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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 27-01-2023 10:59

Oktoberfest in January

With German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in town this coming week, the Teutonic presence in Argentina seems as good a topic for today’s column as any.

With German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in town this coming week and with the last print edition of Argentinisches Tageblatt earlier this month (on January 13 although the Germanophone embassies here are apparently ensuring a virtual afterlife for the newspaper founded in 1874 and printed daily for almost a century between 1889 and 1981 while a “Wochenblatt” since then), the Teutonic presence in Argentina seems as good a topic for today’s column as any.

A relationship which actually predates Germany itself (not unified until 1871) since the ties began with the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation signed between Prussia (also representing the German states in the Zollverein customs union) and the Argentine Confederation in 1857 – curiously enough, the same year Washington signed an investment treaty.

Before proceeding further with the story of the Germans in Argentina, it should be explained that this ethnic tag here is a geographically loose concept. For example, talking of the Argentinisches Tageblatt, what could be more German than the name of its founder, Johann Alemann, and yet he was a native of the Swiss capital of Bern. Famous German names here often turn out to be Swiss – thus the first Kirchner hailed from Interlaken while the race ace turned politician Carlos Reutemann was also of Helvetic origin. Both core Germans and the Swiss might well be outnumbered by the Volga Germans whose descendants today could total as many as two million Argentines (as against 8,400 German-born passport-holders according to the 2010 census). In 1874 Slavophile sentiment in the Russian Empire led to Volga Germans being stripped of the last rights granted by Catherine the Great and as from 1878 they came pouring into Argentina ahead of any other destination, apparently finding the pampas the most similar to the steppes of their previous homes.

Although there are over four centuries of German arrivals here ranging from the Bavarian mercenary Ulrich Schmidl who penned the first chronicle of River Plate travel in 1567 to the most recent newcomers today, most German immigration here is concentrated into the six decades between 1885 and 1945 (and the next few years). The first wave was mixed between urban and rural destinations with some seeking easy farming fortunes with the meat and wheat so much in demand elsewhere in the world while others stayed in the capital with a distinct preference for Belgrano. It is a little-known fact that Adolf Hitler’s “Blut und Boden” ("blood and soil") Agriculture Minister Walther Darré was born in Belgrano in 1895 when he was given the first name of “Ricardo.”

German immigration here peaked in the grim years following the World War I defeat with five-digit inflows in both 1923 and 1924 in the wake of hyperinflation. The number of German schools trebled to 176 between 1905 and 1933 while the advent of the Third Reich in the latter year led to at least one more – the Colegio Pestalozzi founded in 1934 in brave resistance to the Gleichschaltung (or Nazification) imposed on all German-speaking institutions by Hitler’s envoy Baron Edmund von Thermann who installed the Horst-Wessel-Lied (named after a martyred storm trooper) as the new national anthem. No less than 28 percent of total immigration to Argentina between 1933 and 1940 were Germans fleeing Hitler, mostly Jews, forming the anti-Nazi organisation Das Andere Deutschland in 1937. Yet most of the previous generations of German-Argentines seem to have sympathised with the Third Reich, at least until defeat loomed – Argentinisches Tageblatt was an honourable exception.

After 1945 a rather different type of German was fleeing to Argentina – the 12,000 Germans emigrating here between 1946 and 1952 included countless Nazis taking advantage of the ratline created by Juan Domingo Perón. The latter has been quite justly reviled for his hospitality to war criminals but it should be added that under the same leader Argentina was one of the first countries in the world to recognise the state of Israel only nine months after its creation with many Jewish immigrants in that period – another of those many Peronist contradictions.

Many interesting details could be added but some space must be left for previous visiting chancellors in Scholz’s honour. This columnist stands to be corrected but he is not aware of any West German chancellor having visited Argentina (or East German leader for that matter although he remembers a time shortly before unification when both the West and East German ambassadors were called Hofmann). Helmut Kohl, the architect of unification, was thus apparently the first chancellor to visit in 1996 during a peak period for overseas investment in convertibility Argentina with the Siemens conglomerate huge here (the bribery scandal over its identity document contract was still five years down the road) and Volkswagen a leading automaker. As the Buenos Aires Herald journalist with the most fluent German from my Hamburg years, I followed that visit closely, accompanying the visiting delegation to the Volkswagen plant in González Catán. At the press conference I asked Kohl what I thought might be a testing question as to why kickbacks abroad were tax-deductible in Germany but he merely answered that this was in the process of rectification (as it finally was in 1999 under the following Social Democrat government of Gerhard Schröder).

The latter visited Argentina in the crisis times of early 2002, hosted by the Eduardo Duhalde caretaker government.  Schröder showed great interest in the local plants of Volkswagen (a key ingredient in his successful Lower Saxon career) and gushed enthusiastically over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as sucking Russia into the Western world. Angela Merkel was here in mid-2017 in acknowledgement of Mauricio Macri’s pro-Western leanings and again for the G20 in late 2018 (when her spouse Joachim Sauer was the only first laddie) but the tyrannies of space prevent anything more from being written.

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.

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