On Names Recurring

On a Sunday evening in June 2005, few pedestrians tread the cobblestone streets of Villa General Belgrano, in Córdoba, Argentina. A hymn wafts up from the church. Several parishioners are beginning to slip out early from mass. No one will notice—only the sloping Bavarian rooftops lining the path back home.The cuckoo clock in the town plaza strikes six.  An elderly couple emerges from Café Rissen, the husband clutching a cane in one hand and his wife’s arm in the other. A chatting group of teenagers weaves around them, released from church, giddy with newfound freedom. Suddenly, they halt, peering through the windowpane of a tourist street shop, intrigued. Exchanging glances, they point at a row of black cotton shirts displayed in the window to passersby.


The fronts of the t-shirts are imprinted with the figure of an eagle with outspread wings; below it, a white shield enclosing an iron crucifix. Superimposed on this: a cross tilted, its limbs bent, both at a ninety-degree angle—the unmistakable image of a swastika.

The story spreads, percolating first through regional weeklies and then into national media. Mayor Sergio Favot tells Rádio Universidad, “We are evaluating what legal framework we have to intervene.” He admits that within the realm of free speech, intervention has thorny boundaries—though he promises to appease the nationwide cries of condemnation dubbing the town a ‘breeding ground for Nazis.’

“People around here often ask for objects with military motifs of that time,” one store employee tells a reporter, uneasily. “Especially young people.”

One Villa Belgrano resident is not entirely surprised. “Every so often we have these Nazi outbreaks,” she tells the national newspaper Clarín. “They just form part of the landscape.”

The landscape of Villa General Belgrano has proved a prime tourist destination in the past few decades. Part of its allure lies in its strange foreignness: it’s easy to imagine the village uprooted from the Bavarian Forest and plunked down in the middle of Córdoba’s sierras, with architecture, language, and cuisine all remaining intact. Its Oktoberfest is the third largest in the world, surpassed only by Munich and Blumenau (in Brazil). German-style gnomes peer out of the kitschy tourist shops lining Calle Salta, one of the town’s main thoroughfares, as visitors meander among stores with names like Edelweiss and Bierkeller. Artificial, perhaps—it recalls the eerie superficiality of Disney World’s Main Street, U.S.A., an attempt to recreate what perhaps never really existed, through the tangible projection of a romantic ideal.

Yet it is not all hollow tackiness. Villa General Belgrano is home to the largest German community in Argentina. German still does mingle with Spanish, though to a decreasing extent, in homes and churches and bars. The town is the unofficial emblem of the entrenched historical ties between Argentina and Germany—a relationship whose existence is undeniable even if its borders have never officially been drawn.

The swastika affair became such a controversy because it exhumed the murky, rank depths of this history, alluded to and appropriated but never fully explored. A statement emblazoned on a t-shirt came to stand for all that still remained to be said.


* * *

In 1929, German immigrants Paul Heintze and Jorge Kappuhn were seeking a site for the agricultural cooperative they hoped to establish in the Argentine interior. The sierras of Córdoba proved home to a hospitable climate and largely unclaimed tracts of land—as well as, purportedly, reminding the duo of the Old World landscape they had left behind. A few intrepid families began to trickle in, as word spread through the German-Argentine community centered in Buenos Aires. Yet development remained rudimentary until 1935, when a group of students, along with their teachers and parents, spent a week there on vacation. The idyllic landscape and nostalgic reminders of their native land proved irresistible for the adults. Many of them would return, becoming the 127 pioneering families of Villa General Belgrano, initially christened Villa Calamuchita.

The village’s serene isolation would prove unsustainable, however, as its growth throughout the 1930s paralleled increasing national tensions. Argentina had thrived throughout World War I, using its neutrality to its advantage to become a supplier of food to all sides. But the global depression soon reversed these advances, leading the dictatorship to scramble for a force capable of uniting the nation. In doing so it looked to Europe—initially to the emerging fascist trends of Spain’s Franco regime. Argentine leaders began to consciously renew the language of an ancient Hispanic alliance between the ‘sword and the cross,’ emphasizing the shared customs, language, and history with Spain and the Vatican. The man who would become Argentina’s president and then dictator—Juan Domingo Perón—spent time in Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany as a military observer. He was entranced by the ideology and techniques he witnessed there: the idea that the pulsing vagaries of nations as diverse as these could be mastered, subsumed under a single personality. Persecution of the Jews was to Perón a minor offshoot of the political machine and just another means of asserting national power. It was an offshoot his own government had no need to reproduce, with its close ties to the muscle and weight of the Roman Catholic Church. Within the government, then, implicit approval of Nazism became the norm.

Of course, stirrings of disquiet peeked through here and there, among civilians and every so often within the political apparatus—though a strict military hierarchy helped weed out those undesirables. Voices of dissent nevertheless reached a cacophony grating enough to persuade the relatively weak president, Ramón Castillo, to declare Argentina’s neutrality in World War II.

And yet the military leaders who were actually in charge continued to be attracted to the German worldview: its unwavering sense of purpose and righteousness, its willingness to assert its own identity at the expense of any real or perceived threat, disregarding unsavory consequences. As an immigrant nation, Argentina saw in Germany an alternative to the ideology of individuality within pluralism espoused by the United States, for example (even if the latter tended to fall short of its ideals). As a bonus, a pro-Nazi stance would prove strategic to counteract increasing American influence in neighboring Brazil.

Behind the curtain of Argentine neutrality was sprouting an intricate system of official Nazi involvement, as chronicled in Uki Goñi’s book The Real Odessa—telegrams promising freedom from arrest for Nazis who found their way to Argentina; the turning of a blind eye in cash-transfers funneled through Buenos Aires; a communication network linking Germany, Spain, and the Vatican to their partner in the South, as Hitler consolidated his strategy of conquest on the eve of World War II.

Into this melee, in December 1939, sailed a vessel bearing Nazi arms, combatants, and a plan of action. The Admiral Graf Spee, captained by Hans Langsdorff, reached the Río de la Plata separating Argentina and Uruguay after completing various assignments around the eastern coast of South America. On December 13th, a fleet of British ships—the Exeter, Ajax, and Achilles—approached the Graf Spee. Langsdorff, miscalculating the size of his opponents, was forced to prepare for battle at the last minute. He dealt a fatal blow to the Exeter, but the Graf Spee suffered 56 deaths and a few dozen injuries. The damage to the ship was severe enough to force it to turn around and limp into the port of Montevideo, where the surviving members of the crew were given 72 hours of amnesty.

British intelligence, meanwhile, managed to sow false reports among Langsdorff and his crew that a massive fleet of British naval forces was fast approaching. On December 19th, the captain made the executive decision to scuttle the Graf Spee. He and the approximately hundred and twenty surviving crewmen crossed the Río de la Plata and made it to Buenos Aires, where they were lodged at the Hotel de los Inmigrantes.

The following day, Langsdorff was found dead in his hotel room, wrapped in a German flag, a bullet hole in his forehead. In a note composed to his commander in Germany, he wrote:

I can now only prove by my death that the fighting services of the Third Reich are ready to die for the honor of the flag … I shall face my fate with firm faith in the cause and the future of the nation and of my Führer.

He was buried with full military honors in the German section of La Chacarita cemetery.

From there, the contours of the story begin to blur. Records on the subsequent activities of the remainder of the German crew are vague, if they exist at all. Some remained in Uruguay, it is known. Others shed their Nazi uniforms, settling in Buenos Aires, learning Spanish, marrying Argentines, fading into the fabric of a society largely content to overlook the past. Still others, however, had heard rumors of an enclave of other expatriates, couched in scenery familiar and soothing to a homesick exile. These found their way across the pampas, over the sierras, and into what was still known, then, as Villa Calamuchita. 


* * *

Seeking the Old World within the New is hardly a novelty in Argentina. Like other American colonies, the original territory was only supposed to be an extension of the Spanish empire and, with it, a continuation of European norms. Even after independence Argentina continued to fashion itself in the image of its Spanish parent. A parallel if derivative identity was carved out of its Jesuit missions, budding aristocracy, and geography soon wiped clean of the nuisance of natives. Today Buenos Aires continues to be known as the ‘Paris of South America.’ Farther down the continent, vacationers flock to the lakeside city of Bariloche for artisan chocolates and skiing, in the ‘Switzerland of Patagonia.’ It comes as no surprise, then, that when President Perón sought to consolidate power and ensure blind faith to a creed, he looked across the Atlantic, appropriating the power of spectacle and the hypnosis of dogma already present in Nazi Germany.

In 1996, Argentine journalist Uki Goñi was conducting research for an unprecedented book on official Argentine-Nazi ties. Several times he sought access to documentation on postwar German immigration. He was told that the documents were classified, or that they had been misplaced. When he returned later that year, he learned that all midcentury immigration files were no longer in existence. They had been burned in a bonfire late at night, in his absence, in the vacant space behind the Hotel de los Inmigrantes—the same place where Hans Langdorff had ended his own life fifty years before. The final embers had already faded to black, the charred remains of damning evidence dispatched to the wind.

Goñi still managed to write the book. The Real Odessa—the title based on a fictional account of ex-Nazis smuggling their comrades to South America—was an indictment far more damning of the Argentine government itself. It was not ex-Nazis, Goñi revealed, but Argentines in power who had facilitated the escape of war criminals to Argentina following World War II.  A network stretching through Spain, Switzerland, Portugal, and the Vatican had enabled the safe passage of men like Thilo Martens, a millionaire who arranged cash-transfers between Nazis; Fritz Thyssen, a German industrial magnate who had bankrolled Hitler’s rise; and most infamously, Adolf Eichmann, the brain behind the ‘Final Solution.’ Perón sent agents—including Catholic bishops—to Europe to smuggle the Germans back to Buenos Aires, often assisted by the manufacture of falsified Red Cross passports.

Perón was appalled by the sense of righteous justice sweeping the Allied nations after the defeat of Germany. Always partial to the glory of battle, the sheen of soldiers’ medals, he saw in military action a type of transcendental honor, and in war an ethical set of boundaries that failed to apply in peacetime. The idea that military officers should be held responsible for their actions, should be considered ‘war criminals,’ was anathema to his very worldview.

“In Nuremberg at that time,” he said regarding the trials, “something was taking place that I personally considered a disgrace and an unfortunate lesson for the future of humanity.”

Welcoming ex-Nazis to Argentina became, for Perón, a means of asserting infallibility: not of political institutions but rather of the officials constituting them. Such a plan was inextricably bound to the vision of his own leadership in Argentina. It was a vision defined by the assumption that a single personality could and must determine the course of a nation, that this personality was himself, and that what some might call crimes against humanity could be incorporated into a broader, ultimately benevolent purpose: the good of the nation.

The clenched fist, the chanted hymn, the rallying speech proclaimed from the balcony of the presidential palace—all were fascist tactics watered down. Some German methods were modified. Instead of drawing power from the persecution of Jews, Perón concentrated elsewhere, on the power of and alliance with the Roman Catholic Church. Argentina has never been a particularly devout country in practice; but its profound attachment to religious iconography—in rosaries, statues, portraits of saints—found a secular parallel, here, in the symbols of the nationalist parade. All would, Perón hoped, weave together a national narrative, in which he would play a privileged role.


* * *

In most cases, the Nazis who had escaped to Argentina lived quietly, apart from politics or world affairs. Many Argentines probably never knew their pasts. Some may have suspected but said nothing; others prone to talk were swiftly silenced. And gradually the past was forgotten, or rather patched up, its stitches thick but haphazard.

In 1943, in Villa Calamuchita, an Argentine flag was thrown into the town plaza. It had been lit afire and it burned to shreds. Three sailors from the Graf Spee were accused, but never tried. In response, the provincial legislature decided to change the town’s name to Villa General Belgrano in honor of a 19th-century national figure—a military hero, and the creator of the Argentine flag. And in time the old name was covered over, as was the reason for changing it.

The Nazi connections, rhetorical strategies, and iconographies adopted by Argentina were hardly on the same scale as the horrors of the Holocaust and of Nazi Germany. It is easy to dismiss them as the fancies of an authoritarian-minded president, fancies that would fade with him and with time. But a quarter-century later, under a military dictatorship, such themes would reappear. 30,000 left-wing or suspected left-wing citizens would face repression, torture, or assassination—and few would dare to speak out. Argentina’s Guerra Sucia, thenits “Dirty War”—has roots in a less systematic relationship: the disfiguration of the country’s failure to stare its old demons in the face.

Today the traces of these old wounds, of uneasy partnerships, find their manifestation no longer in physical evidence or a militant nationalism but in the persistence of a national mood. “I come from a sad country,” Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges once said. In his writings he returned often to Buenos Aires, the city of his birth, retracing the certain broodiness—the subtle but pervasive melancholy—that to him continued to lurk beneath its surface: “Always with a blue-washed wall, the shade/Of a fig tree, and a sidewalk of broken concrete.”

That poem, “The Cyclical Night,” continues:


This, here is Buenos Aires. Time, which brings

Either love or money to men, hands on to me

Only this withered rose, this empty tracery

Of streets with names recurring from the past …

Squares weighed down by a night in no one’s care

Are the vast patios of an empty palace

And the single-minded streets creating space

Are corridors for sleep and nameless fear. 


There is more in the Argentine past, the national icon suggests, than is allowed to be said—and thus allowed to be truly forgotten. Memory becomes crucial but easily subversive, vulnerable to so many cinders. Today the twice-named village retains the ghost presence of Nazi alignment: emptily tracing the streets, its names and its past recurring.