BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Indigenous Peoples Day on Monday will pay homage to all those whose ancestors and homelands were trampled with colonial disregard. The question of who should claim solidarity with this minority seems straightforward enough but perhaps not because Germany is racist far right party Alternative for Germany claims kinship with the plight of Native Americans. German historian Frank Usbeck was dumbfounded when he first came across Indian imagery in an Alternative for Germany meme back in 2004.
FRANK USBECK: I found it hilarious at first. It was in a tweet by one of the local branches of Alternativa for Deutschland. The Alternative for Germany. The tweet showed a photograph of Sitting Bull. It said the Indians couldn't stop immigration and now they live on reservations and that's what is going to happen to us here in Germany if we are not careful. And it's not even unique to Germany. In 2006, it was used in an election campaign in Switzerland and ever since then you find it in the argumentation and election campaigns of many European right wing parties. Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Hungary. You'll find similar arguments in Great Britain and other countries as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It appears that these extreme parties are trying to appeal to Germany's profound fascination with the American frontier. And there's even a term for this phenomenon. Indian-thusiasm, yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you say that Indian-thusiasm and German nationalism actually shares similar roots.
FRANK USBECK: They go hand in hand. At around 1400's the Germany's were deeply affected by the Napoleonic Wars. All these German mini states were either under military occupation or had been forced to become allies of Napoleons. So nationalists try to look for a unifying feature. Something of a creation myth. The French have Joan of Arc. The British have King Arthur. So these early nationalists went all the way back to the Germanic tribes. And their resistance against the encroaching Roman Empire. Interesting thing is that Tacitus, one of the very few sources describe these tribes as honest, loyal heroic figures and criticized his own society as decadent and over civilized. If we go back to the late 18th and early 19th century, French philosophers Jean Jacque Rousseau used very similar attributes defining Native Americans as noble savages.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Germans felt that their temperament was akin to that of the noble savage.
FRANK USBECK: Exactly. Centered around notions of resistance, freedom, being attuned to nature. The forest was sacred homeland which throughout the 19th century became a route of blood and soil ideology.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And around the late 19th century, there was a writer who seemed to wrap this all up and I'm guessing if you asked the average German on the street why do Germans love American Indians he or she would probably respond with the name of that writer.
FRANK USBECK: That's right. So everything seems to lead to Karl May and his famous couple of characters. The German immigrant and adventurer, Old Shatterhand and his Apache friend Winnetou. The farthest west he actually got was Niagara Falls--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Haha.
FRANK USBECK: --way after he wrote his novels in the early 1990s.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He claims that he based Old Shattererhand on himself so named because he could knock his foes out with one explosive punch.
FRANK USBECK: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Apache chief, Winnetou, seemed to be the really popular character among the German public right.
FRANK USBECK: Yes he is an incredible Native American chief because he never hangs out with his own people. He's always out there by himself looking for white people he can help. And Karl May made him exotic enough to fit into the frame of the adventure. But as some scholars described, he also seems to be a very good German.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Haha.
FRANK USBECK: Because he has character traits that the German bourgeoisie was suppose strive towards like honesty, bravery, industriousness.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: These novels had a very long life. Was Hitler a fan?
FRANK USBECK: Yes. It is said that late in the war when there was hardly any paper left for Hitler allocated enough paper to distribute 100,000 Winnetou novels to the troops because he said reading about Winnetou will help German officers deal with guerrilla warfare on the Eastern Front. That Winnetou was the ideal company commander.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But he wasn't white.
FRANK USBECK: There were those people who said German children should only be confronted with aryan heroes. However, Hitler was a fan. And also pragmatist said it would cost too much effort to try to suppress German Indian-thusiasm. Why not harness it and profit from it. People like Erhard Wittek, a novelist who wrote under the pseudonym Fritz Steuben said 'presenting Indian novels to German children teaches them about leadership and military training and racial ideology.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How does it teach about race ideology?
FRANK USBECK: Erhard Wittek wrote about Tecumseh and he likened Tecumseh not only to the famous Germanic leader Arminus who defeated the Roman legions at the Battle of Teutoburg forest in 9 A.D. He also likened Tecumseh to Adolf Hitler saying all three united people who were quarrelling among themselves and make the people strong in the face of danger. He also said Tecumseh lost because the different Native American tribes that he united did not feel themselves as a race, as a people so he could not form a nation. And that's what Hitler did when he united the quarrelling German--and I'm doing air quotes here--tribes. But the other racial thing is that National Socialism defines itself as the most radical application of natural law. The leading Nazi newspaper for instance cited examples of infanticide and old people killing themselves among Innuit communities. The Nazis said 'this is natural because they are in this brutal struggle for survival and they cannot afford to drag along so-called useless eaters.' Their German euthanasia program used the same arguments later on in killing disabled people. People who use the meme on the Internet have picked up how some Cherokee's today try to expel descendants of Afro-American slaves absorbed into their tribe and given full citizenship after 1866. Right wing extremists have argued in order to protect their cultural and racial integrity, it was necessary for them to expel the descendants of these Afro-American slaves. These right wing extremists do not see the willingness of tribal people to adopt. And the Cherokee are an interesting example of here because as I learned there are quite a few Cherokees with German family names.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Really?
FRANK USBECK: And um, yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much Frank.
FRANK USBECK: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Frank Usbeck is a researcher at the GRASSI museum in Leipzig Germany and the author Fellow Tribesmen: The Image of Native Americans, National Identity and Nazi Ideology in Germany.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: After Germany's defeat in the second World War, it was hacked into roughly two territories: The West, initially administered in patchwork by the Allies and the East by the USSR. In the years to come, the German Democratic Republic, the new East German state would struggle to shake off every trace of the Third Reich and capitalism including the books of Karl Mai.
EVAN TORNER: Those who are really officially in the Communist Party saw quite clearly what the identification between Hitler and the literature was, trash that should be discarded in favor of the new socialist personality. And they were forbidden to be published.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Evan Torner, a German studies professor at the University of Cincinnati, says that East German officials watched with horror as their decadent neighbors to the west churned out a blockbuster series of Karl May films starting with the Treasure of Silver Lake in 1962.
[CLIP] This map shows a way to treasure beyond price. And this man murdered to possess it. Now nothing could stop him leading his outlaw army to steal the treasure of lake. [END CLIP].
EVAN TORNER: Full color unironic Western. Why is that unusual 1962 John Ford is still making films but the apparatus to make the Western had kind of dried up by the end of the 50s.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the U.S.?
EVAN TORNER: In the U.S. And so then to make a sweeping panoramic Western about Winnetou and Old Shatterhand and going off and finding treasure. I mean that seems really naive.
[CLIP] Old Shatterhand, tough and fearless, he prays the danger of the Utah Indians on the war path. [END CLIP]
EVAN TORNER: But it absolutely captivated the children's audiences at the time and it also showed off a production model that could work between multiple different European financiers. This became the basis for the famous Italo Westerns by Sergio Leone.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mean like A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, Bad and The Ugly.
EVAN TORNER: Absolutely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Didn't the Spaghetti Western inspired the US to start making Westerns again?
EVAN TORNER: Yeah this is the Europeans shot in the arm to the genre. Treasure of The Silverlake is really the proof in concept that these could be cheesy or even experimental and really take historical license and still make a lot of money.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The East Germans produced their own feature length Western.
EVAN TORNER: There were 14 of them produced between 1966 and 1985. Native Americans as heroes fighting against the evil white capitalist cowboys who were coming to take their land. Those Indiana film or Red Westerns are produced every summer except for one during the length of the Vietnam War. The East German Westerns were a parallel commentary on American violence in the third world. And I like to emphasize Gojko Mitic's role in popularizing it. He was a Yugoslavian stunt man. He had a ridiculously good-looking chest profile. I mean, he looked a very good as a young man.
[CLIP IN GERMAN].
EVAN TORNER: He played Tecumseh, he played a Seminole chief, he played Apache, you know, he was there all purpose, Swiss Army Knife Indian chief.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the overall message of these films.
EVAN TORNER: These films tended to have the following arc: showed the tribe at relative peace, enjoying their lives--
[CLIP IN GERMAN]
EVAN TORNER: Then some evil white settlers would come and commit some egregious crime.
[CLIP IN GERMAN]
EVAN TORNER: And then the Native Americans would have to decide, how are we going to resist this militarily superior power. And usually that meant killing the primary villain. And of course it's always seen as a stop gap but that's the overarching arc of history is leveled against them that they're going to lose eventually. The way that these films portrayed Native Americans were as proto-socialists that if only they had known about Karl Marx then they would have really been able to organize their labor into an effective resistance against capital.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One consequence of Indian-thusiam was the formation of the Indian hobbie movement. Then you can still see the Germans dressing up in traditional garb dancing and singing their own powwow.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mean the descendants of European colonizers responsible for the genocide of the American Indian would not be cheered on for donning feathered head dresses and doing the dances of extinguished peoples. Germans have had their own experience with genocide. They don't make the connection?
EVAN TORNER: There are a variety of ways you can read it. All this stuff is pretty offensive. That's just my preface. But when you were out in the wilderness, it was also a way of engaging in something that wasn't directly related to the state. You create your teepee you whittle a flute. You put on makeup, you rediscover yourself quote unquote in the same way that people go to Burning Man now which is again burning man is also in the heart of a major empire namely the American Empire. The East German trick was that they were convinced that they were heroes liberating people around the world. From the very beginning Gojko Mitic saw the ridiculousness of the stuff he was doing but he, on the one hand said well we can connect this with real struggles of real Native Americans. We're thinking of, of course Wounded Knee in the early 70s and other actual liberation struggles. He did comment on that. When he actually got to start to write and co-direct which was on the film Apaches and then its sequel Ulzana '73 and '74, the Native Americans do not turn out so well. They're they're in positions of violence and moral ambiguity that reflects what Gojko thought was the real state of the Native Americans the U.S. And he kills Ulzana the Indian chief and you know his own character at the end of Ulzana. And he stated quite openly that that is representative of what's actually happening to the indigenous people and that we should feel bad, meaning the East Germans and that they aren't just these puppet Winnetou figures for us to endlessly play with.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you Evan.
EVAN TORNER: No problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Evan Torner is a German studies professor at the University of Cincinnati. That's it for this week's show. On The Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder and Jon Hanrahan. We had more help from Asthaa Chaturvedi and Samantha Maldonado. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair, Josh Hahn and Terence Bernardo. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: On The Media is supported by the Ford Foundation the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the listeners of WNYC Radio.