Even if Winnetou is controversial, his story should not be banned



Anna Lutz, PRO

Scene from the movie about Winnetou. Photo EPA, Markus Scholz

The Ravensburger publishing house takes the books about Winnetou out of the sale because they would hurt some people's feelings. That is the wrong way to deal with established stereotypical motifs in literary and art history.

Clichéd, kitschy and insensitive; without a doubt, these terms describe the stories about the Indian chief Winnetou and his white friend Old Shatterhand when you look at them from a modern perspective.

In 2022, if an author started writing a young adult novel about Native Americans and their relationship with white Americans in the 19th century, the word Native American would probably not appear at all. It would not be about two men of different skin colours riding in harmony across the prairie to make the Wild West a better place.

Instead, the author would deal with the oppression of the indigenous people. He would shed light on those dark corners of American history. So that even children can understand it. Enlighten. Process. Clean up.

Or he would not start writing at all because a story about a sensitive subject like cowboys and Indians can quickly lead to the end of his literary career if he uses careless, intimidating or even hurtful vocabulary these days. Then maybe a story about cuddly toys that come to life or fantasy monsters that live in dark forests are safer. There is a far lesser chance of going wrong.

Ravensburger publisher recently made it into headlines. Due to "a lot of negative feedback", it was found that some Winnetou titles in new editions for children "hurt the feelings of others." The books for the current Winnetou film, which opened in cinemas in August, have been removed from the programme. And the publisher publicly apologised.

Racism in Pippi Longstocking

What was offensive here is not known in detail. But the debate goes well beyond this case. The cancellation culture is en vogue. Particularly in the USA, recently, cases have repeatedly made the headlines in which literary works have been banned from school libraries or publishing houses. An example of this is the comic "Maus" or various children's books by the author Theodor Seus Geisel, who is popular in English-speaking countries.

It is a matter of time before this development spills over to Germany. Not only the books by Karl May are problematic in the opinion of certain left-wing movements. Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking could also fall victim to censorship due to racist motives. Struwwelpeter could also be seen as inappropriate. Or the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm.

All those who would like to erase these stories from the collective memory forget that artistic and cultural developments have always been challenging to control and are certainly not to be changed afterwards. Astrid Lindgren used the N-word. Karl May the I-word. That does not make them racists. They were children of their time, a time of which we know today that their actors lacked certain linguistic sensibilities. That is unfortunate, and no doubt hurts feelings. Nonetheless, these stories are part of cultural history, part of our heritage that we have to deal with.

For my part, I read Pippi Longstocking to my three daughters because it is a story about a strong, independent girl. Feminism as it should be in the best sense. Loving and determined at the same time. Presented in a way that even small children understand: You don't have to fit into the boxes that society assigns you to. You can be different, colourful, wild, crazy and wonderful.

And when we come to the N-word while reading, I explain to my daughters that it is no longer said today because it hurts people. I explain to them how people of colour, just like women, by the way, still suffer from social prejudice and political repression to this day. And then, in the end, at best, the three of them learned not only something about feminism but also something about the fight against racism.

Provide additional material

I have a suggestion for Ravensburger Publisher: "Don't withdraw the articles that hurt feelings. Instead, provide them with notes or small tasks about racism that parents and children can go through together. Live up to your responsibilities when dealing with literary material and educate instead of banning them.

Because Winnetou remains Winnetou. Clichés and kitsch stay in the collective memory. But also, that great story about an unusual friendship between two different men who should have been enemies. It constitutes the value of Karl May's work – even if it cannot be read today without a footnote.

This article was translated by CNE.news and published earlier by PRO on August 24, 2022



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