Arciniegas, German

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German Arciniegas

Colombian educator and historian German Arciniegas (1900–1999) was a noted intellectual and journalist whose criticism of Latin-American dictators forced him to live in exile in the United States for almost two decades beginning in the 1940s.

Educator, historian, and civil servant German Arciniegas represented his native Colombia as ambassador to several countries, while also serving in the Colombian Ministry of Education and as a member of the Colombian Parliament for three terms. The author of 1986's America in Europe: A History of the New World in Reverse and many other books, he promoted a non-Eurocentric view of world history in which the Americas played a positive role. Arciniegas also became a noted journalist and lived abroad from 1942 through 1960 because of his strong criticism of the military dictatorships then in power throughout Latin America.

Arciniegas was born in a rural area near Bogota, Colombia, on December 6, 1900, to dairy owners Rafael and Aurora (Angueyra) Arciniegas, and as a child he developed a great love for the countryside. He came from a long line of political agitators: his great grandfather, Pedro Figueredo, was executed by Spanish officials for leading a rebel Cuban force and penning that country's national anthem, "La Bayamesa." Columbia, at the time of Arciniegas's birth, was undergoing recurrent political turmoil, and the discussions of family and friends made the young man keenly aware of local and national politics. Fourteen years before Arciniegas's birth, in 1886, the Republic of Columbia had been established under a new constitution, but within a decade the nation found itself in a futile war against U.S.-backed insurgents who successfully liberated Panama from the republic during the War of a Thousand Days. By the time Arciniegas reached age two the war was over, and his childhood was spent working on his family's dairy farm in a nation where agriculture was the chief source of income.

Began Intellectual Pursuits

Despite the fact that the country was enjoying a period of relative peace following the War of a Thousand Days, during the early twentieth century Columbians retained a strong anti-U.S. sentiment as well as resentments against the Roman Catholic Church. Schooled in such views, Arciniegas began his studies at the Universidad Republicana de Bogota, and, in the family tradition, he soon gained a reputation as an outspoken political liberal. In 1920 he enrolled in the law program at Bogota's Universidad Nacional, earning his LL.D. in 1924. While a law student Arciniegas continued to be a campus agitator, marching to protest Jesuit control of Columbia's schools and to protest various actions by the government that he viewed as oppressive. At one point, he was shot at and almost died while delivering a speech on a Bogota street. Two years later, in November of 1926, he married Gabriela Vieira, with whom he would have two daughters, Aurora and Gabriela Mercedes.

Joining the faculty of the Universidad Nacional in 1925, Arciniegas served as a professor of sociology from 1925 to 1928. He then left academia, joining the staff of Bogota newspaper El Tiempo as an editor in 1928. During law school he had already gained journalism experience through his founding of a political reformist campus newspaper; now he expanded that experience and became a voice for such activists as Victor Raul Haya de la Torre and others who sought to overhaul Colombia's unresponsive and unrepresentative political system. Two years later he left South America and relocated to England, working as El Tiempo's London correspondent from 1930 through 1933. While in London he was also appointed vice-consul by the Columbian government, thereby beginning his civil service career. In 1933 Arciniegas was promoted to editor-in-chief of El Tiempo, becoming director in 1939. Leaving the paper later that same year after being offered a higher position within the government, he continued to contribute columns containing his analysis of local politics throughout the remainder of his life.

From 1930 to 1946, beginning with the administration of President Enrique Olaya, Columbia enjoyed a period of peace under a liberal republican administration. While progress had been made on many fronts, there was much work to do, as Arciniegas noted in his first published book, 1932's El estudiante de la mesa redonda. Due to his role as a prominent intellectual and political voice, the government of Colombia appointed Arciniegas charge d'affaires in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1939, and he was named minister of education in 1941. He remained in the ministry from 1941 to 1942, and again from 1945 to 1946, working to advance educational opportunities among Colombians of all social and economic classes. His friendships with thinkers such as John Dewey, Aldous Huxley, and John Dos Pasos greatly influenced his efforts to liberalize education amid poverty and inequality.

Rise of Militarism Prompted Exile

World War II found the country on the side of the Allies, and Columbia was among the 41 nations to join the United Nations in 1945. Unfortunately, the war years threw the country into turmoil, the violence spreading from the cities and college campuses into the countryside. Despite a Pan-American conference held in Bogota in April 1948, a military government was instituted under Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. Between 1953 and 1958 military juntas alternated power, but their power ended after the formation of a quasi-representative democracy under the National Front that was able to stabilize the government during the 1960s.

In 1942 Arciniegas left Colombia for the United States, serving as visiting professor at several schools, among them the University of Chicago; Mills College; the University of California, Berkeley; and Columbia University, where he taught in 1943 and again from 1948 to 1957. The desire to teach abroad soon became a necessity, as Arciniegas's out-spoken writings condemning the increasing violence of the military governments not only in Columbia but also elsewhere in Latin America gave rise to concerns for his own safety. His book Entre la libertad y el miedo, published in ten editions beginning in 1952 and translated as The State of Latin America, chronicles the tortures, jailings, and oppression of military dictatorships, its author boldly stating: "The increasing withdrawal of representative forms of government in our America places us ever more outside the democratic world. Sixty million inhabitants live in ten nations where some or all of the rights consecrated in the charter of human rights are ignored." Not surprisingly, books such as The State of Latin America were banned and its author targeted by government officials. For much of the 1950s Arciniegas remained in exile in New York, writing constantly and maintaining a strong voice in that city's vibrant intellectual community.

Righted the Historical Record

Through his teaching and his journalism, Arciniegas dedicated his life to not only advancing civil rights, but also broadening the view of both Hispanics and Westerners about the role of the Americas. His efforts in this regard became well known in 1947, when he took umbrage at a series of writings by Italian historian Giovanni Papini. Papini argued that the efforts of European governments to settle the New World had resulted in failure; after all, many Western hemisphere governments were in turmoil, the region's countries were economically backward, and the Americas had produced no great talent on the order of Michelangelo or Beethoven. Papini's accusations crystallized Arciniegas's thought, and in a great wave of essays, columns, and speeches the Columbian historian argued that the value of the Americas was not in its institutions or its ability to foster exceptional individuals. Rather, it was in its ability to allow all men the freedom to advance in society and contribute in ways that would never be allowed in Europe. America's great wealth was the vision of individual men and women and each person's efforts to attain that vision unconstrained.

Arciniegas authored more than forty books, many of which were translated into English, beginning with The Knight of the El Dorado: The Tale of Don Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada and His Conquest of New Granada, Now Called Colombia, which was published in 1939. Concerned over the Eurocentric approach taken by most historians when examining the role of Europeans and their role in the "New World," Arciniegas published several other biographies, among them America magica: los hombres y los meses and three books focusing on Simon Bolivar, including 1980's Bolivar, de Cartagena a Santa Marta. In these works, according to Américas contributor Steven Ambrus, Arciniegas hoped to educate the masses. He devised a "colorful history" combining fantasy and realism and "intended to instruct the everyday person in the distinctiveness of his past. He crafted a singular 'historical journalism,' which transports the reader into the eyes and minds of the fisherman, candle maker, or tailor of distinct epochs, honoring the common man as the hero of his own vast drama."

According to Barbara Mujica in Americas, in Arciniegas's view Latin America is "quintessentially Indian, not European. The Spanish veneer concealed a collective psyche … forged from centuries of proximity to nature. The Spanish language, Catholicism, private property, and Renaissance notions of selfhood were imported from abroad and imposed on the Indian populations, … but beneath the surface, Latin America was never 'Latin' at all." America allowed Europeans fleeing oppression a tabula rasa of sorts: a place to rework social structures, develop new forms of government, and flee racial and class restrictions in order to more fully develop human potential. Such freedoms allowed intellectual and artistic abilities full reign, the combination of Indian, African, and European peoples generating scientific, political, and social advances that would never have coalesced in Europe.

Arciniegas devoted much of his career to studying the Age of Exploration, and books such as 1955's Americo and the New World: The Life and Times of Amerigo Vespucci and 1941's Germans in the Conquest of America reflect this interest. His most well-known works encompass 1965's El continente de siete colores: historia de la cultura en laAmerica Latina and Biografìa del Caribe, the latter a 1945 work translated as Caribbean, Sea of the New World that presents a colorful, inventive, and panoramic history of the region from Columbus's arrival through modern times. Other translated books include The State of Latin America and The Twilight of the Tyrants, which he wrote with John S. Knight in the mid-1970s. In 1944 he edited The Green Continent: A Comprehensive View of Latin America by Its Leading Writers, an anthology of essays by the region's leading twentieth-century intellectuals that has since been reprinted.

First published in 1975 as America en Europa, Arciniegas's America in Europe: A History of the New World in Reverse is considered among his best-known books. Released in an English translation completed with the help of the author's wife in 1986, the work reflects its author's multicultural world view. "Everything from the time of the revelation of America on back seems to us today as fictional as a novel, as mythical as a painting," he writes in the book's English translation. "With America, the modern world begins. Scientific progress begins, philosophy thrives. By means of America, Europe acquires a new dimension and emerges from its shadows." The book was praised by many reviewers, an Atlantic Monthly contributor dubbing it "impressively presented and impossible to ignore."

In 1959 Arciniegas assumed a series of ambassadorial positions. Arciniegas became ambassador to Italy from 1959 to 1962, to Israel from 1960 to 1962, to Venezuela from 1967 to 1970, and to the Vatican City from 1976 to 1978. Arciniegas balanced his journalism and ambassadorial duties with a political calling. He was elected a member of the Colombian Parliament for several terms: 1933–34, 1939–40, and 1957–58. In the realm of the arts, he also founded Bogota's Museo de Arte Colonial as a way to provide Colombians with a visual sense of their non-Western cultural heritage.

Even while teaching and working for the Colombian government, Arciniegas continued to speak out on political matters. He worked as director of the Paris-based Cuadernos from 1963 to 1965 and also wrote for France's Revue des Deux Mondes. His contributions to Americas, Cuadernos Americanos, La Republica, and Sur were considered insightful and enlightening, and despite his intellect he expressed himself in a manner that did not alienate the general reader. Arciniegas also served as director of the publishers Ediciones Colombia and as co-director of Revista de America.

Due to his contributions to Latin America's intellectual life, in 1947 Arciniegas was elected a correspondent to the Academia Española. Twenty years later, in 1967, he was awarded the Hammarsjkold Prize; he also received an honorary doctorate from Mills College. A member of the Academia Colombiana de la Lengua, he was also president of the Colombian Academy of History from 1980 until his death and was a corresponding member of the academy of letters in Cuba, Mexico, Spain, and Venezuela.

Returned to Academia

Retiring from his ambassadorship in 1978, Arciniegas moved back to the academic realm he had worked in five decades before. At Bogota's Universidad de los Andes, he joined the faculty of Philosophy and Letters as dean, a position he held for the remainder of his life. In addition to his academic position, he continued to write columns for El Tiempo as well as for Miami, Florida's Diario las Americas and Argentina's La Nación. Introductions and prologues to books by other Latin authors also took up much of Arciniegas's time.

Restricted by blindness during his final years, Arciniegas was nonetheless encouraged to see Colombia's economy stabilize and with it the country's government. The late 1980s brought the first popularly elected president in Columbia in Luis Carlos Gallant. Unfortunately, political advances were increasingly threatened by drug cartels and guerilla factions, and Arciniegas fought back in his columns. In July of 1991 he was able to write of a major success as the country's Constituent National Assembly created a new constitution ensuring fundamental liberties and rights to all Colombians. Ever vigilant, he remained outspoken about the United States' restrictive immigration policies and worked to inform the world about the ecological threat to the Amazon region.

Arciniegas died of lung failure on December 5, 1999, just one day before he would have celebrated his hundredth birthday, in Bogota. He died a widower, his wife, Gabriela, having passed away three years before. At his death he was remembered as one of the most inspired political reformists of his century, and his efforts to provide Latin Americans with a renewed respect for their contributions to world history continue to bear fruit. As Mujica noted of Arciniegas: "His passing signals the end of an epoch; his influence will be felt well into the future."


Arciniegas, German, Memorias de un congresista, Editorial Cromos, 1933.

Cobo Borda, Juan Gustavo, Arciniegas de cuerpo entero, Planeta, 1987.

Cordova, Federico, Vida y obra de German Arciniegas, [Havana, Cuba], 1950.


Américas, May–June, 1997; April, 2000.

Atlantic Monthly, March 1986.

New York Times, December 5, 1999.

Times Literary Supplement, December 4, 1969; March 25, 1977.