Nietzsche’s Sister, Racism, Paraguay, and Immigration to Latin America

For those who missed it, this is a fascinating story:

The year was 1887 when two of the best-known German anti-Semites of the time put down stakes here in Paraguay’s remote jungle with 14 German families screened for their racial purity.

The team of Bernhard Förster and his wife, Elisabeth, the sister of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, had an ambitious plan: nothing less than the establishment of a colony from which an advance contingent of Aryans could forge a claim to the entire South American continent. […]

Within two years the dream had been shattered, and today the Försterhof, where a sign that read “Over all obstacles, stand your ground” once hung on the wall, lies in ruins. The forest grows over its charred remains. Not long after founding the outpost and envisioning its mission as the “purification and rebirth of the human race,” Mr. Förster grew despondent over Nueva Germania’s progress. He swallowed a mixture of morphine and strychnine, killing himself in 1889.

Of course, as the article points out, this was far from the only case of Europeans immigrating to Paraguay to create new societies:

In hindsight, it might seem absurd for ideologues from across the seas to have hinged their dreams on impoverished Paraguay. But this landlocked nation, with territory about the size of California, has a long history of luring utopian settlements.

In 1893, a teetotaling faction of Australia’s labor movement created Nueva Australia, which survives to this day. Finnish vegetarians started Colonia Villa Alborada in the 1920s. More recently, Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the Unification Church who died in 2012, bought 1.5 million acres of Paraguayan land and sent an advance group of followers to set up a “Victorious Holy Place.”

Few projects had the ambitions, however, of Nueva Germania. From the start, the Försters envisioned it as an idyllic “Naumburg on the Aguarya-umí” river, where crops would grow in abundance and Lutherans could worship in isolation away from Jewish influence, as the writer Ben Macintyre recounts in “Forgotten Fatherland,” a 1992 book on the colony and its founders.

Nor were these experiences limited to Paraguay. Millions of Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Chinese, Japanese, Syrians, Lebanese, and others immigrated to South America in the late-1800s and early-1900s. Indeed, though the largest number of total immigrants ended up in the United States in this period, the hemisphere as a whole became the destination for people looking to escape political turmoil, uncertain economies, cultural repression, or those who were simply seeking a completely fresh start. Places like Novo Friburgo (literally “New Freiburg”) in Rio de Janeiro state, the Liberdade district in São Paulo, La Chinesca in Mexicali, Mexico, and elsewhere all reveal the impact of immigration to the Americas in their names, their physical spaces, and their cultures. Of course, not all of these immigrant enclaves were beneficial. Certainly, places like Forster’s Nueva Germania are a reminder of that fact. More recently, one can look at Colonia Dignidad in Chile, where in 1961 German Paul Schaefer and Pinochet-sympathizer Paul Schaefer formed a commune where he ultimately sexually abused young boys and also served as a torture site during the Pinochet regime. As the Schaefer commune and the Forster settlement remind us, immigration to the Americas is diverse and has a long history, one that can and does have its own ugly pasts.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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