A story I wrote for Cicero.
"Winnetou" is a politically correct Indian of three adventure novels for boys by Karl May in the 19th century. May was a character: Much of his life he was in and out of jail for theft and fraud, he later claimed to have experienced the stories he wrote about America and Arabia though he had never been there, and is Germany's moved beloved storyteller.
"We Germans don't need heroes," they told me.

Cicero, October 20, 2004
Winnetou vs. Siegfried
The German Soul was Born in the Wild West

If there is anywhere in the world I would find the ultimate German hero, I told myself, it would be in Xanten.
Xanten is a quaint little town on the Rhine not far from the Dutch border, far from big cities and just about everything else going on. It does have one rather odd claim to fame, however: According to ancient legend, this is where Siegfried the Dragon-Slayer was born.
Siegfried was the steel-skinned hero of the medieval epic poem Nibelungenlied - the song of the Nibelungs. In the 19th Century, the Germans rediscovered Siegfried (most famously, Wagner made him the hero of his Ring Cycle) and named him their national hero, in the hope perhaps that his heroic qualities would magically attach themselves to them: Invincibility, mainly. He was the medieval Man of Steel, and his Kryptonite was a spot between his shoulder blades where his skin was soft enough that you could shove a spear into it, which is how he got it in the end. It was the same near-invincibility that interested Hitler decades later, when the Nazis rediscovered him for the second time. Then they, too, proved to be less than invincible, and Siegfried fell out of favor once more.
But in Xanten, he lives on. Here, you grow up with him. You live on Siegfried Strasse, you get coffee in the Siegfried Cafe, if you fish, you join the Siegfried fishing club, when friends come to visit, they stay in the Siegfried Hotel and you take them to see the Siegfried Spektakel Renaissance Fair. If anyone in Germany understands heroes, I would find him in Xanten.
In America we know heroes. As kids we're told to pick a hero and emulate him; the newspapers are full of heroes landing disabled planes and pulling dogs out of pipes; our fathers are more than fathers, they're heroes and their generation was a heroic generation. Americans don't say, "I learned a lot about business from that biography of Henry Ford," they say, "Henry Ford is one of my heroes."
We have an old saying, repeated in variations: "Tell me your heroes and I'll tell you who you are." After living over twenty years in Germany, I wanted to know who Germans are. That's why I went looking for their heroes.
For a day or two I haunted the town's cafes and public squares and asked people - just normal Xanteners walking down the street - who their heroes were. Again and again this is the answer I got: "We Germans don't have heroes."
It was as if they had all agreed to give me the same answer. I started to say, "Wait, I know what you're going to say. But why? Why don't Germans have heroes?"
"Hitler cured us of heroes," one man told me.
"Germans expect too much of their heroes," said another. "Their standards are too high for any hero to ever reach."
"Heroes are for Americans," another man said. "A young nation needs heroes to imitate, not we Germans."
"What about the world-class tennis player Boris Becker? Or the champion race car driver Michael Schumacher? The international beauties Heidi Klum and Claudia Schiffer? The popular Green politician Joschka Fischer?"
"Boris Becker? Not after the broom closet," said one. Becker had recently been forced to admit in court during a paternity suit that he had had sex with a stranger in a broom closet. Schumacher had played some kind of dirty trick on the race track. Klum and Schiffer were just dumb blondes. Fischer hadn't done everything he promised once he came to power.
It was a game: The moment I mentioned a new name, they feverishly thought up a reason to reject it, and they always found one, even if they had to think for a while. I gave up.
A few weeks later I was having dinner with an old Canadian friend and his wife in Cologne, which was not far from Xanten. I told them about my frustrating experience. His wife was German. "Can you think of someone you would accept as hero?" I asked her.
She really thought about it, but finally she shrugged her shoulders. "The Xanteners are right - Germans don't have heroes." Then she laughed. "Except Winnetou, of course."
Wait a minute - I wasn't hearing that for the first time. It was a a joke the Xantaners made too: "There's Winnetou, of course!" I hadn't taken them seriously because they always added: "I'm just kidding."
But they weren't kidding at all.
Winnetou is also a product of the 19th Century, while Siegfried was discovered by Wagner and embraced by intellectuals and politicians hoping to give Germany a heroic character with which to identify, Winnetou was a stranger to high culture.
Winnetou is the fictional Indian hero of a series of children's books by Karl May. You can't read the books as an adult - they come over slow and wordy and not actually very exciting. But every German boy reads Winnetou and cries when he dies in the third book. I know grown men whose eyes tear up when they recall reading the tale of Winnetou's death. In the 60's, there was a series of popular German Westerns based on the book and filmed in Yugoslavia with a French actor playing the noble redskin. Even today, Indians are for Germans the ultimate example of goodness that ends up under the wheels of white capitalism. Don't ever say anything bad about Indians in Germany, it can be dangerous.
There is no other character, fictional or otherwise - and certainly not Siegfried - who can compete for a German's heart like Winnetou. He is the German hero.
And he says a lot about Germans today:
Winnetou is a tracker. He finds and interprets signs. He interprets his environment, discovering the truth behind the truth. That makes him an intellectual. As luck would have it, all Germans think of themselves as intellectuals. They even call their country "The nation of poets and thinkers." What making money and being successful is to Americans, having a good education is to Germans. Winnetou is a university-educated, opera-going German in Indian drag.
He's also a softie. He respects life with a capital "L" and talks about it all the time. If Winnetou had stumbled across that dragon first, the monster would still be alive today. Winnetou would have first explored the dragon's lair and tried to understand the dragon's place in the food chain. Who knows what drastic consequences the death of a dragon could have for the environment? As coincidence would have it, the Germans, too, are big on the environment. Unlike Siegfried, who would have made a good cowboy. He shoots first and asks questions later: "Who cares about the Holy White Buffalo? That skin is worth money!"
You couldn't call Winnetou a pacifist - he's the star of a Western after all - but just about. While Siegfried clearly had a sword fetish, Winnetou's primary weapon is his brain. While Siegfried uses brute force - even in bed with his women - Winnetou works with tricks. When he uses a gun, every shot has to be morally justified. In one of the films there's a scene where the whites do terrible injustice to a group of Apaches, and Winnetou wants revenge. He says, "We are in the right." But his wise old mentor - who happens to be German - holds him back: "Peace is more important than being right." You could just hear TV-viewers all over Germany sighing, "Ach, if only if George W. Bush could see this movie, everything would be different."
Siegfried would have made a much better American than Winnetou. He knows he's bigger and stronger than everyone else. He knows the dangers of hesitation and the value of decisive action. He doesn't overthink things. And maybe even more important: He's always having a good time. You can imagine him as Brad Pitt with that winning smile and that way of walking, that certain sauntering kind of gait that is just plain sexy. Sure, we Americans know that every Siegfried has a vulnerable spot somewhere. We've learned that truth in Vietnam and again in Iraq. But in the end we don't really care. That smile - we can't resist it.
Winnetou, on the other hand, could never be popular in America. (And it's been tried - Arnold Schwarzenegger and the director Wolfgang Petersen both loved the book as boys and reportedly each tried to make it into a movie, but it just didn't translate.) We Americans are all ashamed of what we did to the Indians, and it's a guilt many of us find hard to live with, but in the end, we can live with it, and that's because only one thing matters to an American: Winning. We won, the Indians didn't. We Americans love an underdog as much as anyone else, but we mainly love an underdog who wins in the end. The Germans love the underdog because he doesn't win in the end.
Interestingly enough, both Winnetou and (Wagner's) Siegfried are products of the 19th century, a time when Germany saw itself as the underdog of Europe. Out of that despair, they created two proto-Germans: While Wagner found all kinds of positive virtues like strength and perfection and good looks in Siegfried, Karl May gave his Winnetou a war he cannot win - the war against the encroaching whites. In the end, Winnetou remains the ideal underdog: He dies, but morally he will be in the right in all eternity.
That's how Germany sees itself: The intellectual, the pacifist, the morally correct underdog nation always pushed around by the big players, by America mainly. It's not true, of course: Germany, with the fifth-largest economy in the world, is factually one of the big players and has no problem pushing around the smaller players. But it's still how Germans prefer to see themselves.
Maybe because they know the alternative.
Original text online here.
Home About Books Journalist Astrid Ule Miscellaneous News German Shop Facebook Contact