and his work for their purposes.[16] Several novels of Karl May were re-edited in an antisemitic style during the years of Nazism and led to serious misunderstandings about May's original intentions[25][not in citation given] and led to his books being deemed "chauvinist" by the Communist authorities of East Germany – though this did not affect his popularity or prevent a Karl May renaissance during the 1980s.[16]

Impact on other authors[edit]

The German writer Carl Zuckmayer was intrigued by May's great Apache chief and named his daughter Maria Winnetou (* 1926).[11]

Max von der Grün reported that he read Karl May as a young boy. When asked whether reading May's books had given him anything, he answered: "No. It took something away from me. The fear of bulky books that is."[26]

Also Heinz Werner Höber, twofold Glauser prize winner, was a self-confessed follower of Karl May: "When I was about 12 years old I wrote my first novel on Native Americans which was of course from the beginning to the end completely stolen from Karl May." He had pleaded with friends to get him to Radebeul "because Radebeul meant Karl May". There he was deeply impressed by the museum and stated: "My great fellow countryman from Hohenstein-Ernstthal and his immortal heroes have never left me ever since."[27]


After Karl May published the whole poem Ave Maria in 1896 at least 19 other persons wrote musical versions. Other poems, especially from the collection Himmelsgedanken were set into music. As present for May Carl Ball wrote "harp clangs" for the drama Babel und Bibel. The Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck made an opera from Der Schatz im Silbersee in the age of eleven. Others wrote music inspired by May's works (e. g. around Winnetou's death).[28]

The first stage adaptation was Winnetou by Hermann Dimmler in 1919. Revisions by him and Ludwig Körner were played in the following years. After the Second World War first adaptations were conducted in Austria. In East Germany they started not before 1984. Different novel revisions are played on outdoor stages since the 1940s. The most famous Karl May Festivals are held every summer in Bad Segeberg (since 1952) and in Lennestadt-Elspe (since 1958). At both places movie actor Pierre Brice played Winnetou. Another festival is on the rock stage in Rathen, in the Saxon Switzerland near Radebeul (1940, then since 1984).[29] Many other stages in Austria and Germany show or showed plays after Karl May. In 2006 these were 14 stages. May’s own drama Babel und Bibel has not been played on a bigger stage yet.

Karl May's friends Marie Luise Droop and her husband Adolf Droop among others founded in cooperation with the Karl May Press the production company "Ustad-Film" (the name refers to May himself in Im Reiche des silbernen Löwen III/IV) in 1920. They produced three silent movies (Auf den Trümmern des Paradieses, Die Todeskarawane and Die Teufelsanbeter) after the Orientcycle in 1920, which are lost. Due to the low success "Ustad-Film" went bankrupt in the following year.[11] The first sound movie Durch die Wüste was shown in 1936. Die Sklavenkarawane (de) (1958) and its sequel Der Löwe von Babylon (de) (1959) were the first colour movies. Famous is the Karl May movie wave from 1962–1968, which was one of the most successful German movie series.[30] While most of the 17 movies were Wild West movies (beginning with Der Schatz im Silbersee), three were based on the Orientcycle and two on Das Waldröschen. Most of these movies were made separately by the two competitors Horst Wendlandt and Artur Brauner. Following actors played main characters in several movies of the series: Lex Barker (Old Shatterhand, Kara Ben Nemsi, Karl Sternau), Pierre Brice (Winnetou), Stewart Granger (Old Surehand), Milan Srdoč (Old Wabble) and Ralf Wolter (Sam Hawkens, Hadschi Halef Omar, André Hasenpfeffer). The film score by Martin Böttcher has also become famous and together with the landscape of Yugoslavia, where most movies were shot, it participate to the great success of the series. After the series more movies for cinema (Die Spur führt zum Silbersee, 1990) or TV (e. g. Das Buschgespenst, 1986) and TV-series (e. g. Kara Ben Nemsi Effendi, 1973) were produced. Most Karl May movies are far from the original, some even contain nothing more than May's main figures.[30]

No other German writer has more audio dramas than Karl May,[11] which have a number of about 300.[14] Günther Bibo wrote the first one (Der Schatz im Silbersee) in 1929. A greater wave was during the 1960s.[11] There are also Czech and Danish audio dramas.[14]

After the ending of the term of copyright and with the success of the Karl May movie series of the 1960s the first German comic wave occurred. A second comic wave came during the 1970s. The first and qualitative best German comic was Winnetou (# 1–8) / Karl May (# 9–52) (1963–1965). It was drawn by Helmut Nickel and Harry Ehrt and published by Walter Lehning Verlag. The most comprehensive comic was published by the press Standaard Uitgeverij. This Flemish comic Karl May was drawn by the studio of Willy Vandersteen in 87 issues from 1862–1987. Also in other countries comics were produced: e. g. Czechoslovakia (often reduced to the wild west plot), Denmark, France, Mexico, Spain and Sweden.[31]

In 1988 Der Schatz im Silbersee was read by Gert Westphal and published as audiobook. Wann sehe ich dich wieder, du lieber, lieber Winnetou? (1995) is a compendium of Karl May texts read by Hermann Wiedenroth. Since 1998 different presses (e. g. Karl May Press) have released an increasing number of about 50 audiobooks.[14] Another famous reader is movie actor Peter Sodann.

Karl May and his life were basis for screen adaptations: Freispruch für Old Shatterhand (1965, dir. Hans Heinrich) and Karl May (1974, dir. Hans-Jürgen Syberberg) as well as a 6-episode TV series Karl May (1992, dir. Klaus Überall). There are also novels with or about Karl May, e. g. Swallow, mein wackerer Mustang (1980) by Erich Loest, Vom Wunsch, Indianer zu werden. Wie Franz Kafka Karl May traf und trotzdem nicht in Amerika landete (1994) by Peter Henisch, Old Shatterhand in Moabit (1994) by Walter Püschel and Karl May und der Wettermacher (2001) by Jürgen Heinzerling. A stage adaptation is Die Taschenuhr des Anderen by Willi Olbrich.

Copies, parodies, and sequels[edit]

Already during May's lifetime he has been copied or parodied. While some just wrote similar wild west stories to participate on his literary success (e. g. Franz Treller), others even used May's name to publish their works.[32] Also today novels with May figures are published. In “Hadschi Halef Omar” (2010) Jörg Kastner describes the first contact of the titular character with Kara Ben Nemsi. Franz Kandolf wrote "In Mekka" (1923) a sequel to Am Jenseits, which is official part of Karl May's Gesammelte Werke as vol. 50. An alternative to Im Reiche des silbernen Löwen III/IV by Heinz Grill ("Die Schatten des Schah-in-Schah", 2006) has been written in the adventurous style of the first parts. As sequel to Winnetou IV May had planned Winnetous Testament. A series of eight volumes with this title has been written by Jutta Laroche and Reinhard Marheinecke. Other famous writers of sequels are Friederike Chudoba, Otto Emersleben, Thomas Jeier, Edmund Theil and Iris Wörner (Her pseudonym Nscho-tschi refers to Winnetou's sister).[32]

The 2001 film Der Schuh des Manitu by Michael Herbig is a parody on the Karl May Films of the 1960s and spoofs extensively the characters and motives of May's Winnetou trilogy.


Asteroid 15728 Karlmay is named in his honor.[33]

Karl May institutions[edit]

Karl May Foundation[edit]

In his will, May made his second wife Klara his sole heiress. He instructed that after her death all of his property and any future earnings from his work should go to a foundation. This foundation should support the education of gifted poor people and help writers, journalists and editors, who through no fault of their own, had got into financial difficulties. One year after May's death on 5 March 1913, Klara May established the "Karl May Foundation" ("Karl-May-Stiftung"). Contributions have been made since 1917. With contracts of inheritance and wills of Klara May, the property of both went to the Karl May Foundation. Following her instructions, the foundation established a Karl May Museum to maintain the Villa "Shatterhand", the estates, the collections (the museum was founded during her lifetime) and to maintain May's tomb.[34][35] In 1960, the Karl May Foundation leaved the Karl May Press, which belonged to her by two-thirds. Thereby the press got parts of May’s properties.[35]

Karl May Press[edit]

On 1 July 1913 Klara May, Friedrich Ernst Fehsenfeld (May’s main publisher) and the jurist Euchar Albrecht Schmid established the "Foundation Press Fehsenfeld & Co." ("Stiftungs-Verlag Fehsenfeld & Co.") in Radebeul. In 1915 the name changed into "Karl May Press" ("Karl-May-Verlag" = KMV). They ended the civil disputes (e. g. about the colportage novels) and got the rights of works from others presses (e. g the colportage novels and the stories for the youth).[36] Third hand revisions of these texts were added to the series Karl May’s Gesammelte Reiseerzählungen, which was renamed to Karl May’s Gesammelte Werke (und Briefe). The existing 33 volumes of the original series also were (partly radically) revised. Until 1945 there were 65 volumes. The press nearly only publishes works of Karl May and secondary literature. Beside the Gesammelte Werke (the classical “green volumes”), which have 91 volumes today, the press has a huge reprint programme. Other targets of the young press were rehabilitation of May against literary criticism and support of the Karl May Foundation. Since the contractual quitting of Fehsenfeld in 1921 and the separation from the Karl May Foundation (as Klara May’s heir) in 1960 the press lies in hands of the Schmid family. Due to the attitudes of the authorities of the Soviet occupation zone and East Germany towards May (his works should not be printed) the press moved to Bamberg (West Germany) in 1959. After the German reunification the press has a second place of residence in Radebeul since 1996. When in 1963 the term of copyright ended the press lost its monopoly. The press started a commercialisation of May. The name "Karl May" is registered trade mark of the "Karl May Verwaltungs- und Vertriebs-GmbH", which belongs to the Karl May Press.[36]



Karl May's Villa "Shatterhand"
Villa Bärenfett

The "Karl May Museum" in Radebeul started on 1 December 1928 in "Villa Bear Fat" (Villa Bärenfett) as a museum about history and life of Native Americans. This villa was built as a log house in the garden of Villa "Shatterhand" after ideas of the widely travelled artist Patty Frank (Ernst Tobis). Karl May's collection about Native Americans, which was added by Klara May, and the whole collection of Patty Frank were joined; therefore, Frank became the first curator and got life estate in "Villa Bear Fat". During the time of the GDR the museum was renamed "Native Americans Museum of the Karl May Foundation" in 1956 and Karl May related exhibits were removed in 1962.

After rethinking of the GDR authorities the museum got its former name back and the street even was renamed "Karl May Street" in 1984. While "Villa Bear Fat" further on contains the exhibition about Native Americans, where the fireplace room today is used for events, Villa "Shatterhand" shows an exhibition about Karl May since 1985. Beside the library, which can be used for research, the work room and parlour (so called "Sascha Schneider Room") are originally arranged. Among others the replicas of the "famous guns" and a bust of Winnetou are shown. Opposite to Villa "Shatterhand" May's fruit garden has become the "Karl May Grove" ("Karl-May-Hain").[37]


The “Karl May House” (“Karl-May-Haus”) is the about 300 year old weaver house, where May was born. During the May renaissance in the GDR it has become a memorial and museum since 12 March 1985. Beside the permanent exhibition about May's life rebuild rooms like a weaver chamber and non-German book editions are shown. The garden has been arranged according to May's description in his biography. Opposite the house lies the "International Karl May Heritage Center" ("Karl-May-Begegnungsstätte"), which is used for events and special exhibitions. In Hohenstein-Ernstthal, which is called "Karl May Home Town" since 1992, every May related place has a commemorative plaque. These places are connected by a "Karl May Path" ("Karl-May-Wanderweg"). Outside the city lies the "Karl May Cave" ("Karl-May-Höhle"), where May found shelter during his criminal time.[38]


Some associations have been founded during Karl May’s lifetime, e. g. “Karl May Clubs” in the 1890s.[39] Today, various work groups, societies, and clubs are devoting their activities to Karl May's life and work, and organize related events. While early associations often understood their role as rendering homage to the writer or defending him against critics, they focus today more on research.[40] Most societies are in German-speaking areas (e. g. booster clubs of the museums), but some can also be found in the Netherlands, Australia and Indonesia. While the societies are responsible for the release of most Karl May-related periodicals (e. g Der Beobachter an der Elbe, Karl-May-Haus Information, Wiener Karl-May-Brief, Karl May in Leipzig), the magazine Karl May & Co. is published independently.

The "Karl May Society" ("Karl May Gesellschaft e.V." = KMG) is the largest society with approximately 1800 members. The KMG was founded on 22 March 1969. One of its main objectives is to conduct research on Karl May's life and work and to promote his recognition in the official history of literature and the general public.[41] Among the various publications of the society are the Jahrbuch, the Mitteilungen, the Sonderhefte der Karl-May-Gesellschaft, and the KMG-Nachrichten as well as a huge reprint programme. Since 2008 and in cooperation with the Karl May Foundation and the Karl May Press, the KMG publishes the critical edition of "Karl Mays Werke". This project had been initiated by Hans Wollschläger and Hermann Wiedenroth in 1987. After initial disruptions and changes also regarding the printing[8] the project is now conceptualized to more than 99 volumes.[42]

See also[edit]

Grams, Grant: Was Karl May in Canada? The works of Max Otto: A German Writer's "Absurb Picture of Canada" in Yearbook of German-American Studies, Volume 42 2007, pp. 69–83.

Grams, Grant: "This terrible Karl May" in the Wild West, Karl B. Schwerla: Kanada I'm Faltboot, in Alberta History Volume 56 No.1 2008, pp. 10–13.

In Mercedes Lackey's "From a High Tower", a late 19th C. German female sharpshooter who was raised on Karl May takes a job with a touring Wild West company. She tells them about how most Germans idea of the American West is filtered through May's writings, and suggests changes to the show that will make it more attractive to their audience.


  1. ^ May K. Mein Leben und Streben
  2. ^ a b c d Sudhoff/Steinmetz: Karl-May-Chronik I
  3. ^ Bartsch, Ekkehard & Wollschläger, Hans: Karl Mays Orientreise 1899/1900. Within: Karl May: In fernen Zonen. Karl-May-Verlag, Bamberg and Radebeul, 1999.
  4. ^ Heermann, Christian: Winnetous Blutsbruder. Karl-May-Verlag, Bamberg and Radebeul, 2002.
  5. ^ May, Karl: Letter to Herbert Friedländer from 13 April 1906. Cited within: Wohlgschaft: Karl May – Leben und Werk, p. 1555f.
  6. ^ Lowsky, Martin: Karl May (Metzler Sammlung, vol. 231). Metzler, Stuttgart, 1987, p. 38.
  7. ^ Due to the overlapping of the groups of works, there is no clear cut.
  8. ^ a b Wehnert, Jürgen: Der Text. In Ueding: Karl-May-Handbuch, pp. 116–130.
  9. ^ Schmid, Euchar Albrecht: Gestalt und Idee. pp. 369–376. In: Karl May. „ICH“ (39th Edition). Karl-May-Verlag, Bamberg, 1995, pp. 367–420.
  10. ^ Kühne, Hartmut & Lorenz, Christoph F.: Karl May und die Musik. Karl-May-Verlag, Bamberg and Radebeul, 1999.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h Petzel, Michael & Wehnert, Jürgen: Das neue Lexikon rund um Karl May. Lexikon Imprint Verlag, Berlin 2002.
  12. ^ a b von Thüna, Ulrich: Übersetzungen. In Ueding: Karl-May-Handbuch, pp. 519–522.
  13. ^ Books by Karl May in Estonian in National Library of Estonia
  14. ^ a b c d Karl May audio drama database
  15. ^ a b c Ich bin ein Cowboy – The Economist, 24 May 2001
  16. ^ a b c d e f Tales Of The Grand Teutons: Karl May Among The Indians – The New York Times, 4 January 1987
  17. ^ The American Indian in the Great War, Real and Imagined – Camurat, Diane
  18. ^ Müller, Erwin: Aufgespießt. In several issues of KMG-Nachrichten
  19. ^ Karl May (German)
  20. ^ Hitler's Mein Kampf attribution of his poor grades in secondary school (his primary school marks, in grades first through fifth, had been quite good in general) to his fascination with May is not entirely reliable. There were a number of factors which contributed: attendance at a larger school in Linz, segregation of classes by subject matter rather than by age, and more difficult subject matter are identified by Kershaw (Adolf Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris, chapter 1).
  21. ^ (Anonymus): Mein Freund Hitler Within: Moravsky ilustrovany zpravodaj. 1935, No. 40, p. 10f.
  22. ^ Roxin, Claus: Letter from 24 February 2004. Cited within: Wohlgschaft: Karl May – Leben und Werk, p. 2000.
  23. ^ Hamman, Brigette (1999). Hitler's Vienna: A Dictator's Apprenticeship. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 382–85. ISBN 0-19-512537-1. 
  24. ^ a b Mein Buch – Grafton, Anthony, The New Republic, December 2008
  25. ^ Harder, Ralf: Mißbraucht im Dritten Reich
  26. ^ Thor-Heyerdahl-Gymnasium – Anecdotes (German)
  27. ^ Eik, Jan: Der Mann, der Jerry Cotton war. Erinnerungen des Bestsellerautors Heinz Werner Höber. Das Neue Berlin, Berlin, 1996. EAN 9783359007999
  28. ^ Kühne, Hartmut: Vertonungen. In: Ueding: Karl-May-Handbuch, pp. 532–535.
  29. ^ Hatzig, Hansotto: Dramatisierungen. In: Ueding: Karl-May-Handbuch, pp. 523–526.
  30. ^ a b Hatzig, Hansotto: Verfilmungen. In: Ueding: Karl-May-Handbuch, pp. 527–531.
  31. ^ Petzel, Michael: Comics und Bildergeschichten. In: Ueding: Karl-May-Handbuch, pp. 539–545.
  32. ^ a b Wehnert, Jürgen: Fortsetzungen, Ergänzungen und Bearbeitungen. In: Ueding: Karl-May-Handbuch, pp. 509–511.
  33. ^ "15728 Karlmay", Jet Propulsion Laboratory – Small-Body Database (NASA), retrieved 16 October 2012 
  34. ^ Schmid, Euchar Albrecht: Karl Mays Tod und Nachlaß. pp. 352ff., 362ff. In: Karl May. „ICH“ (39th Edition). Karl-May-Verlag, Bamberg, 1995, pp. 327–365.
  35. ^ a b Wagner, René: Karl-May-Stiftung (Radebeul). In: Ueding: Karl-May-Handbuch, pp. 549–551.
  36. ^ a b Wehnert, Jürgen: Der Karl-May-Verlag. In: Ueding: Karl-May-Handbuch, pp. 554–558.
  37. ^ Wagner, René: Karl-May-Museum (Radebeul). In: Ueding: Karl-May-Handbuch, pp. 547–549.
  38. ^ Neubert, André: Karl-May-Haus (Hohenstein-Ernstthal). In: Ueding: Karl-May-Handbuch, pp. 546–547.
  39. ^ Wohlgschaft: Karl May – Leben und Werk. p. 1029
  40. ^ Heinemann, Erich: Organe und Perspektiven der Karl-May-Forschung. In: Ueding: Karl-May-Handbuch, pp. 559–564.
  41. ^ Satzung der Karl-May-Gesellschaft e.V. 02.03.2010.
  42. ^ Edition plannings



  • Karl Mays Werke: historisch-kritische Ausgabe. Für die Karl-May-Stiftung herausgegeben von Hermann Wiedenroth und Hans Wollschläger. F. Greno, Nördlingen 1987 ff. / then by Haffmans: Zürich / then by Bücherhaus: Bargfeld 1993–2007 / now: Karl-May-Verlag, Bamberg and Radebeul.
    • (this translates in English as: Karl May's Works: historical critical edition. On behalf of the Karl May Foundation edited by Hermann Wiedenroth and Hans Wollschläger / changed publisher 3 times.)
    • The Catalogue of the German National Library presently shows 58 entries under the name of this project, including improved re-editions, supplementary volumes, edited documents etc.
  • Mein Leben und Streben (autobiography). Freiburg i. Br., Friedrich Ernst Fehsenfeld, 1910. Reprint: Hildesheim and New York, Olms Presse, 1975 (third edition 1997), with preface, comments, epilogue, index for subjects, persons and geographical names by Hainer Plaul.
    • Online version in English, translated by Gunther Olesch in 2000 under the title My Life and My Efforts (on the web site of the Karl May Society).
    • Another translation was published in print by Michael Michalak under the title My Life and My Mission (Nemsi Books Publishing 2007, 199 pages, ISBN 0-9718164-7-6, and ISBN 978-0-9718164-7-3).

Secondary literature[edit]

  • Bugmann, Marlies: Savage To Saint, The Karl May Story. BookSurge Publishing, 2008, ISBN 1-4196-5585-X, ISBN 978-1-4196-5585-2 (First English biography of Karl May).
  • Frayling, Christopher: Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone. Routledge, London and Boston 1981; revised edition I.B.Taurus, London and New York 2006, ISBN 978-1-84511-207-3.
  • Plaul, Hainer: Illustrierte Karl-May-Bibliographie. Unter Mitwirkung von Gerhard Klußmeier. Saur, Munich, London, New York, Paris 1989, ISBN 3-598-07258-9 (illustrated Bibliography in (German)).
  • Sammons, Jeffrey L.: Ideology, nemesis, fantasy: Charles Sealsfield, Friedrich Gerstäcker, Karl May, and other German novelists of America. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1998, ISBN 0-8078-8121-X.
  • Sudhoff, Dieter & Steinmetz, Hans-Dieter: Karl-May-Chronik (5 Volumes + companion book). Karl-May-Verlag, Bamberg and Radebeul 2005–2006, ISBN 3-7802-0170-4 (Chronicle in (German)).
  • Ueding, Gert (Editor): Karl-May-Handbuch. Second enlarged and revised edition. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2001, ISBN 3-8260-1813-3 (Handbook in (German)).
  • Wohlgschaft, Hermann: Karl May – Leben und Werk (3 Volumes). Bücherhaus, Bargfeld 2005, ISBN 3-930713-93-4 (Most extensive biography in (German); Online-Version of first edition).
  • Wollschläger, Hans: Karl May. Grundriß eines gebrochenen Lebens. (First edition under a different title 1965;) Revised edition Diogenes, Zürich 1976; latest edition Wallstein, Göttingen 2004 (303 pp.), ISBN 3-89244-740-3 (Major and path-breaking biography in (German). This biography by Wollschläger (1935–2007), who was himself an esteemed author of fiction and non-fiction, was historically important to establish Karl May as an author "to be taken serious" even by academically educated readers).
  • Helmut Schmiedt: Karl May oder Die Macht der Phantasie. C.H. Beck Verlag, München 2011 ISBN 978-3-406-62116-1. ((German))

External links[edit]

Life and works[edit]


Compositions by Karl May[edit]