Whether we know it or not, the books we read could influence us in more ways than we could imagine. As for Hitler, he found his comfort as a child in reading the travels and adventures of a novelist named Karl May. He became so fascinated and so swept up with his Wild West adventures that it not only affected his schoolwork, but the character Winnetou and Old Shatterhand also shaped how the future dictator viewed the world and his war ideals.

In the 19th century, a German author named Karl May wrote a series of novels set in the American West — which later influenced the worldview of Adolf Hitler.

Painting a World of Wonder

Karl May(pronounced “my”), a 19th-century German author, narrated in his book of adventures, a series of novels set in the American West, the tales of cowboys and Native populations in the Wild West. His readers, just like Hitler, were swept up in the epic adventures in his books, wondering and fascinated about the unfamiliar culture of America that they could explore through May’s words.

Winnetou. (Karl May, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In reality, he had never been to the American West, nor had he even interacted with the cowboys. If anything, the closest encounter that he ever had with them was a seat at one of Buffalo Bill’s international shows.

The Life Adventures of Karl May

Karl May was born in a poor family in Saxony in 1842, the fifth among his parents’ 14 children. During his time, children could choose to either work or study. May chose to be a teacher. Everything was going well in his chosen profession until he got caught stealing candle scraps he claimed were a Christmas present for his sister. Regardless, he still got kicked out. Later on, he was accused of stealing a pocket watch that cost him his teaching license. To make ends meet, he ended up being a grifter, either by pretending to be an investigator checking for counterfeit money house-to-house or as an executive ordering fine furs that he would pawn under different names.

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Karl May in the costume of his novel character Old Shatterhand

Soon enough, he found his place as a freelance writer before he started working on his novels. Among his most popular characters were old Shatterhand, a cowboy, and Winnetou, an Apache chief. Hitler knew these characters by heart, as he read their stories countless times during his childhood as an escape for his boyhood imagination. The Wild West adventures of these two characters would later manifest in Hitler’s adult life.  You may imagine Karl May as an obscure writer to us here in the US but he was actually the most widely read author in the German language in history selling some 200 million copies of his books to readers all over the world.  Half of them were translated into other languages.

Capturing Hitler’s Imagination

According to the scholars of the Third Reich, the Polish ghettos that Hitler created when Germany invaded Poland were similar to the way that the Native people in May’s books and in real life, too— forcing the natives onto reservations. It was also said that Hitler admired the idea of how white Americans “gunned down” the tribes and reduced their population from millions to a hundred thousand.

At one point in 1939, when a German plane secret documents went down in Belgium, Hitler dismissed many of the officers because of their carelessness and said that they should’ve read more of May’s works as that would’ve prevented the mistakes from happening. He sent copies of the books to his troops as they were fighting for control of the Soviet Union. For Hitler, Winnetou the Apache chief was the epitome of savagely pure warrior that all soldiers should emulate.

There was also speculation that Hitler’s appetite for technological advancements was inspired by Old Shatterhand’s use of fancy rifles to fight the “evils” of the Western Indian tribes armed with crude weapons. Karl May’s stories unsurprisingly emphasized racism. In fact, Winnetou and the Natives in the story were made to be incompetent and in need of help from the white people. In the final novel, Winnetou chose to convert to Christianity before he died.

According to those close to Hitler, he would often say that he was indebted to May and his writings as an influence and that during those times when the Third Reich was crumbling all around him, the Fuhrer again sought solace and escape in May’s novels.

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