When asked in the 1990s to name the film role he would most like to play, Roman Herzog, at the time President of Germany, immediately answered Winnetou.1 Winnetou is the most famous Native American in German culture, a fictive invention of the German author Karl May. May's works have sold between eighty and one hundred million volumes in almost thirty languages, making him by far the best-selling German author ever.2 Analagous to Star Trek fans in the United States, thousands of Native American enthusiasts in Germany participate in Indian fan clubs and camps dedicated to Winnetou, his German immigrant friend, Old Shatterhand, and all things Native American more generally.

The roots of German fascination with Native Americans date back to the nineteenth century when a number of Germans immigrated to the United States and then returned to Europe to write about their experiences in the American West. This burgeoning reader interest in Imperial Germany eventually resulted in a fleeting moment of literary fame for the Mennonite mission at Darlington in the 1880s. One of the era's most prominent authors, Theodor Fontane, wrote a novel that cast a Mennonite farm family living in Darlington in a starring role while Mennonite missionaries and their ties to local Native Americans served an important supporting role. In this novel, entitled Quitt, the meeting of two different cultures, Mennonites and Native Americans, was overlaid with the lens of a third, that of Imperial Germany. Fontane projected onto his Mennonite characters his concern that Germany's Imperial present was overly intolerant and authoritarian while at the same time using the new and pervasive German fascination with Indians to increase interest in his writing and accentuate his critique of German society.

The German Crossroads of the 1860s and 1870s

Prussia, the area of Germany that Fontane wrote about in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, had a strong autocratic tradition. After a revolution in 1848 that almost forced King Frederick William IV from the throne, the king granted a very limited constitution. In the early 1860s conflict erupted between the king and the parliament over increasing the size of the army and raising taxes to pay for new units. A constitutional crisis resulted when the monarchy insisted on implementing those changes without the consent of parliament. Those who did not support increasing Prussia's military strength were cast as traitors.

In an attempt to overcome this crisis, King William I in 1862 appointed Otto von Bismarck as his Chancellor. Bismarck continued to govern without the consent of parliament but he did take up the project of German unification, which was an important demand of the Prussian liberals who dominated parliament. As a result Bismarck orchestrated and led Prussia into wars against Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866, and France in 1870. These wars culminated in the creation of the German Empire in 1871 with King William I elevated to the title of German Emperor and Bismarck installed as Imperial Chancellor. Following the stunning Prussian victories in all three wars and the founding of the Empire, most liberals dropped their call for parliamentary control of the army and the Emperor. The result was a Germany ruled by a conservative monarch and an aristocratic officer class.

The successful creation of a German nation-state unexpectedly unleashed new social conflicts. The 1870 Franco-Prussian war brought many additional Catholics into the German Empire. Lay political leaders founded a Catholic political party, called the Center Party, to protect the interests of Catholic voters and the Catholic church. Bismarck saw this policital movement as a threat to the Empire and castigated Catholics explicitly as enemies of the Empire. In the 1870s he launched a political attack on Catholics, known to German historians as the Kulturkampf, in which laws were passed mandating state control over the training of clergy and primary education and civil marriages for all Germans. When Catholic bishops ordered their priests to ignore these new laws, Bismarck had both bishops and priests jailed in great number. By 1876 a third of all Catholic parishes in Prussia were without priests. This campaign ultimately failed because Catholic voters flocked to the Center Party in response, strenghtening political Catholicism instead of weakening it as Bismarck had hoped.

Because Bismarck's anti-Catholic campaign did not succeed in driving Catholics out of politics, in 1878 he switched tactics to attack the emerging Social Democractic Party. Two assassination attempts against Emperor William I by individuals who were acting alone nonetheless gave Bismarck a political excuse to blame the Socialists and pass anti-Socialist laws. These laws banned the Socialist press, outlawed their party meetings, and even in some cases expelled activists from their homes. Socialists were now added to the list of enemies of the Empire. In this climate any dissent was suspect, making the task of raising questions and offering criticism of German society a tricky endeavor for writers.3

Theodor Fontane as Novelist and Social Critic

Theodor Fontane is not well-known on this side of the Atlantic. He was born in 1819 as the son of a pharmacist in Neuruppin, a small town 35 miles northwest of Berlin. He became a pharmacist himself, but at age thirty he left that profession to become a writer. The need to support a family drove him to accept journalist jobs where he could find them, mostly with government press agencies whose conservative and anti-democratic tone he did not support. In the 1850s he spent several years in England as the representative of the Prussian press office in London. In 1859 he returned to Berlin and reluctantly accepted a position writing on British affairs for the leading conservative daily of Prussia, Die Kreuzzeitung. A decade later he switched to become an editor and theater critic with a leading liberal paper, the Vossische Zeitung. Fontane's first novel was published in 1878 when he was sixty years old and he continued to produce novels and novellas until his death in 1898.4

During his lifetime Fontane's fame was slow in developing. He eventually became known as the first German novelist of social realism on a European scale.5 His focus on everyday social relations included subtle critiques of the superficiality and hypocrisy of social elites in Berlin, an approach that initially limited his popularity in some quarters. His reputation has been growing steadily since World War II. A semiannual journal devoted solely to his work, Fontane Blättter, has been appearing regularly since 1965. With the fall of the wall and easy access to the places in East Germany that he wrote about, his popularity in Germany continues to grow.

Images of Mennonites in Late Nineteenth-Century Germany

Incorporating anything American into the writing of a German social realist must be considered somewhat unusual. Fontane's decision to set the second half of his novel Quitt in Oklahoma has been roundly criticized by many scholars precisely because the environment he described there seemed stilted and artificial compared to his nuanced and sympathic descriptions of Berlin and its environs. Fontane, however, had his characters travel to America for a purpose. He utilized the setting to highlight the particular problems of German society that he wished to analyze. His use of Mennonites and Native Americans to critique Germany remained nonetheless dependent on the images of Mennonites, America, and Native Americans that existed in late nineteenth-century German society.

Mennonites were a small and obscure religious minority in nineteenth-century Germany but they were not entirely unknown in the 1860s and 1870s. As part of the political developments that led to the founding of the German Empire, in 1867 Prussian draft laws were reworked. The previous Mennonite exemption from military service was debated by parliament and explicitly revoked, although the Emperor the following year used his personal authority to allow them to serve in the army as non-combatants. Roughly 10 percent of the Mennonites in the Vistula Delta region responded to these events by immigrating to Kansas and Nebraska in the 1870s. Here they founded a number of Mennonite churches including those at Beatrice in Nebraska and in Kansas the congregations of First Mennonite in Newton, Zion Mennonite in Elbing, Emmaus Mennonite in Whitewater and Bruderthal near Hillsboro. Those Mennonites who remained in Prussia accepted military service, at least as noncombatants, and rewrote their confessions of faith to list this as acceptable Mennonite practice.6

Mennonites were front-page news in the conservative Kreuzzeitung on at least one occasion while Fontane was an editor there. An 1861 article dealt with a motion in the Prussian parliament to force Mennonites to serve in the military,7 an issue that was debated repeatedly in the late 1860s and early 1870s to accompanying newspaper coverage.8

In addition to reading about Mennonites in the newspapers where he worked, Fontane's personal knowledge of Mennonites can be clearly documented. Fontane himself cast an important supporting character as a Mennonite in what became his breakthrough novel, Delusions, Confusions, published in 1888.9

A prominent theater production also documented how Mennonites were in fact well-known to the literary public of Imperial Germany. In 1888 a play entitled Der Menonit (The Mennonite) opened on the royal stage in Berlin at the expressed wish of the emperor. Theodor Fontane as theater critic for the liberal Voßische Zeitung commented on the play by Ernst von Wildenbruch. Wildenbruch, now virtually forgotten, was one of Imperial Germany's most successful playwrights.10 His play depicted the Vistula Delta Mennonite community as utterly indifferent to the humiliation of Prussia by foreigners during the Napoleonic Wars of the early ninettenth century. Mennonites were exposed as fools and traitors. One staging of the play put Mennonites into stereotypical Catholic dress, casting them as treasonous religious bigots only a few years after similar accusations had been hurtled at Catholics as part of the Kulturkampf. The ensuing Mennonite protest of this play resulted in widespead press coverage.11

Images of Native Americans in Late Nineteenth-Century Germany

While it remained fairly unusual for Mennonites to be incorporated into literature in Germany, in contrast by the 1860s the German reading public was well acquainted with Native American themes, initially introduced by an emerging genre of German-language westerns. The social conditions and tensions of Imperial Germany profoundly influenced the construction of German literary images of Americans and Native Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The political repression and lack of economic opportunity in Germany meant that escapism became a recurring theme in literature about America. Frustrations with the restrictions of social and economic life in a rapidly industrializing Germany dominated by aristocratic officers led both authors and readers to enjoy a literary America of limitless possibilities. Especially the American West offered the best chances for starting over; thus, as one scholar put it, for readers seeking to indulge their day dreams, novels that actually provided realistic information about America were a low priority.12 When Fontane thus set part of one of his novels in America, his readers would have already been conditioned not to expect the same realistic treatment he gave to German social conditions, a point that seems lost on his modern critics.13

The particular German interest in Native Americans, from the German President Roman Herzog on down, had its origins in the Romantic movement's search in the nineteenth century for a usable, common, and above all, uniquely German past. A shared classical European past rooted in ancient Greece and Rome was seen as undesirable given the conflicts between France and Germany both early and late in the nineteenth century. Thus a new and uniquely German national identity was rooted for many in a rediscovery of native Germanic tribes who predated and defeated the Roman legions. Germans were able to identify with Native American tribes as long-lost tribal brothers who shared a common, if imagined, bond of nobility and opposition to effeminate French and classical ways.14

By the 1880s a strong German interest in acquiring overseas colonies was added to this mix. Now Germans were also protrayed as superior colonizers to the French and English, superior in their ability to win their colonized peoples over with their exceptionally charming ways instead of using brute force. While this image had no basis whatsoever in reality, it describes perfectly the relationship between Old Shatterhand and his Apache sidekick Winnetou, the latter having been won over to German ways and friendship with Old Shatterhand by an earlier German immigrant who had provided him with a German-language humanist education.15

On this backdrop Native Americans were now divided by German authors into the familiar trope of good and bad Indians based on their degree of acculturation to White Men's ways. Thus Cherokees, for example, along with Winnetou's Apaches, were consistently given high marks for adopting civilized White behavior. This extenstive German literature accumulated over a thousand published titles devoted solely to Indian fiction in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.16

Fontane's Novel Quitt

In 1885 Fontane was asked by the editor of a popular mass-market magazine, Die Gartenlaube, to furnish a novel for serialization.17 Die Gartenlaube enjoyed the highest circulation of any magazine in Imperial Germany, peaking at 382,000 subscribers in 1875. The editorial stance strove to combine family entertainment, self-improvement, and patriotic values18 in a way that was roughly analagous to America's Reader's Digest.

In this setting of social conflicts in Germany and with these images of Mennonites and Native Americans available to him, Fontane produced the novel Quitt, which was serialized in the first eleven issues of Die Gartenlaube in 1890, published in book form the following year and remains in print today. The story was broken into two distinct sections. The first half of the novel was set in a resort town in Silesia. The shooting death in 1877 of a game warden named Wilhelm Frey provided Fontane with the initial idea for the novel. The prime suspect had apparently escaped justice by fleeing to America. The novel spun out this historical event as a rivalry between a local youth, Lehnert Merz, and the local game warden and authority figure, Opitz. Opitz had prevented Lehnert from getting the Iron Cross he clearly deserved for heroism during fighting around Paris in the Franco-Prussian War and later had him imprisoned for two months for poaching. The core of their disagreement, however, was Opitz's authoritarian view of the world. He insisted his position alone meant that he was owed respect, whereas Lehnert longed for freedom from Opitz's petty tyranny.

The second part of the novel was set among Mennonites and Native Americans at Darlington. Fontane found locating material on Mennonites in the United States to be rather complicated but eventually succeeded in obtaining the address of a Mennonite pastor named Mannhardt in Danzig, the largest town in the Vistula Delta region that was the source of the recent Mennonite migration to Kansas.19 Fontane apparently succeeded in getting copies of Mennonite newspapers and mission reports from this source.

In the novel, after Lehnert shot Opitz he fled to America. The second part of the novel finds him six years later reconnecting to a Mennonite family he had met briefly upon arrival in America. Obadiah Hornbostel and his family had left the Vistula Delta in the 1840s, settling first in Dakota territory and later in Indian territory. A coincidental meeting with Obadiah's eighteen-year-old son Toby brought Lehnert back to the family as a farm hand. The Mennonite settlement led by Obadiah was located near Darlington. On the occasion of the annual baptismal service in September 1884, Obadiah preached a sermon condemning bloodshed that effected Lehnert's conversion. Lehnert confessed and repented of his murderous past, joined the congregation and asked for the hand of Obadiah's teenage daugther Ruth in marriage. Only after he saved her life at considerable risk to his own did Obadiah consent to the marriage. Before a date could be set, however, Lehnert died from a freak accident that exactly mirrored the conditions under which Opitz had died. Lehnert wrote a note in his own blood before he died that his account was now, he hoped, paid in full (Quitt).20

Images of Mennonites in Quitt

Although no correspondence between Fontane and H. G. Mannhardt, the pastor of the Danzig Mennonite Church, has survived, there is little doubt that Fontane succeeded in contacting him and received in turn the Mennonite mission reports he sought. Such reports were frequently reprinted in the only German Mennonite newspaper of the day, Mennonitische Blätter. Fontane's perusal of these reports undoubtedly resulted in Obadiah's move from Dakota territory, where Fontane had first expected to place him and where Lehnert first met him, to Oklahoman Indian territory, where the second part of Quitt is set.21 The German fascination with Native Americans made this setting too attractive for Fontane to pass up.22

Fontane was interested in Mennonites and their emigration from Prussia because their plight fit well the critique of Prussian life that he wove together in Quitt. The rivalry between Lehnert and Opitz was that of an older, aristocratic Prussia and a new Prussia struggling to emerge. The fact that Lehnert killed Opitz in 1878, the year of two assassination attempts on the emperor, highlighted the game warden's personification of Prussia.23 Prussia as exemplified by Opitz had no place for Lehnert, despite the fact that his heroism in the Franco-Prussian war had helped create Germany. The new Germany drove him into exile despite his loyalty to it.24

An additional aspect of this social criticism evolved simply from the mix of unlikely characters who lived peacefully and happily together in the Hornbostel household. In addition to the Hornbostel family, there was a Polish Catholic maid, Maruschka, who taught the children about the Virgin Mary, despite Obadiah's disapproval.25 The socialist threat in Europe were represented by a hired hand named Camille L'Hermite who was Lehnert's best friend in Oklahoma. L'Hermite had taken part in the unsuccessful 1871 socialist uprising in Paris and had, in fact, fought on the opposite side from Lehnert in that war.26

Thus the larger household living in peace at Darlington consisted of Mennonites who had gone into exile from Prussia out of opposition to military service, a Polish Catholic, Indians, a socialist, atheist Frenchman, and a killer from Silesia. None of these characters could have lived peacefully in Prussia, indeed the Bornhostel household comprised a veritable wanted poster of Bismarck's list of enemies of the Reich.

Lehnert thought he understood the reason why such an odd combination of people managed to live together happily. He saw no harsh authority (Er sah kein Regieren) and a spirit of order and love simply arranged for things to run like clockwork.27 Given the microcosm of Prussia that the Hornbostel household represented, their harmonious functioning was a stinging indictment of the dysfunctional Prussian reality.28

Images of Native Americans in Quitt

Mennonite missionaries and the Native Americans they worked with played an important supporting role in Fontane's novel. The Cheyenne of the actual mission reports were recast in the novel as Cherokee, presumably because of the already existing stereotype in German literature of the Cherokee as good, acculturated Indians. Thus subsequent mention of Cherokee here clearly refers to Cheyenne models from those reports. The cooperation between German Mennonites and Native Americans that Fontane described applied the literary fantasy of Germans as superior colonizers to the point Fontane wanted to make about tolerant Mennonites' spirit of order and love as the better model for German society.

Fontane's perusal of Mennonite mission reports resulted in numerous historical names of individuals and places being used in the novel, for example, the location of Obadiah's farm at Darlington. The names of actual Mennonite missionaries or mission leaders such as Krehbiel, Shelley, Nickel, and Stauffer all reappear in the novel. The historical Christian Krehbiel, for example, founded the Halstead Indian Industrial School while in the novel missionary Krähbiel, as Fontane spelled it, was the lead missionary. In the novel one of the Arapaho boys, given the name of Shortarm, was even sent to attend this school.29

In addition, Indians from the neighboring Arapahoe and Cherokee tribes were part of the local congregation, along with Prussian Mennonite farmers and missionaries.30 In fact, during the pivotal baptismal service at which Lehnert was converted, Araphoes comprised the majority of the baptismal candidates. The congregation itself included hundreds of previously baptized Indians.31 With this account, Fontane fell victim to the romanticized views of Indians current in Germany at the time. Historically, of course, the first Mennonite baptism of a Native American convert only took place in 1888 and those converts were not integrated into existing Mennonite congregations.32

One historical Indian name reappears in the novel, that of Powder Face, renamed Gunpowder Face in the novel. The historical Powder Face was an Arapaho chief who did in fact live in the Darlington area and cooperated with the Mennonite missionaries and the local Indian agent.33 In the novel Gunpowder Face was a prominent chief and medicine man of the Arapahoes who as a convert also played the Indian drums as part of the Mennonite church services.34

Gunpowder Face's death and burial provoked the only hint of tension in the relationship between Indians and Mennonites in the novel. While out deer hunting his gun misfired and he was skewered by a thirteen-point stag. On his deathbed he confirmed his belief in Jesus as his saviour. Missionary Krähbiel was anxious to use the chief's funeral as an opportunity to evangelize those Indians who had not yet converted. Thus the ceremony took place in the Indian village instead of in the church, provoking a band of menancing Indians to glower at the German Mennonites, including Obadiah and Lehnert, who assisted with the funeral. Playing on deep-seated stereotypes of Indians, Fontane described how a shared round of brandy in combination with a shared meal succeeded in convincing those recalcitrant Indians to abandon their hostility, a resolution of the conflict, of course, that squared exactly with the image of Germans as particularly benevolent colonizers.35

Fontane's Mennonite and Native American characters obviously cannot tell us much about the historical circumstances of the encounter between Cheyenne, Araphao and Mennonites. His novel Quitt does point out, however, that even at the time there was a lively transatlantic interest in this encounter, an interest that was used by Fontane to sharpen his critique of an intolerant and militaristic German society.