Origins and Transformations across the Nineteenth Century
In 1951 Hans Plischke’s From Cooper to Karl May
set the stage for a half century of literary analysis. Presenting a genealogy of German authors of “ethnographic novels” set in Native America, he argued that romanticism led Germans to develop an interest in these books at the outset of the nineteenth century. They “took readers into the past, into the communal life of earlier times,” and “immersed them in natural landscapes.” James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales
, he explained, experienced particular success because of the quality of Cooper’s writing and the fact that “a weariness with European politics and society” had increased Germans’ interest in America and American Indians.1
In turn, Cooper’s success generated a long series of German emulators, including Charles Sealsfield, Friedrich Gerstäcker, Balduin Möllhausen, and ultimately Karl May. Plischke’s narrative was marked by their personalities, but it was driven by evaluations of accuracy and notions of authenticity as much as literary skills, and it took its most striking turn in the shift from travel narratives and novels based on romanticized experiences to the pulp fiction and fantastic tales epitomized by May. That trend, in his opinion, was corrected only during the interwar years, with authors such as Fritz Steuben, who ostensibly strove for authenticity, and the translation of autobiographical books by the Santee Sioux Charles Eastman, which became immediate classics in Germany.2
There is, however, a story behind Germans’ interests and eventual obsession with American Indians that informed the production, character, and reception of these novelists’ tales, but it remains obscured by such genealogies. For the German fascination with American Indians took shape within multiple, shifting contexts in both Europe and the United States: America and Native America witnessed radical transformations during the nineteenth century; political structures in German-speaking Central Europe shifted mightily during this period as well; and during the later third of the century, so too did relationships between Imperial Germany (founded in 1871) and the United States. At the same time, the astounding influx of millions of German immigrants into the United States during the middle third of the century led to the expansion of a German Kulturkreis (an uneven linguistic-cultural area) across the Atlantic and a concomitant increase in many Germans’ ease of movement within the United States and back and forth across the ocean.
Consequently, as the next chapter shows, the production of ideas, notions, and beliefs about American Indians within this Germanophone world were not so much transnational (for they predated the creation of the German nation-state considerably) but transcultural: many of the most iconographic images of Native America, for example, were fashioned by Germans in America, or by German Americans on both sides of the Atlantic. Literature and art produced within the context of cultural expansion, however, were only part of the story. Indeed, by the end of the century, groups of American Indians themselves were traveling ever more frequently to Europe, helping to channel and shape the discourse on America and American Indians within Imperial, and later Weimar, Germany.
As the German fascination with American Indians emerged and developed within these contexts, it nurtured notions of affinity between Germans and American Indians—especially Germans’ admiration for American Indian resistance. Those notions easily accommodated even the most violent clashes between members of these two conglomerate groups. Despite travelers’ importance to this discourse, Germans were not always outside observers of either American settler colonialism or American Indians’ efforts at resistance. Indeed, as chapter 3 makes clear, they could be both victims and perpetrators of the worst kinds of violence. But even the most terrible of those could be folded, sometimes quite quickly, into the German discourse on American Indians as it took shape in both Europe and the United States. Thus, those notions of affinity stemmed from neither Germans’ putative colonial fantasies nor some Germans’ experiences with harsh colonial realities. Rather they persisted in spite of those realities, and they owed much to many
German Americans’ often-antagonistic relationships with their Anglophone counterparts in the United States, as well as the vision of “the Yankee” that took shape in German-speaking Central Europe.
Shifting cultural contexts, the end of the “Indian Wars,” even radical transformations of the American landscape could be accommodated as well—although they left traces. In particular, the decline of German America toward the end of the nineteenth century and the watershed of World War I, which effectively truncated the transatlantic German Kulturkreis, had a tremendous impact on Germans’ relationships with America and American Indians. People such as Rudolf Cronau, who pursued a transnational life through this transitional era, were keenly aware of the rising importance of national categories for their own subject positions. Some recognized that those shifts recast their worldviews. Thus, as chapter 4 shows, the transition in the literature identified by Plischke at the end of the century certainly took place, but it reflected a transition in possibilities as well as literary production—Germans and German Americans had fewer chances for lived experience among American Indians, there were fewer examples of American Indian resistance to celebrate, and increasing numbers of German Americans began regarding themselves as first and foremost American. The Kulturkreis was dissolving.
Thus, 1890–1936 was a transitional era in which many of the contexts that initially shaped German interests in American Indians changed: the end of the so-called Indian wars, the emergence of an increasingly nationalistic and belligerent German nation-state, the resulting decline in relations between the United States and Imperial Germany, the loss of World War I and the elimination of Imperial Germany, and ultimately the brutal division of the transatlantic German Kulturkreis all mattered a great deal for Germans’ attitudes about America. These crisis situations, however, did not undercut German obsessions with American Indians, nor did they alter their most central characteristics. Rather, as chapter 5 illustrates, they facilitated their articulation in a new, more modernist key.
The purpose of these first chapters is thus twofold: on the one hand, they seek to explain the origins of Germans’ affinities for American Indians and their development across the nineteenth century while sketching out their consistent characteristics; on the other hand, they also work toward respatializing our conceptions of “Germany” and German history during this period by acknowledging the important interconnections between the indeterminacy of Germany inside Europe and the sprawling diversity of the German presence overseas.
From Cooper to Karl May—Recast
Germany’s black hills, the Elbsandsteingebirge, are replete with picturesque sandstone pillars jutting out of pristine forests textured by wide valleys, steep canyons, and imposing mesas. Much like in the Black Hills of South Dakota, tourists flock to the forests during the summer and take to the trails that wind through the narrows and up the stone faces. Inspiring romantic painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and the earliest landscape photographers, the mesas, hills, and outcroppings between Dresden and Prague are littered with impressive monuments. The carvings in these stones, however, are nothing like Mount Rushmore. Instead, castles and their ruins abound.
Perched high above a bend in the Elbe River, for example, the Königstein Fortress covers an entire mesa and dominates the region below it. Drawing upward of 700,000 tourists a year, this medieval fortress, which was passed from Bohemian to Saxon kings in 1408, contained a monastery as well as a garrison, and with its constantly updated fortifications, it was considered unconquerable for centuries. Today, while drinking beer with tourists in the mesa-top gardens, it is easy to envision late nineteenth-century romantics embracing the more natural, medieval world of their forefathers as they walked through the surrounding forests and valleys, across the sturdy wooden bridges, and toward the outcropping of rock near Bielatal known as “The Apache’s Face.”
A sign near that rock, which reaches up over the Felsenkeller Inn, explains that guests at the nearby spa, “Kurbad Schweizermühle,” enraptured by Karl May’s 1893 novel and his hero the Apache chief Winnetou, claimed to see his face in the “aesthetic profile” of the stone. The sign, however, tells us much more. It reveals that, in addition to reminiscing about European pasts while walking these romantic trails by medieval monuments, nineteenth-century
German tourists spent their time thinking about North American pasts and presents. They did so with a shared knowledge of North American landscapes and indigenous inhabitants, and that knowledge, acquired through images, texts, and conversations, allowed the majority to easily recognize the outcropping, familiar as they believed themselves to be with American Indians and their profiles.
One wonders, however, what these leisured classes actually knew about American Indians. What was the origin of the consensus that allowed the name on this stone to persist for more than a century after the first ambling Germans identified it in the 1890s?
It began with a triumvirate: Cornelius Tacitus, Alexander von Humboldt, and James Fenimore Cooper; but it took the ongoing interactions between Germans, America, and Native America across the nineteenth century to bring that consensus to completion.
“If you want to understand Germans’ fascination with Indians, you should read Tacitus.” I received this advice in 2003 from a German man who had been adopted by an Assiniboine family at the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana. It is a useful assignment. In Germania
, written at the end of the first century c.e., the Roman senator Cornelius Tacitus portrayed Germans as a noble tribal people with a clear connection to the forests and lands of Central Europe, who suffered at the hands of an expansive, colonial civilization. Indeed, he wrote about Germans in much the same way German authors would later write about American Indians, as noble savages and formidable, violent warriors with painted faces, living in forest dwellings, whose most honorable qualities exposed the decadence and failings of the civilized world. And, like many Germans who later wrote about American Indians during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he got many things wrong.1
Those errors and misunderstandings, however, matter less than the fact that his work became an influential point of reference for a range of Germans seeking to better understand themselves and their place in the world. Tacitus’s portraits of tribal Germans as fearless, honest, unflinching, loyal, and physically powerful made comparisons to American Indians natural. Already in the seventeenth century, for example, German writers conflated the ancient Teutons portrayed by Tacitus with contemporary American Indians, and by the middle of the nineteenth century such comparisons circulated widely,
coupled in many cases with the sufferings of the German populations during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48).2span>
Those comparisons were possible because Tacitus was rediscovered and introduced to German intellectuals in the fifteenth century during debates about the relationship between Germans and Rome. As Suzanne Marchand reminds us, the history of the Roman Empire “was fraught with fundamental questions about Germany’s autonomy, identity, and world-historical role,” and when Pope Pius II harnessed Tacitus’s then unknown text Germania
to criticize that role, German humanists took advantage of its exposure and quickly “mined it for their own purposes.” Arminius or Hermann, who defeated the Romans in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 c.e., became the new Ur-hero, and the emerging humanist literature “dwelt on themes that were to prove remarkably durable.” “The Germanic love of liberty, so passionate as to outweigh material or personal concerns, and so fatal to the creation of a united anti-Roman front,” she writes, “was set against Roman tyranny, greed, love of luxury, and calculating pragmatism, all flaws that both explained the nation’s success in conquest and prepared it for its falls from grace.” During the second half of the eighteenth century, Protestant intellectuals drew again on Tacitus to oppose Francophile neoclassicism, and between 1807 and 1814 “attempts were made to found journals with names like Germania
, and Thusnelda
(Hermann’s Queen), and at least seventy-two publications were devoted to the Teutoburg Forest battle between 1809 and 1900.”3
German nationalists embraced these images and the conception of united German tribes with a superior character, and the popular reception of Richard Wagner’s operas that turned around these themes demonstrates that by the 1880s a “descent from ‘barbarians’” had become “less an embarrassment than a point of pride.”...