Paraguay has a significant population of German immigrants and their descendants. It’s not the only Latin American country with a German influence: see Colonia Tovar in Venezuela, for instance, or the now rather nefarious Colonia Dignidad in Chile. And there’s little more surprising in the Yucatán and Belize than the sight of packs of blond Mennonites on the move, all cowboy hats, check shirts, and overalls for the boys and men, headscarves and dresses for the girls and women.
But in Paraguay the German presence is particularly notable. At times it is as though German were the country’s second language (or third, after the indigenous Guaraní). This page on German genealogy suggests there are 166,000 speakers of the language in the country. And at the hotel where I was staying last week, for instance, the guide to room services was in Spanish and German, rather than English. Most of the other visitors were speaking German, including a large group of young girls from the Chaco, in town for some kind of sports tournament, chaperoned by a tall young blond man with the air of a Christian youth leader, who spoke heavily accented Spanish.
The German colony in the Chaco are Mennonites who peaceably enough raise cattle and make cheese. By all accounts, the Chaco is a pretty desolate place, and the Mennonites and the Guaraní have it pretty much to themselves. (Even so, early last century the Paraguayans managed to lose a war with Bolivia over the territory.)
But then there are Germans and there are Germans. And the topic of Nazis or former Nazis in South America is always a subject of intrigue and speculation: luridly fictionalized as The Boys from Brazil or The Odessa File, but on the basis of real cases such as most famously Eichmann’s flight to and capture from Argentina. Josef Mengele, though he initially fled to Buenos Aires, spent signficant post-war time in Paraguay.
Still, I had either forgotten or repressed from my only previous visit to Paraguay the shock induced, this time, by noting the first day of my stay a Spanish translation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion on sale at a street corner kiosk. Or, a little later, just off one of Asunción’s main squares, on the pavement outside a cybercafe, seeing two pencil drawings of Hitler on sale among the usual collection of secondhand textbooks and shabby novels. No irony, no self-consciousness as far as I could see: just a couple of portraits of the Führer, should I have wished to buy them as a souvenir of Paraguay.
I take it that most Paraguayan Germans shudder somewhat as I did in seeing such reminders of the Reich. Not least now that Germany itself is, with the World Cup, trying to rebrand itself beyond the clichés of either jackboots or dull efficiency. But perhaps more likely, these signs of history’s unsavoriness merely blend in with their adopted country’s long history of dictatorships (Doctor Francia “the Supreme” as well as that other son of Germany, Stroessner) and injudicious wars of aggression and catastrophic defeat.
UPDATE: Royden Loewen’s Mennonite and Nazi would seem to be a book to read, complicating my account above.