Interview with Max Friedman

(August 2010)

The discussion about european immigrants in Latin America has been growing in the last years. What has happened?

International topics of all kinds, including those involving migration, have become both more interesting to editors and easier to research as a result of what is often called globalization. This has brought, for example, a sort of democratization of information made possible through the internet. To study such topics a few decades ago would have required specialized training and expensive travel to do archival research or interviews, and the results would have been published in academic journals read by relatively few people. Today, those techniques are still necessary for serious research, but journalists and relatives can find some documents on the Web and correspond with one another easily, then post what they find in inexpensive venues like this one that can be read worldwide by anybody with access to a library or an internet café.

There has always been discussions about the role of the european immigrants in Latin America. Technical Knowledge as a benefit, but social segregation on the other hand. How can we approach this difficult question about their role and the benefit for the country they lived in?

Actually, there was more variety in the European immigrant experience. Italians, for example, assimilated rapidly, because of linguistic and religious affinities and because they were mostly working-class, who could not finance separate enclaves. Germans also varied in their relations with Latin American societies. Some married into local elite families, as in Costa Rica, where almost every Costa Rican president in the first half of the twentieth century had a German relative. Some worked hard to maintain a sense of German cultural identity by attending church services in German and sending their children to a Colegio Alemán, but also learned Spanish, acquired the citizenship of their new country, and forged links with their Latin American neighbors, customers, and governors. The most striking cases, however, are where Germans resisted integration, even creating separate Germanic communities they called “colonies” such as Tovar in Venezuela and Nueva Germania in Paraguay (founded by Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth). These virtually autonomous little outposts were bound by a rule requiring the expulsion of any German who married a native–a foolhardy scheme by the master race, against which biology was the best revenge, as inbreeding led to feeblemindedness and birth defects among the settlers’ descendants. Elsewhere, German polite society would generally accept intermarriages as long as the non-German spouse, usually the wife, kept a German household, and the children received a German education.

Even during World War II, Germans were welcomed in Latin America because they seemed to have a high level of education and brought access to capital and international markets. It helped that they were involved mostly in commerce, the professions, and agriculture, not the exploitative extractive industries that caused tremendous friction between, say, American mining companies and their workers.

The difficulty came when a minority of usually recent immigrants confused their emotional feelings for their country of origin with adherence to the violent political program of the Nazi Party. They did tremendous damage to the expatriate communities, and led to a devastating backlash against German migrants throughout the region.

Was the deportation absolutely inevitable?

Some countries, especially the dictatorships, readily complied with U.S. requests to hand over their German residents, because then the dictators or their cronies could steal their property. But in democratic countries such as Colombia and Costa Rica the governments did try to protect their German residents from deportation, whether diplomatically or through the courts. The United States used its tremendous economic power as leverage to force compliance in these cases. The largest Latin American countries were strong enough to refuse this infringement on their sovereignty: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico did not participate in the deportations. Only in Argentina’s case was this coupled with sympathy for Nazi Germany.

The deportations were not inevitable. They depended upon a number of erroneous assumptions: that the number of dangerous Germans in Latin America was very large; that they could be identified on the basis of their ethnic identity rather than individual actions; that Latin Americans were incompetent to preserve their own security. With hindsight, we can see from the documentary record that all of these assumptions were wrong. At the time, though, the priorities of protecting national security when war came to the Americas seemed more important. Fighting a world war is a big undertaking, and the stakes were very high.

It might be easy to say, that the US-government in WW2 declared all germans in latin America as ‘prisoners of war’ as they were in war with Germany. Looking at the black lists, one could get the impression, that it was the economic power they were aiming at and not their political views. Did the US get advantage of the situation and tried to destroy the economic power of germans in latin America like Regina Wagner concluded in her book on Germans in Guatemala?

“Prisoner of war” is a term used for soldiers. The blacklists were begun, like the deportations, as an emergency security measure at the beginning of a war when the United States could not be certain that it would win. In 1941, Nazi Germany occupied nearly all of Europe, had the British knocked back on their heels, and reached the gates of Moscow.

Japan had beaten all its rivals in Asia and was taking over a vast area of the Pacific. The U.S. faced war on two fronts with an untrained army of civilians and the Axis powers were sinking ships faster than the Allies could build them. So the effort to weaken German political and economic power in Latin America began in this context, clearly as a security measure.

Later in the war, after Stalingrad and Midway had turned the tide, and certainly by 1944, it was clear there would be no threat to Latin America. Interestingly, economic warfare against German-held companies and property in the region then intensified, and it broadened to include even known anti-Nazi Germans. Their markets were taken over by U.S. investors. That period does seem to have been marked by an effort to gain lasting economic advantage for the United States.

What could be a future focus on this topic?

Most research has focused, understandably, on the countries with the largest German presence: Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. Smaller countries have not received the kind of rigorous study that Regina Wagner provided for Guatemala, for example. There is also a need for transnational studies that examine the German migration experience on a comparative basis and are informed by developments in Germany. Finally, there are very few studies that include Latin Americans as equal actors in the story, from government officials to ordinary people living alongside the German migrants. They are often merely a backdrop for a story exlusively about Germans. The migration experience is a complex one, and telling it requires complex methods.

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Copyright: 2010 Paul Blau. Do not copy without permission!

(c)2010 Paul Blau. Keine unerlaubte Vervielfältigung!

Interview via Email in August 2010.

Questions: Paul Blau

Answers: Max Friedman, Director of Graduate Studies, Associate Professor of History at the American University in Washington, DC, USA.