Germans in Latin America

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Germans in Latin America

German beginnings in Latin America were modest. In 1528 Emperor Charles V awarded a concession in present-day Venezuela to the Welser bank of Augsburg, from which he had borrowed heavily; in 1529 Germans settled at Coro. German governance of native peoples proved no more adept or humane than that of the Spanish; the colony failed to prosper, and the concession was revoked in 1548. From Coro, Nikolaus Federmann explored to the area of Bogotá in 1539 but found he had been preceded by Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada. Ulrich Schmidl of Ulm, representing German bankers, chronicled the Mendoza expedition that in 1535–1536 founded Buenos Aires. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries German Jesuits—Martin Dobrizhoffer is the best known—were active in Paraguay and the Río de la Plata.

During the Wars of Independence Hansa traders provided rebels with arms and shipping. In the following years German merchants settled in Latin American port cities; not a few married local women, became landowners, and joined local oligarchies. German mercenary soldiers served in Brazil and fought elsewhere in the civil wars of the period. In the 1830s the Brazilian government brought German peasants to colonize the southern frontier in Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul, and, later, Paraná. Ascending the rivers, Germans formed rural and small-town communities that retained a Germanic imprint for more than a century. Chile brought Hessian colonists to the southern frontier in the 1850s and 1860s. There, isolated from centers of Chilean population, they created a similar Germanic zone. Bernhard Forster (Friedrich Nietzsche's brother-in-law) headed a utopian colony in Paraguay in the 1880s. Well into the twentieth century, Germans continued to found or join agricultural colonies, particularly in southern Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. They played a major role, for example, in the opening of Argentina's Misiones Territory between the two world wars. In Guatemala they were prominent in the coffee industry.

However, North America remained the destination of the majority of German emigrants. As Germany rose to world power after 1871, German communities in Latin America remained small and typically comprised of well-to-do merchants; bankers; managers and technicians of German electrical, chemical, metallurgical, and pharmaceutical firms; and educators and public service professionals under contract to Latin American governments. German military advisers were influential in Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. Germans proved adaptable to Latin American business and social conditions, and—sheltered by insular, status-conscious, and largely Protestant communities—slow to assimilate.

In World War I, Allied blockades brought hardship; in Argentina and more notably Brazil (which declared war on Germany in 1917) nationalist riots destroyed property and terrorized individuals. German immigration resumed after 1918, now including war veterans and political irreconcilables, young people without prospects, businessmen ruined by inflation, and ethnic Germans driven from Russia and eastern Europe by war and Slavic nationalism. In the 1930s the Nazi government proselytized in German collectivities overseas, stimulating pan-German nationalism and creating the illusion of a resurgent worldwide German cultural community. Nazi publicists reckoned "racial" Germans to number 900,000 in Brazil, 240,000 in Argentina, and 50,000 to 80,000 in Chile. As war approached in Europe, Nazi activities provoked fear that German communities represented potential "fifth columns." Armed uprisings in Brazil and Chile in 1938 that appeared to implicate Nazis, and rumored plots in Argentina and Uruguay, caused Latin American governments, particularly Getú lio Vargas's dictatorship in Brazil, to restrict sharply the autonomy of German (and other ethnic) schools, churches, newspapers, and social institutions.

World War II brought further restrictions, as under U.S. urging all hemisphere governments except Argentina and Chile declared war on the Axis. Pressed by Allied blockades and blacklists, German businesses adopted local cover or closed. Intrigues involving clandestine German agents and Allied intelligence agencies kept alarm alive; Axis property was seized; "dangerous" individuals were deported. The U.S. State Department considered a program of forced assimilation of Germans and the dissolution of all German-language institutions in the Western Hemisphere; the program, however—impractical and violating Latin American sovereignty—was not implemented except (partly) in Argentina. After 1945 the United States also sought to prevent Germans from migrating to Latin America; nevertheless, many thousands of veterans, war criminals, political irreconcilables, and scientists and technicians valuable to Latin American industrialization succeeded in doing so. Since 1945, apart from remote Mennonite colonies in Paraguay and Uruguay, Colonia Libertad in Chile, areas of southern Brazil, and Central America, German-speaking collectivities have fragmented and declined. Many of German ancestry have assimilated. Still, German heritage continues to be celebrated throughout the region.

See alsoDobrizhoffer, Martín; Nazis; Vargas, Getúlio Dornelles; Wars of Independence, South America; World War I; World War II.


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Alfredo M. Seiferheld, Nazismo y fascismo en el Paraguay: Vísperas de la II guerra mundial, 1936–1939 (1983).

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Additional Bibliography

Brandariz, Gustavo A. Alemania en la Argentina. Buenos Aires: Manrique Zago Ediciones, 1997.

Fehleisen de Ibáñez, Elsa. La colonización germana en el Río de las Conchas: Primera colonia agrícola del período de la Confederación. Paraná: Tráfico de Arte, 2004.

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

Hanffstengel, Renata von, and Cecilia Tercero Vasconcelos, eds. México, el exilio bien temperado. México, D.F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México: Instituto de Investigaciones Interculturales Germano-Mexicanas: Insituto Goethe México; Puebla: Gobierno del Estado de Puebla, Secretaría de Cultura, 1995.

Krebs, Andrea, et al. Los alemanes y la comunidad chileno-alemana en la historia de Chile. Santiago de Chile: Liga Chileno-Alemana, 2001.

Magalhães, Marionilde Dias Brepohl de. Pangermanismo e nazismo: A trajetória alemã rumo ao Brasil. Campinas: Editora da Unicamp, 1998.

Siriani, Sílvia Cristina Lambert. Uma São Paulo alemã: Vida quotidiana dos imigrantes germânicos na região da capital, 1827–1889. São Paulo: Arquivo do Estado: Imprensa Oficial do Estado, 2003.

Wagner, Regina. Los alemanes en Guatemala, 1828–1944. Guatemala: Editorial IDEA, Universidad en Su Casa, Universidad Francisco Marroquín, 1991.

                                   Ronald C. Newton

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Germans in Latin America

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