The Mystery Of Winnetou And Old Shatterhand

The Mystery Of The Stories About Winnetou And Old Shatterhand

It is a mystery: Why are the stories of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand written by Karl May so famous in Germany – and so remarkably unheard of in the United States?


Sunday is fun day. I decided to share a story with you. There is a real mystery about why the Wild West stories of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, written by the famous author Karl May (1842 – 1912). Why are they so famous in Germany and so unknown in the United States?

These stories are about an Indian Chief called Winnetou, and a German named Old Shatterhand, who had emigrated to the United States. They became friends and conquered a lot of situations in which there was a conflict between the Indians and the settlers.

In an article entitled “Wild West Germany,” the author asks why cowboys and Indians so captivate the country (Germany)? Great question. Growing up in Germany I remember the fascination!

The Wild West stories by Karl May have fascinated Germans now for over 150 years. These stories are still being enacted in outdoor life theaters. For example, Bad Segeberg, a German town in Northern Germany, is renowned for its annual Karl May festival.

These stories are enacted with real horses and actors – it’s just quite a spectacle. I remember going to one of those outdoor performances as a child during the summer. It was magical! I still remember the sounds, the smell, and how lively the story was. It was so much fun!

Karl May was a German author who lived from 1842 to 1912. From what I’ve read, he has had quite the checkered past. For example, he was thrown into jail for stealing a number of times. But his real breakthrough came when he started to write, especially when he started to write the Winnetou and Old Shatterhand stories.

He was never in the Wild West himself, even though he apparently claimed he had been there. He became one of the best-selling German authors of all time. To this day, there is a Karl May Gesellschaft (Karl May Society). They state that Karl May’s books have sold close to 100 Million copies in Germany and surrounding countries.

Yet, in the US, he is basically unknown! Fascinating!

In the header image of this post (and in the video), you can see a picture of Old Shatterhand. He was the German friend and blood brother of Winnetou. Winnetou was the fictional chief of the Mescalero Apaches.

In his stories, Karl May advocated the equality of men and peace among nations. I think that was one of the reasons his stories were so fascinating. Winnetou and Old Shatterhand overcome so many conflicts between their people even though they were so different. But they had developed such a bond with each other. As the Karl May Society says, “His first-person hero embodies all the ideals every true American has ever stood for since 4 July 1776.”

Then there is the allure of the Wild West. I think Germans have a fascination with the Wild West.

Of course, you can still buy Karl May’s “Winnetou and Old Shatterhand” books. You can buy all of these stories as three big books, totaling almost 2000 pages. Also, here is the link to the first Winnetou movie (in English) on YouTube (1963). Enjoy!

What is the moral of the story other than being hopefully interesting? Part of the fascination of these stories is that people who are quite different can be friends with each other and help their respective nations conquer their differences. I think that’s a great moral, and with that, I wish you a happy Sunday.

I’m Curious

Do you want to see a quick trailer for the second Winnetou movie (90 seconds)?

Dr. Stephie

P.S.: I appreciate you commenting and sharing this with others. Thank you!

Stephie Althouse

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