Dr. William E. Thomas MD

Karl May – Bereavement

The timetable of Karl May’s literary output is impressive indeed.[1] In each year from 1874 till his death in 1912 Karl May had written many thousand words, in logical stories, which have been eagerly read by both simple and educated people. It had been a consistent and steady creative writing by a gifted and energetic person.

There was one short period during his intensive writing in 1885, when Karl May interrupted his steady literary output. What happened at that time in Karl May’s life?

On April 15, 1885, May’s mother died. Death of the mother is a serious and traumatic event in the life of any human being. Karl May’s reaction to this ordeal in his personal life is worth a closer attention to understand the state of his mind.

Individuals who are experiencing bereavement present with typical symptoms, e.g. sleep and appetite disturbances, extreme sadness, etc. Bereavement however is not a mental disorder. Normal bereavement is a special case of Adjustment Disorder,[2] i.e. a short period – up to three months – of distress and emotional disturbance following the occurrence of a significant stressor or life change.

Bereavement refers to the feeling of sadness following the loss or death of significant other. Physical and psychological signs include crying, sighing, weakness and loss of appetite, nausea, agitation, sleeplessness, poor concentration and loss of interest in usual activities. This period could last from weeks to months. A wide range of emotional and physical problems may be associated with bereavement including grief, anxiety, and associated physical symptoms of insomnia and anorexia. Individuals may also be more likely to abuse alcohol and may be vulnerable to physical illness at this time. Despite the high degree of stress suffered by individuals who have recently been bereaved, the majority of individuals cope with their loss and only a minority will develop a mental disorder such as a major depressive episode.

What do we know about Karl May’s reaction to the death of his mother? The immediate reaction is usually one of numbness and disbelief; an inability to grasp that the loss has happened and a ›state of shock‹.

Karl May’s second wife Klara described in 1932 what took place that night in April 1885: »As his mother died in his arms, he held her body from the evening until the morning in his arms. Does an apparently normal person behave like that? The grave of his mother was made twice as deep. He wanted to be buried in there with her.«[3][4]

At that time Karl May had been writing the story ›Die Liebe des Ulanen‹ for a journal called the ›Deutsche Wanderer‹, which was being published in sections in following issues. The editor of the journal had to print in three issues (Nos. 88 – 89 – 90) a different text supplied by Karl May, which had nothing in common with the original story. Karl May did not have the time or could not write the usual weekly continuations of the ›Die Liebe des Ulanen‹. He therefore supplied the editor with a different text, which he wrote before the death of his mother, the ›Ulane und Zouave‹.[5] The following issues of the ›Deutsche Wanderer‹ from June 13, 1885, continued with the usual story of the ›Die Liebe des Ulanen‹.[6]

A history of depressive illness increases the risk of developing depression during the grief reaction. Suicide risk also needs to be assessed. If significant symptoms persist, expert psychiatric consultation is recommended.

From the evidence we have we can conclude that Karl May went through the immediate reaction stage of bereavement and returned to his normal activities by July 1885.[7] Karl May suffered in the year 1885 between April 15 and the middle of June from bereavement; it was a grief reaction.[8] A depressive episode cannot be substantiated. Contrary to what Klara May had to say 47 years after the event, it was a normal reaction of a grieving person.

Karl May’s paternal grandmother, Johanna Christina Vogel-Kretzschmar, died on September 19, 1865.[9] When Karl May returned home on November 2, 1868 after serving prison term at Zwickau, he was told about the death of his grandmother. In his own words: »I sunk into the chair and put my head and arms on the table. She was not alive any more! … It lasted a long time, until I lifted my head, to greet my parents. They were shocked. They told me later that my face had looked worse than that of a corpse … It indeed gave me the foremost effort, however I could not bury fully the blow, which had befallen me …«[10] The reaction to this trauma resulted not in a major depressive state, but in an exacerbation of the Dissociative Identity Disorder state.[11]

Divorce is another major event in the life of an individual that is very traumatic. The legal decree of divorce between Karl May and Emma May-Pollmer came through in January 1903. However years before that the couple did not live in harmony. Karl May had been alarmed Emma might want to poison him and was careful about what he ate. Emma on the other hand neglected to prepare his meals. The diary of Klara May, his second wife, from those years gives intimate description of the marital friction between Karl and Emma. Karl May lost weight, however there were no sign of clinical deep depression. Klara May wrote on 27 August 1902 into her diary: »Karl works. He says that makes him feel well. If he just would not look so distressed.« On the 7 January 1903 Klara asked Karl May how he felt when the divorce became valid and recorded his answer: »Relieve, as if I would wake up to a new life after a tormenting disease …«.

How did Karl May portrait grief in his writing? The death of Winnetou is an example: »… some shots were fired at us … Winnetou fell to the ground. I was frozen with terror. ›Winnetou. My friend!‹ I shouted. ›Are you wounded? ›Winnetou is dying,‹ he whispered as he fell. I was seized by an irresistible fury …«[12] »I did not recognize myself … I knocked down the third [enemy] … I turned to Winnetou and knelt down by his side … The bullet had penetrated a lung. I felt a grief I had never experienced before. ›There is still hope, my brother,‹ I consoled him. ›My friend should place my head on his knees …‹ … ›His head was resting in my arms …‹«[13] Old Shatterhand went through the stages of anger and denial.

›Winnetou dead! Only these two words are needed to convey how I felt at that time. It was as if I could not tear myself away from his grave. During the first few days, I sat silently near it, looking on at the activities of the men … I say that I looked on, but actually I saw nothing. I heard the voices, and yet I did not hear. I was absent in spirit. My condition was like that of a man who has received a blow on the head and is not wholly unconscious. He hears everything as if from a distance, and sees things as through a frosted pane of glass.‹ This was the stage of grief.

Half a week passed before I pulled myself together … I was taciturn, but my old energy returned …‹[14] This rather short period of time after the event speaks against any serious depressive state. A bereavement process followed the description of the demise of Rih, Kara ben Nemsi’s famous horse, as well.[15]

According to ICD-10[16] major depression can be coded according to severity, psychotic features, and somatic (melancholic) features. The severity can be classified as mild, moderate, or severe. Severe depression may also be classified according to the presence or absence of psychotic symptoms, hallucinations or delusions.

ICD-10 does not classify bereavement as a mental disorder although recommends that bereavement that remains intense, lasts longer than six months, and is considered to be abnormal in some way would be classified as a sub-category of adjustment disorder.

DSM-IV[17] recommends that the presence of the following symptoms may help to diagnose major depression from bereavement: guilt that is related to actions taken (or not taken) at the time of the loved one’s death; thoughts about death that are related to the feeling that the individual would be better off dead or should have died with his or her loved one; intense feelings of worthlessness; prominent psychomotor retardation; prominent and prolonged impairment of functioning; and hallucinations that do involve hearing or seeing the deceased person.

ICD-10 refers to somatic symptoms as the ›somatic syndrome‹. DSM-IV uses the term ›melancholic features‹. Extremes of mood have been noted since antiquity.[18] Hippocrates was the first, in the fourth century BC, to describe ›Melancholia‹. The German psychiatrist, Emil Kraepelin, distinguished what he called manic depressive insanity from dementia praecox (later relabeled schizophrenia). The term ›melancholia‹ used in classical times was resurrected after the Renaissance and became widely used by the mid-nineteenth century.

The term Melancholia has been used to describe a particularly severe form of the major depressive illness consisting of loss of pleasure in almost all activities, lack of reactivity to pleasurable stimuli, and change in the quality of the depressed mood which is different from the depression or ordinary experience. This depression is worst in the morning; there is marked psychomotor retardation, significant anorexia, early morning waking and obsessive guilt. Sometimes psychotic features are present namely delusions or hallucinations with a content consistent with feeling of inadequacy, guilt, disease, death and deserved punishment.

It is of interest that Karl May described one of the deadly outcomes of untreated severe depression, the suicide. In his book ›Winnetou’s Erben‹[19] Santer, the son of the murderer of Winnetous‹ father and sister, visits Karl May in Radebeul, after he had seen a doctor there: »I have here in Dresden a friend, who is a much sought after physician and psychiatrist.«[20] Karl May said. Santer consulted the doctor because of a family history of severe depression: »It was a case of a family compulsion to suicide, a compulsion which without fail gets hold of each and every member of the family, without sparing even one, and in each case starts slightly, very slightly, to grow step by step stronger, until it becomes irresistible.«[21]

Significantly lowered mood and a loss of interest or pleasure in activities that are normally enjoyable characterize major depression. Such depressed mood is a common and normal experience in the population. However, a major depressive episode can be distinguished from this ›normal‹ depression by its severity, persistence, duration, and the presence of characteristic symptoms: markedly depressed mood – loss of interest or enjoyment – reduced self-esteem.

Major depression is characterized by prolonged deep despair. The true depressive state makes disciplined creative writing impossible. Many people with mood disorders medicate themselves with alcohol or illegal drugs. Some such people avoid treatment because of potential side effects, such as mental sluggishness. There does not seem to be any credible report on Karl May indicative of a major pathological depressive episode during his life.



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[1] »Ich« in Karl May’s Gesammelte Werke, Band 34, Karl-May-Verlag Bamberg 1968, pp. 355-362.

[2] Strictly speaking, normal bereavement is not an adjustment disorder, although abnormal grief reactions may be classified in the category of adjustment disorder.

[3] Ralf Harder: Karl May und seine Münchmeyer-Romane. KMG-Presse Ubstadt, 1996, p. 164.

[4] Hans Wollschlager: »Die sogenannte Spaltung des menschlichen Innern, ein Bild der Menscheitsspaltung uberhaupt«, Jb-KMG 1972-1973, Hamburg 1973, pp. 50-51; reference 81 on pp. 88-89.

[5] Claus Roxin: ›Die »Liebe des Ulanen« in Urtext‹. Mitteilungen der KMG, No.14 (December 1972), pp. 23ff., and No.15 (March 1973), pp. 6ff.

[6] Ralf Harder: Karl May und seine Münchmeyer-Romane. KMG-Presse, Ubstadt 1966, p.247.

[7] In (12), p. 175.

[8] The usual stages of loss are Denial – Anger – Bargaining – Acceptance.

[9] Karl May: ›Mein Leben und Streben‹, Olms Presse Hildesheim-New York 1997, p.382-383.

[10] In (9), p.155.

[11] Dr.W.E.Thomas: Karl May & Dissociative Identity Disorder.

[12] Karl May: ›Winnetou‹, Volumes 1 and 2; The Seabury Press, New York 1977, p.645.

[13] In (12), p. 646.

[14] In (12), pp.649-650.

[15] In Karl May: ›Der Schut‹, Zürcher Ausgabe 1996, p.562 ff.

[16] International Classification of Diseases (ICD)-10th Edition of the World Health Organization

[17] American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fourth edition. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association 1994.

[18] In the ›Old Testament‹, the Book of Samuel tells of Saul’s tendency to depression, which was responsive to music: »And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took a harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.«

[19] Karl May: ›Winnetou’s Erben.‹ Karl May Verlag Radebeul bei Dresden, Band 33, 48-57 Tausend [edition] (year not given); Karl May: ›Winnetou Band IV‹, Reprint der Karl May Gesellschaft Hamburg 1998.

[20] Karl May: ›Winnetou Band IV‹, KMG Hamburg 1998, p.25.

[21] In (19), pp. 25-26..



Karl May aus medizinischer Sicht

Karl May – Forschung und Werk