Winnetou: No Cancel Culture, but Respect at Last

The decision of the Ravensburger publishing house not to publish several children’s books accompanying the film “The Young Chief Winnetou” is causing some uproar. The reason is said to be the racist, romanticizing and stereotyping portrayal of Indians and the white superiority and colonization glorification that moved the publisher to refrain from publication.

I completely agree with the publisher on this. And I explain why this has nothing to do with political correctness and Cancel Culture. And I confess, I too loved the Winnetou movies with Pierre Brice and Lex Barker, and even once attended a performance at the Vienna Stadthalle where a real steam locomotive drove into the hall during the action. But there is a time for everything, and not everything ages gracefully.


The trailer already shows the first problem: this is – like the so-called blackfacing or yellowfacing – a redfacing for lack of a corresponding term. White actors play North American natives with colorful face paint. This is already the first problem that sensitizes. Similar criticism always occurs where white actors portray indigenous, Asian or dark-skinned people.

More essential, however, are the stereotypes put forward in the four volumes of Karl May published from 1893. May himself was in America for the first and only time for six weeks only in 1908, by which time the first three Winnetou volumes had already been published. The confrontation with real life in the U.S. had apparently hit him or disillusioned him and this experience thus only flowed into his fourth Winnetou volume.

Auch wenn die Winnetou-Bände und Filme, die man übrigens alle Online lesen und ansehen kann, für die damalige Zeit sehr gemäßigt mit Vorurteilen über Eingeborene waren (siehe dazu auch die wesentlich krasseren Stereotypen auf der euphemistisch genannten Völkerschau auf der Pariser Weltausstellung 1889, bei der Menschen aus den Kolonialreichen in “Dörfern” in einer Art menschlicher Zoo zur Schau gestellt worden waren), so enthalten sie doch Stereotypen, die 129 Jahre nach der Erstveröffentlichung schmerzhaft peinlich wirken.

Even though the Winnetou volumes and films, all of which you can read and watch online, by the way, were very moderate with prejudices about natives for the time (see also the much more blatant stereotypes at the euphemistically named Human Zoo at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, where people from colonial empires were put on display in “villages” in a kind of human zoo), they still contain stereotypes that seem painfully embarrassing 129 years after they were first published.

On one side is the “noble savage” (Winnetou), on the other the noble white savior (Old Shatterhand). The Apaches are portrayed as a nature-loving people, led by a chief, who can only be protected from the evil whites thanks to the help of good whites. At the same time, Winnetou is the least Native American Indian, who comes along with German discipline and is the only one allowed to become the blood brother of the white man – Old Shatterhand. And all this against the background of a genocide that led to the extermination of Indian tribes and the annihilation of over 90 percent of the American population.

Perspective of the White Man

This is a view from the white man’s glasses. Similar patterns exist in the opera Madame Butterfly (there the Japanese “prostitute” who is impregnated by a white man, and then self-sacrificingly raises the child they share while he travels the world knowing nothing, and she then kills herself so that the child can have it better with the father). The same plot, only this time with a Vietnamese woman and an American GI, is also found in the musical Miss Saigon.

As we know today in current research on Indians – and the word alone is again a term used by whites, based, as we know, on the misunderstanding of Christopher Columbus, who thought he had reached India – the organizational structure of the American peoples does not necessarily correspond to that of a hierarchy in the European sense. The Spanish conquistadors saw hierarchies similar to a king and his subjects. But as current research shows, this was not so. As ethnologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow demonstrate in their book The Dawn of Everything, chiefs did exist, but they were temporary heads of a tribe. Peoples regularly alternated between the mode of a wandering hunter-gatherer and sedentary people. A chief – without wealth, with little power, and the influence he had to earn through favors – existed only in the sedentary moments.

Let’s ask those affected

The whole heated debate, however, takes place exclusively among white people, but no one thinks to ask the people concerned themselves. This was clearly seen in this television discussion. Is Winnetou racist, the presenters asked. And the audience, consisting exclusively of white people, came to the surprising, unanimous statement: No!

So why not just ask Apaches or other descendants of Native Americans how they feel about the depiction of, say, the Karl May novels?

We can get an impression of this from people of color or people of Asian descent from Germany. All we have to do is ask someone like Jasmina Kuhnke or Victoria Linnea. Or here’s a Twitter thread by @dieJanki that goes into it.

Unfortunately not amazing how white people (of any pol. color) recurrently mourn losses of something that actually was basically not theirs.
But they don’t get the idea, because in the white Christian patriarchy white people are supposed to be entitled to everything unchallenged.

Or perhaps by asking a Kurd how he sees another book by Karl May, namely “Through the Wild Kurdistan”. As you can see here, Passar Hariky has a rather clear – namely bad – opinion on the portrayal of Kurds in this book.

While we are talking about #KarlMay, I would like to direct the attention to this book of his. “Durchs wilde Kurdistan” is probably THE work that anchored and reproduced #Anti-KurdishRacism within several German generations. (1/4)

Just as we no longer use the N-word and sing songs like Zehn kleine N…lein, we also no longer use stereotypes about Jews or Sinti and Roma. Because what that can lead to, we have seen thanks to the inhuman Nazi rule and the millionfold murder they carried out in the Holocaust.

In fact, it would have been easy to interview someone involved, because Apache Red Haircrow made a documentary about it, Forget Winnetou! Loving In The Wrong Way. And the message is clear: yup, it’s racist.


Often the same people who are against gender language are also the ones who have problems with political correctness. However, if we replace the terms political correctness or gender madness with “respect for people,” in the treatment of women and marginalized minorities expressed through language, things do sound a little different.

The argument that we should not go to all this trouble because of marginalized minorities is invalid if we consider that we have contributed a great deal to making these marginalized minorities marginalized minorities. The genocide of Native Americans, known to us as “Indians”? Or the genocide of marginalized minorities such as Jews, Sinti and Roma? The colonization of Africa, which resulted in our enslaving, exploiting, raping, maiming, killing, and occasionally taking the people of that continent to conquering countries where some are now upset that we are now not allowed to use the N-word?

However, the same permanent objectors find respect less important than the “purity of our language“. The same language that the most vociferous representatives of this genre themselves often barely master flawlessly.

And respect? That’s only important if they feel it’s not being offered to themselves or to a supposedly respectful person. When Austrian TV news anchor Armin Wolf interviewed Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018, Wolf had to repeatedly interrupt Putin because he deliberately strayed from the topic and left the question unanswered. It was precisely these necessary interruptions toward the autocrat that critics called Wolf’s “disrespect.” According to the motto

I decide who deserves respect!

We go through the elaborate insanity of being formal or informal, citing academic and professional titles in order to appear submissive enough to those in power and to show respect, but we don’t give a damn if we continue to leave marginalized minorities out of the loop, continually insulting them and repeatedly claiming a lack of sensitivity. One would only have to experience such stereotypes and lack of respect once on oneself to understand how this works.

What Does Stereotyping Feel Like?

If you can’t imagine how insulting and belittling such stereotypes can be, you can be helped. Here, for example, is this mockumentary in which an ostensibly African television crew visits untouched and enigmatic Austria with explorers, trying to understand the primitive natives and their cults. Afterwards one answers oneself the question, how one feels? What is true, what is exaggerated, what is a stereotype? Does one want such a picture to be drawn of oneself?

Or analyze how German soldiers are portrayed in American or Russian feature films about World War II. Or what does the stereotypical German look like in British comedies? Hardly anyone in Germany or Austria will find these portrayals accurate or flattering more than three quarters of a century after the end of the war.

More Outdated Stereotypes

Other children’s shows, books and characters are also viewed with different eyes today. For example, the Warner Bros Looney Tunes character Speedy Gonzalez, the fastest mouse in Mexico, is no longer contemporary, and the studio no longer shows the movies released between 1955 to 1980. Why? Because besides Speedy (who, by the way, was extremely popular in Mexico), the supporting cast were lazy or helpless “Mexican” mice who served negative stereotypes about Mexicans and Latin Americans.

The Warner Bros character Pepé the Skunk (Pepé le Pew) also fell victim to the changing attitude of acceptable behavior and stereotypes. In the animated films released in the 1940s and 1950s, the French-loving Pepé is repeatedly seen chasing female skunks and cats, hugging, kissing and caging them without their consent because “he loves them.” In times of the #MeToo movement, the depiction of behavior unacceptable today.

Not to be forgotten is the German Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann. Everyone knows the book, but no one today would think of presenting it to their children without commenting on it.

Struwwelpeter: Titelblatt der Ausgabe von 1861

And back in the 1970s, a puppet series called Dwarf Bumsti was dropped from Austrian television after one rerun because it had too many stereotypes of Bumsti’s wife, the mouse.

Zwerg Bumsti & Maus

If that’s too much for kids, take a closer look at the agent movies that became popular starting in the 1950s. We’re all familiar with James Bond, the macho agent who always has his way with at least one Bond girl, beating up bad guys and saving the world from destruction. Women in Bond films are either pretty decoration, targets of conquest or hostages, in any case rather passive characters without goals and motives of their own, or evil antagonists. At the same time, the Bond films are quite tame in their sexism, because in the early days of these agent films, several secret agent actors vied for the crown in this film genre. “Hot Cats”, “Special Mission Lady Chaplin”, “Some Girls Do”, “Agent 003: Operation Atlantis” and many others are characterized by Bond-like plots, and above all by sexism that was probably quite embarrassing even then, and certainly is today.

And as much as the television series Mad Men entertained us, we don’t wish for a time of sexism and male dominance back.

In other words, it was time to treat Karl May’s books for what they are: outdated adventure novels that, uncommented upon, should have no place in a child’s room today. Racist, genocidal and colonial-era glorifying works of an author who got to know the peoples he described himself only at the end of his creative work, and served all stereotypes and white exaltation fantasies, are obsolete and harmful.

Final Question

Finally, the question I’ve been asking myself for a long time: Who has actually ever read the Winnetou books and doesn’t know the novels exclusively from the movies? To be honest: I found the books unreadable even as a teenager, and now, in the course of working on this article, still do.

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