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September 29, 2022



Commentary: Czech media are falling for a hoax about Germany allegedly banning literature

3.9.2022 14:57
Pierre Brice (left) and Lex Barker (right) in the roles of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand in a film from the 1960s.
Pierre Brice (left) and Lex Barker (right) in the roles of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand in a film from the 1960s.

I have to comment on the hoax that is circulating in the Czech media alleging that Germany wants to "ban" the novel Winnetou. What is actually going on is that publishers based in Germany have decided not to release new stories continuing the adventures of that character because they have been written in the 19th century style of the author of the original work, Karl May.

In response to the public discussion that has erupted in Germany around that decision, several German television stations have announced that they will no longer rebroadcast the 1960s feature films about the Winnetou character. Why is this happening now?

Let me try to summarize the arguments. The books authored by May and the subsequent films, which were West German-Yugoslavian coproductions, have nothing to do with America, its indigenous inhabitants' lives, or reality. 

May himself never visited America (or rather, he only did so in his old age after authoring his books), so what he is describing in these works are his own biases, fantasies and ideas, not American life. His books have nothing to do with reality. 

In these books, a colonial, racist vocabulary is used. This includes the very term "Indians", which the colonizers and committers of genocide against the indigenous inhabitants invented and began using to label them.

Erroneously believing they had arrived in India, this was the term the colonizers used. The people so designated had nothing to do with India, though.

This is a bit like if May were to have written about the inhabitants of the Czech Republic and basically labelled them all "Dumplings" or something similarly stupid. As for the films, the indigenous inhabitants of America are played in them by actors in blackface - they are European whites in makeup (and their poor performances border on caricatures that are racist and very unrealistic).   

Naturally these actors are also costumed like fairground representations of such people that have absolutely nothing to do with reality. Let's imagine, for example, what it would be like if somebody made a film about the Czech Republic where those of us who live here would be played by Black people in whiteface and similarly caricatured costumes.  

America's indigenous inhabitants are portrayed in the films (and somewhat in the books as well) as idiots of low intellect incapable of more complex expressions or sentences. In his other books, May is even more racist when describing Hispanics and the inhabitants of the Middle East as allegedly "lazy and dirty". 

The most essential aspect is that the novels about Winnetou are set during the time when the colonizers were committing genocide against the Apaches. US Army units attacked their pueblos, settlements and villages, mercilessly set them on fire and murdered everybody in them, including children and women. 

The books by May do not mention this at all - anybody who kills an indigenous inhabitant in his novels is always portrayed as an individual villain who is usually rightfully punished for his crimes a few pages later. This is a bit like writing a novel set in 1943 Poland where a Jewish protagonist would become "blood brothers" with an Aryan who came there to build a railroad.

Such a fantasy would see the characters riding around on horseback, visiting other communities of Jews, experiencing the widest possible range of adventures, etc., without ever mentioning the Holocaust, which was in full swing at that time. Etc., etc., etc.

Nobody, of course, is "banning" the publication of Winnetou in Germany. All that is happening is that they will not broadcast these films so frequently on the boob tube and one publisher has decided not to release a continuation of these books that are so full of absurdities, crap, racism and untruths.

Miroslav Brož, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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