Wild West heroes ride again . . . in East Germany

Winnetou and old Shatterhand ride again in East Germany. The full import of this momentous development might not be immediately apparent to Americans teethed on the Lone Ranger or whoever has taken his place in this day and age. But rest assured, this news is little short of (counter) revolutionary.

Not only are these heroes derived from the bourgeois culture of the arch-capitalist superpower, the United States, but they are also cult figures in East Germany's arch-rival, West Germany. They are very subversive characters, indeed.

A word of explanation is perhaps in order here for those who have never experienced German ''spaghetti Westerns'' (or, more accurately, cevapcici Westerns, since most of them seem to be made in Yugoslavia these days).

First off, old Shatterhand is a footloose cowboy type, a blood-ceremony brother of Winnetou, the son of an Indian chief. He is a good man, a person of uncertain means, perhaps, but one who is always ready to rescue a damsel or anyone else in distress.

He was the invention of one Karl May, an indigent 19th-century teacher in the Dresden area who before finding his calling as a writer of potboilers in his 71/ 2 years in jail enjoyed a brief career as a highly imaginative confidence man and swindler.

Mr. May never once visited America's Wild West (or even America's Wild East, for that matter). Yet he described the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains so vividly - and his Indians with such a Teutonic attention to detail - that he has formed the image of the American frontier of virtually every German alive today.

Kaisers might wax and wane; the Weimar Republic might come and go; Hitler (himself, like Einstein, a Winnetou fan) might rise and fall; America's MacDonald's culture and protest movement might successively engulf West Germany's youth. Winnetou and old Shatterhand alone remained, throughout these more evanescent changes, an island of constancy.

Almost a century after they first rode triumphantly into the sunset, their aficionados still gather in an annual festival in West Germany at which these otherwise sensible burghers don chaps and spurs and six-shooters and strut around the corral.

For 37 years East Germans stoutly resisted the temptation. Their West German cousins might indulge in such decadent bourgeois frivolity. They remained pure, and raised their youth on the class-conscious heroes of socialist realism. Or at least they tried to.

Hidden behind the cover of many a pupil's exemplary boy-meets-steelmill novel was a dog-eared prewar Winnetou that could still keep the suspenseful midnight lights burning and fetch outrageous black-market prices.

Over the decades, however, a furtive erosion of standards was slowly working away. The Winnetou sneak readers of yesteryear became the officials of today - and not all of them forgot their early clandestine pleasures. Just how far the erosion has gone became clear on Christmas Day 1982, when East German TV aired a 45-minute documentary about Karl May called ''I Buried Winnetou.''

The same day it screened a 1963 West German Winnetou film. On Dec. 26 it screened the second; on Jan. 2 it showed the third. And that's not all. The East Berlin publishing house New Life will shortly be turning out Karl May's first Winnetou volume and adding to the 17 million-plus copies of Karl May already sold in German and 20 other languages.

There are limits, however. East Germany has not yet announced any intention to remetamorphose Karl May's old house outside of Dresden from a documentary museum about North American Indians to a more romantic portrayal of the knife-fighting, horse-taming, buffalo-wrestling Winnetou and old Shatterhand. Nor is there any indication that some of May's more blood-curdling adventure stories (one diligent reader counted 2,293 murders and assaults in May's first bestseller, ''The Little Woodrose'') will be republished.

It is unclear just why Winnetou had to wait so long to turn respectable.

In a sense, the revival is long overdue and should be a natural for the East German powers that be. Winnetou, unlike Tonto, gets equal billing with his white sidekick. Furthermore, the almost-victims who are rescued at the last minute by this sterling pair include other Indians who are snatched from the jaws of exploitation by expansionist white Americans. Vintage stuff for communists, one would think.

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