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The Germans' Infatuation with Cowboys and Indians

Allan Hall, in the London Times (July 30, 2004):

IT IS hardly the Wild West -in fact the site used to be a part of the East and the only natural sand comes from a gravel pit 30 miles away. But tomorrow Silver Lake City will be inaugurated as a place where Germans can feel at home on the range.

Nowhere in the Western world, outside of America itself, is the cult of the cowboy so firmly entrenched as it is in Germany. Doctors, lawyers, car mechanics, teachers and civil servants, sober people who bind themselves to Teutonic rules during the week, throw off their inhibitions on Friday nights to play cowboys and Indians.

It is charades on a grand scale: there are hundreds of clubs dotted across the country with tens of thousands of members. Silver Lake City opens its doors this weekend at Templin, north of Berlin, to cater for the urban cowboy crowd from the reborn capital.

There is a main street with a saloon with swinging doors, a general store, a jail at the back of the sheriff's office and a horse trough. There is a bank that can be robbed to order and a hotel to sleep off one shot of rye too many.

Silver Lake City was inspired by Karl May's Winnetou and Old Shatterhand books: 1920s German pulp fiction about a cowboy and an Indian chief in a place and a time far from the drab, depressed Fatherland of the day.

Even Adolf Hitler was a fan and before conquering vast tracts of the world he read himself to sleep in the early days of the Nazi movement with a May book every night.

Psychologists say that it is precisely the formality and the order of German society that draws people to escape from it, even if only for weekends and in clothing that most people left behind in the toy-box at the age of ten.The Wild West boom is one of the few growth industries in a country with high unemployment and a collective depression about the future. Silver Lake City is a theme park for the family, but the family had better like its leisure served up in boots, Stetsons and spurs. It cost £12 million to build, as a venture of private and public capital, in a region north of Berlin with double-digit unemployment.

This toy town sprawling over 70,000 square metres is the grandest realisation of a tradition that even pre-dates the May books. Germans have been setting up Native American hobby clubs, Wild West towns, festivals and fairs celebrating Americana for more than a century.

At special events German frontiersmen and would-be Indian braves flock to ride bareback horses, shoot bows and arrows, cook around a campfire and drink in the large clubhouses that are decorated as western saloons.

A Germanic seriousness lies behind the weekend escapism."We don't play cowboys and Indians," said Peter Timmermann, historian and curator at the Munich Cowboy Club."Europeans have received a very distorted image of Indians. We do this properly. Of course it is a hobby, but we really try to take it seriously."

Ekehard Koch, an expert on relations between Native Americans and Europeans, has said hardly any other people have the same sympathy towards the Indians as the Germans. Dr Koch believes that the"myth of the noble savage", the discontent with civilisation, the"restricted freedom caused by modern life and the wish to escape from the narrowness of German life" have all contributed to Germany's fascination with the Hollywood ideal of the West.