An Aside: Western Clubs in Germany

I have joined a non-fiction writing class to get feedback on my writing, mostly stylistically rather than content wise. And, it's proven to be helpful to have a bunch of native speakers point out when I inadvertently slipped into what we call Denglish – broken English, the German version.

The wonderful Susanna Forrest who runs the group also pointed me to a helpful volume on 'stylish' academic writing by Helen Sword. Last week I tried out one of Sword's advices. She suggested that academic writers include anecdotes into their articles that make the subject more relatable and/or illuminate the author's relationship with the subject. I included a throwaway remark about Western clubs in my native Germany. And, the more I thought about it the more I feel that it’s the intellectually honest thing to do.

See, I have read a number of criticisms of young Nigerians adopting cowboy fashion and appropriating the 'Cowboy's behavioural repertoire. As I mentioned here before, my instinct has always been to reject this criticism. And, this last week has had me wondering whether that instinct isn't at least partially due to the fact that 'Cowboys and Indians'[1] have played such a huge role in my childhood and, indeed, continue to play in various pop culture niches in Germany. For example, Western Bund e.V., one umbrella organisation of Western clubs, lists over a hundred such associations in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria, Berlin, Hesse, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, and Schleswig-Holstein (that's only 8 out the 16 German states) alone.

My to-be-read pile is rather high at the moment (and I just added a recently published book on Matatus in Nairobi to it), so I didn't really dig into the issue but I found two (short-ish) rather poignant articles in the New Yorker on 'our' (as in 'us' Germans) obsession with the American Wild West. And, interestingly I think they illustrate (with examples taken from Germany) some of the points I am making with regard to cowboy clubs, gangs and societies Nigeria. So, allow me to briefly recap their main points as a reminder that these arguments do not only concern appropriations of 'Western,' i.e. Euro-American culture in Africa.

Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour were probably the most influential American authors of Western novels. The German author Karl May (1842-1912) was their German equivalent. And, although his works are hardly read in the United States, they continue to be popular in Germany (just last year, one of them has been filmed, again – link to Youtube trailer) and have been translated into 33 languages if I am not mistaken. In other words, May's work has been hugely influential in Germany and probably shaped 'our' image of the American West more than any other author before or after him. May started writing his Western novels after William Frederick Cody's (aka Buffalo Bill) Wild West show had come to Munich. In this sense, he was not dissimilar to African youths in Nigeria, the Belgian Congo (see Didier Gondola's recent volume) and elsewhere who were inspired by Buffalo Bill - the 1944 technicolour film Buffalo Bill was probably also screened in Nigerian cinemas but certainly later featured on TV (see Falola & Bukola Adeyemi Oyeniyi 2015: 246) – and other cowboy films and serials. Nevertheless, Rivka Galchen (9 April 2012) argued in the New Yorker, May's Western fiction is best understood within the contexts of 19th century German literature and its concerns.

'Nineteenth-century German literature often explores the extreme. While the English were thinking about upper-middle-class Dorothea at home in a middling marriage in Middlemarch, and the Americans were grounded in the naturalism of country folk drifting into city life, German writers thought about Kaspar Hauser, a man raised in dungeon-like isolation, almost completely unexposed to human language … It's as if the German character is revealed only in extreme situations; only there do you find out who you really are. In Karl May's work, that extreme situation is the American West.'

In other words, writers like Karl May adopted the idiom of the American Wild West in order to speak of and to particularly local ideas and practices. Or, as historian H. Glenn Penny put in Galchen's article.

'When Germans think through certain problems, they also think about those problems through and in terms of Indians. So in the nineteen-sixties this thinking had a lot to do with political protest, with the image of Indians as resisters. In the anti-nuclear protests of the nineteen-seventies, they flew in a lot of Indians from the Pine Ridge Reservation. Then, in the nineteen-eighties, the esoteric Indian was hot – the idea of a medicine man, of a deep knowledge of nature. Now it's Green politics.'

In a related article, Anna Altman (12 April 2012, also New Yorker) argued that the American Wild West acquired yet still different significances in the GDR (where I spend formative years of my life). Based upon research by historians Friedrich von Borries and Jens-Uwe Fisher, Altmann noted that communist values and Cold War enmities were projected onto the American Wild West. From this perspective, Indians were 'victims of U.S. imperialism' and 'the destruction of their communities and natural environment was attributed to unchecked American expansion and aggression.' Cowboys, meanwhile, 'were American class enemies [and] Fascists.'

Since the decline of the GDR and German re-unification, Altman found, the American Wild West had acquired yet further significances.

'Though Germans from the east can join their western counterparts at the Karl May festivals and commemorations, members of Indianistikklubs [Indian clubs] formed in the east still convene and decamp to the countryside to spend summer weeks in tepees. … Like so much else in the former East Germany, a trip to Indian Week is now an act of nostalgia for the old days of socialism: it’s a return to a simpler time – both of Native American tepee living and of East Germans pretending to be Native Americans living in tepees – when community and nature were prized.'

Thus, the trajectory of the American Wild West in Germany illustrates some of the points that I think are worth making with regard to Nigerian cowboy clubs, gangs and societies in order to put the (often justified) criticism of these youths and their practices into context.

And, bear in mind that – as least as far as I can tell – Nigerian youths never took their obsession with the American Wild West quite as far as (some) Germans did and, to an extent, still do. Thus, observed a slightly bewildered Rivka Galchen in the New Yorker

'In the summer, you can ride a diesel "steam" train from Bad Segeberg's central square to the Karl May Festspiele [festival] grounds … There are faux log cabins labelled Pony Express, Sheriff's Office, Barber Shop, Saloon. One sign reads, in English, "Cold Drinks, Hot Food, and Pretty Girls." You can buy buffalo burger, hang out in a tepee, and watch children play panning for gold. Antique handcuffs and at least five kinds of toy gun are for sale, as are tomahawks, feathered headdresses, and all of Karl May's novels and stories … There are thousands of children in the audience, many in face paint and feathers – most come as Indians, though a small number dress as cowboys'

Taking it another step further, the East German hobbyists that Altman discussed

'drove their Trabant [a popular East German brand of cars] out into the country, where they set up tepee camps in the warmer months. They slaved for hours on costumes made from creatively repurposed materials, like red Arbeiter [workers'] flags; they smoked peace pipes, sparked fires with flint, and performed ritualistic dances to the bang of drums. […] Blond children frolic in fringed ponchos; men covered only by loincloths drink beer on picnic blankets and get a sunburn.'

Of course, Galchen's observations in Bad Segeberg (and there are other festivals that she could have attended) and Altman's in East Germany suggest that 'Cowboys and Indians' inspired a much broader spectrum of society in Germany than they ever did in NIgeria. Whereas the references to 'the Cowboy' in Nigeria that I have found, by and large, locate him at the margins of society, in Germany 'he' has arrived at the middle-class centre of mainstream society.

Which brings us straight back to the intellectual honesty I mentioned above: 'He' also had a place on my book shelf and in my heart and was only outshone by 'his' fellow citizen of 'the American Wild West,' 'the American Indian.' How does that affect my approach to 'the Cowboy' in Nigeria? As I mentioned above, my instinctive rejection of blanket denunciations of all youths that appropriated cowboy fashion and some of 'his' behavioural repertoires may be informed by this. I mean, they could as well have been talking about 10 year old me. And, of course, I recognise parallels between the appropriations of 'the American Wild West' in Germany and Nigeria. Or, at the very least, realise that 'the American Indian' in the novels (especially those of Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich) and films that I watched as a child fulfilled an ideological functions well beyond the imagined Wild West just, as I want to argue, 'the Cowboy' did in Nigeria. 'The American Indian' was a victim of imperialist expansion and genocide but also a representative of a more 'natural' and environmentally friendly way of life. Beyond that, I am not quite sure. But, from this moment, dear reader, you have been warned.

[1] My use of inverted commas here is intended to indicate that what influenced my youthful imagination and, of course, that of many other Germans whose practices the New Yorker authors Rivka Galchen and Anna Altman described were stereotypes of 'Cowboys' and 'Indians' that probably had little in common with the historical realities in 19th century America and that, as in Nigeria, had instead been shaped by Wild West shows, dime novels and films in cinema and TV.


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