Saturday, 11 May 2013

Water is water, wherever the spring

Photo: Tomas Munita, New York Times

Nueva Germania was founded in 1886 by German émigré and proto-Nazi Bernhard Förster and his wife Elisabeth, whom he married on Wagner's birthday in 1885. Elisabeth, incidentally, was the sister of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. 

Bernhard felt uncomfortable with a rapidly modernising, urbanising Germany, and longed for a return to a personal - albeit widely held - volk-imaginary of Germany as it 'should' be: a rural world neither materialist or individualist, of bright skies over rich earth commonly worked by strong protestant mind and morals, where hard work was put to good purpose, and the right and proper order of homo and terra was sustained. It was these values, Bernhard argued, rather than the nominal presence of the state, that made up the quintessence of what it meant to be German. 

In fact, Germany as commonly understood, a European nation, a collective of people under one rule in a given place, had become so corrupted, so culturally attenuated, so irretrievably far from this folk ideal that Bernhard declared it lost. He decided the only way to recover the true Germany - the Germany of the spirit, not of the flesh - was to remove all the cultural debris and create a clean space away from it all in which it could flourish anew: to hew a new Germany from virgin soil, far away from the capitalism and cultural assimilation that had destroyed the old. With this aim, one year after their marriage, the Försters moved to Paraguay. 

The Försters' plan (or at least Bernhard's - who can tell what a 19th century wife thought of her husband's harebrained schemes?) was to establish a community that would embody Bernhard's moral and spiritual ideals. And, as the spirit of that ideal community was fundamentally embodied and fundamentally Germanic, the paramaters of this new society were fundamentally racist. Fourteen 'racially pure' families were selected to establish lebensraum in the new world. In time, Bernhard reasoned, the group - as they were superior to any proximate non-Germanic peoples - would go on to rule the entire continent. 

Things didn't go entirely to plan: life was harder than they anticipated. Some settlers starved. Others gave up and returned to Germany. Others gave up even further, and took their own lives. A member of this latter group was Bernhard himself, who killed himself with strychnine in 1889, only three years into his new habitat.

Others of the party survived and remained, and in 2013 Nueva Germania still exists. Now, the descendants of those most hardy of the original settlers have long since intermarried with their Paraguayan neighbours - a perfect illustration, perhaps, of what early proponents of Social Darwinism didn't understand about evolution. 

The town's dominant language is Guaraní, the indigenous tongue of the area, although German spatters the speech of local people regardless of their ancestral footprint. Other Germans came to the town during the Stroessner years, in which Paraguay also became an infamous refuge for Nazi war criminals, yet Nueva Germania is very much Paraguayan, merging both in kith and kin with its surroundings. 

This post was inspired by a recent article by Simon Romero in the New York Times, most particularly because I wanted an excuse to share Tomas Munita's lovely photos of Nueva Germania. It's also based in large part on the writings of Robert C. Holub in the book The Imperialist Imagination: German Colonialism and Its Legacy.