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German-Latin American Relations

German-Latin American Relations

Although the Hansa cities and Prussia had earlier maintained consulates in independent Latin America, formal German-Latin American relations began only in 1871 with the founding of the German Empire. Diplomatic representation was accompanied by improved transatlantic communications, an upsurge in trade and investment, and modest increases in German immigration. By 1914, Germans held important mining concessions in Mexico, Peru, and Chile; Argentina was Germany's second most important trading partner outside Europe; German investments rivaled those of France and the United States, if not of Great Britain. German migration to South America, particularly to the temperate Southern Cone, increased, though it never equaled the massive movement to the United States. The emigrants included educators, scientists, and technicians; many made important contributions to the cultural and economic development of their new homelands. Germans went to Central America in smaller numbers, many becoming involved in the important coffee industry.

Following the lead of Chile, which welcomed a Prussian military training mission in the 1870s, several nations contracted with German military training missions before World War I; sales of German weapons also increased. Germany's colonial ambitions stimulated theorists of empire to dreams of expansion into South and Central America. Richard Tannenberg's 1914 plan, a publicist's vision of a reorganized South America under German tutelage, caused alarm in London, Paris, and Washington, but it is improbable that German strategists considered implementing it. It is, however, certain that those strategists did not consider the Monroe Doctrine a hindrance to German projects in the Western Hemisphere. From December 1902 to March 1903 a serious confrontation with the United States resulted when Venezuela defaulted on European debts. A German-led naval force threatened intervention, provoking President Theodore Roosevelt to threaten the Europeans with U.S. naval might (the dispute was adjudicated in 1904 by the Hague Court). Germany also fished in the troubled waters of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917) and overreached itself in the Zimmermann Telegram affair of 1917, an immediate cause of U.S. entry into World War I.

Brazil and six small Central American and Caribbean nations also declared war on Germany and the other Central Powers; during the war German economic interests almost everywhere lost ground to competitors, especially the United States. With restored economic and diplomatic relations after 1918, German industrialists established branch plants in a number of countries; German-speaking immigrants—including noteworthy contingents from old areas of German settlement in Russia and Eastern Europe—resumed their move to the Southern Cone.

In the drive for economic self-sufficiency in the 1930s, Germany sought assured Latin American sources of foodstuffs and raw materials. The search culminated in 1934 in a trade policy of strict bilateralism, embodied in treaties with Brazil, Argentina, and other countries, which produced gains at British and North American expense. The economic offensive was accompanied after 1933 by strident propaganda and by strengthened relations between the Third Reich and the poorly assimilated German-speaking communities of the area; Nazis labored to organize these communities for purposes that were never clarified. The expansion of German-controlled airlines, particularly near the Panama Canal, worried the North American military. In the United States belief grew in a vast German strategic project to create—through subversion of undemocratic political elites and perhaps with the aid of German-speaking "fifth columns"—a congeries of Latin American client states of the Third Reich within the Western Hemisphere. Fears were aggravated in 1938 and 1939 by armed uprisings in Brazil and Chile that appeared to implicate German elements, by German negotiations for Mexican oil in the aftermath of the nationalization controversy of 1938, and by exposés of alleged German plots in Argentina and Uruguay.

In the late 1930s German rearmament reduced the amount of civilian goods available to trade for Latin American raw materials, and the economic offensive lost its impetus. Nevertheless, Hitler's military victories from 1939 to 1941 lent credibility to German promises to integrate Latin America into a reorganized European economy under German hegemony. Therefore, in 1940 the United States undertook a costly program of preemptive buying of Latin American commodities. (It should be noted that since 1945 historians have found no evidence of the widely believed-in "German master plan" for the Americas.)

German-Latin American communications and trade were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. At the foreign ministers' conference held in Rio de Janeiro early in 1942, the Latin American states, except Argentina and Chile, followed the United States in declaring war on the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan). Apart from Brazil and Mexico, Latin America's war effort was limited to increased production of raw materials for the Allies, closure of Axis embassies, seizures of Axis property, and expulsion of Axis nationals deemed dangerous. German espionage networks, continental in scope but centered in Argentina, were not suppressed until 1944. The threat of invasion—which proved ephemeral—caused Latin American governments to request and receive U.S. lend-lease arms; the result was increased military collaboration under U.S. leadership.

As the war ended, Washington, ostensibly out of concern that Axis war criminals would escape to Latin America, pressed Latin American governments to suppress German-language institutions and to close their doors to refugees. These pressures offended Latin American sovereignty and were unsuccessful: thousands of Axis nationals migrated to Latin America after 1945. Many were scientists and technicians; some were fugitives; some were both. The most notable was Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking Nazi officer. The Israeli government eventually captured him in a Buenos Aires suburb in 1945. Normal relations were restored between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Latin American nations in the 1950s. With the growth of Germany's economic strength, in the postwar era it became one of the most important trading partners for the Latin American region. Germany is the top European exporter to Latin America, and Mexico is its largest market.

See alsoArgentina: The Twentieth Century; Monroe Doctrine; Nazis; World War II; Zimmermann Telegram.


Barbara W. Tuchman, The Zimmermann Telegram (1966).

Jürgen Schaefer, Deutsche Militärhilfe in Südamerika: Militärund Rüstungsinteressen in Argentinien, Bolivien und Chile vor 1914 (1974).

Holger W. Herwig, Politics of Frustration: The United States in German Naval Planning, 1889–1941 (1976).

Reiner Pommerin, Das Dritte Reich und Lateinamerika (1977).

Stanley E. Hilton, Hitler's Secret War in South America, 1939–1945: German Military Espionage and Allied Counterespionage in Brazil (1981).

Friedrich Katz, The Secret War in Mexico: Europe, the United States, and the Mexican Revolution (1981).

Leslie B. Rout, Jr., and John F. Bratzel, The Shadow War: German Espionage and United States Counterespionage in Latin America During World War II (1986).

Frederick C. Luebke, Germans in Brazil: A Comparative History of Cultural Conflict During World War I (1987).

Ronald C. Newton, The "Nazi Menace" in Argentina, 1931–1947 (1991).

Additional Bibliography

Endries, Carrie Anne. "Exiled in the Tropics: Nazi Protesters and the Getúlio Vargas Regime in Brazil, 1933–1945." Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2005.

Friedman, Max Paul. Nazis and Good Neighbors: The United States Campaign against the Germans of Latin America in World War II. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Goñi, Uki. Perón y los alemanes: La verdad sobre el espionaje nazi y los fugitivos del Reich. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1998.

Mitchell, Nancy. The Danger of Dreams: German and American Imperialism in Latin America. Chapell Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Schoonover, Thomas David. Germany in Central America: Competitive Imperialism, 1821–1929. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.

                                     Ronald C. Newton

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