Fascism Now: The Legacy of World War II in Today’s Latin America

By Nicholas Birns

Latin America is not often thought of as a factor in World War II. Indeed, considering Japanese forces bombed northern Australia, it might seem that South America was the only inhabited continent in the world that did not bear witness to some form of warfare between 1939 and 1945. But Mary Jo McConohay’s new book, The Tango War, shows that the war did, in fact, touch the region in many ways.1 These ranged from the role of early aviation in Latin America as a harbinger of a militaristic techno-optimism, Nazi efforts to infiltrate the Estado NoVo of Brazilian president Getulio Vargas, to American insistence that Japanese-Peruvians be interned—in the United States! McConahay shows how the common understanding of Latin America’s role in global affairs—that it only started after the Cuban Revolution—is both patronizing and wrong. She deprovincializes our understanding of the global reverberation of events in Latin America, demonstrating that if the conventional wisdom does not think Latin America was a global factor in the early part of the twentieth century, then so much for the conventional wisdom! But her great achievement, and the clear motivation for her writing the book, was to show that there is a connection between 1930s and 1940s fascism and later right-wing movements in Latin America, including the 1970s dictatorships in the Southern Cone and right-wing populist forces today. If World War II was never explicitly waged in Latin America, it also was never explicitly concluded. For instance, several Latin American militaries were very influenced by ex-Nazi officers whose methods of training and organization became highly influential. Thus, the fact that Nazi war criminals such as Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele ended up seeking sanctuary in Argentina serves nearly as an allegory of the way that, thirty years after Hitler’s fall—with the extreme-right thoroughly discredited in Europe and the US—fascism took power and ruled major countries that had significant previous democratic traditions (such as Chile, Argentina and Uruguay). These countries embarked on a brutal campaign of kidnapping, torturing, and killing tens of thousands of victims along the way. So, far from being immune to its influences, Latin America was fascism’s afterimage, and its storehouse.

In Chile in the late 1940s, a former Hitler Youth member and Wehrmacht officer, Paul Schäfer, founded an intentional community, Colonia Dignidad, that maintained Nazi modes of organization and discipline and made itself very useful to the Pinochet military regime as it took power in 1973.  That Chile and Argentina were among the countries where the governing class least identified with mestizaje and saw itself as the most ‘European’ is notable here. Paraguay, in the late 1890s, was the haven for white Australians who wanted to found an all-white socialist paradise in South America; fifty years later, it became the refuge for Nazis seeking to preserve their Aryan dream, which was succored by the emergence of a demonically persistent little Hitler, Alfredo Stroessner, as martinet of Paraguay from the 1950s until he was finally dislodged in the late 1980s. Klaus Barbie committed crimes against humanity and hid out in Bolivia, even helping to stage the right-wing coup of Luis García Mesa in 1980.  Nazi war criminals, though, generally did not seek refuge in Andean countries like Peru and Ecuador, which were more obviously multiracial and mestizo, the way they did in countries of the Southern Cone. In Chile, particularly, there had long been a Prussian/German influence on the military, which meant that fascist influences were able to draw upon similar traditions as had existed in Europe. Germans were in Chile and Argentina as immigrants, due to their white race and association, at the time, with liberalism and progress. When the ideological storm clouds came in the twentieth century, liberalism became fascism, and progress became regress. Latin American fascism thus built itself on top of already existing racial hierarchies. As Jorge Camarasa and Carlos Basso Prieto point out in their 2014 book América Nazi, the postwar Nazi flight to Latin America was enabled by many preexisting networks and contacts between European fascism and right-wing forces in the region, including high government officials, making the region “el último refugio de los hombres de Hitler” (the last refuge of Hitler’s men).2 Indeed, the US government showed its opposition to fascism in the Americas was only temporary or expedient. After the war the United States, as part of its campaign to encourage anti-Communism, didn’t prevent the flight and sanctuary of numerous Nazi war criminals to Latin America.3

Many Latin American writers over the past quarter-century have been addressing just this reality. Horacio Castellanos Mora, in Tyrant Memory, chronicles the 1944 attempted coup against Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, the dictator of El Salvador, who was pro-Nazi. Castellanos Moya does not unfold this story as romantic, revolutionary or epic; the initial coup fails, causing its perpetrators to flee, and only through subsequent mass protests is the Warlock—the novel’s nickname for the dictator—overthrown. The novel is narrated through the lenses of a radio broadcaster, who prematurely announces the coup’s success, and his privileged mother, neither of whom are untainted by the corruption that has suffused the society. This is one of the constants in all the World War II-infused fictions of recent Latin American literature; that fascism is not so easily defeated, and that the greatest power of resistance is in observing with a deadpan irony the preposterous self-exposure of dictators. This passage exemplifies Castellanos Moya’s clear-sighted irony:

Barely a month after the coup, the peasant insurrection began, led by the communists. There was total chaos. We felt uneasy in San Salvador, but the situation in the western sector of the country was much more dire. When the indigenous hordes armed themselves with guns and machetes, my in-laws were at their finca in Apaneca; they managed to  escape by the skin of their teeth and arrived, terrified, in San Salvador. The government’s response was strong. There was a massacre, and the leaders were executed.4

The dry, disdainful, but nonetheless scrupulous and observant tone is reminiscent of European writers such as Thomas Bernhard, who Castellanos Moya admires for the way that he is inhabiting an Austria that, like Castellanos Moya’s  own country, is ambiguously post-fascist.

In the 1940s, the United States invoked the Monroe Doctrine to try to keep the explicit interventions of Italian and German fascism at bay. In subsequent eras, Washington has turned a blind eye to the infiltration of Latin American political discourse with the overtones of and procedures of fascism. Guillermo O’Donnell and others labelled the Argentine and Chilean dictatorships of the 1970s “bureaucratic authoritarian,” arguing that their systematic use of repressive apparatuses and their tendency towards modernization differentiated them from the old-style caudillo.5 COHA’s late director Larry Birns expressed the same sentiment in a more demonstrative way when, addressing the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee conference in Wilmington, Ohio, in 1980, he called the Argentine and Chilean regimes “a Jacobinism of the Right” that more than outdid any “Jacobinism of the Left” operating in Latin America.6 In other words, it may be too easy to see ideology in Latin America as something existing only on the Left, and the Left’s opponents as little more than an ossified status quo. Yet fascist ideology—with its use of the state to justify a theoretical program of racism, ethnocentrism, and intolerance—was as much an innovation of twentieth century Latin America as it was of Europe. And this is evident from the fact that  Latin American writers who grew up during and after the Southern Cone dictatorships of the 1970s write differently about political authorities than their predecessors because they grew up in the cauldron of these fascist influences.

Not least of these is the Mexican novelist Jorge Volpi. In his 2002 historical fiction best-seller, In Search Of Klingsor, an American physicist is hired by the US government to research the incipient Nazi nuclear weapons program. The plot illuminates the way even people of reason, intellect, and prudence became trapped within the Nazi web. Volpi elucidates how, because of the statist tendencies of German education, “many professors had joined the Nazi Party so as not to lose their jobs.”7 After the war, they were then disqualified from teaching under the Allied occupation as they were deemed Nazis, allowing second-rate professors to occupy their jobs—rewarded not because of their bravery but because they had been too witless to be expedient. Volpi’s sense of how fascism corrupts a society structurally illustrates how the contemporary Latin American novel of World War II comes to grips with trauma and the delayed effects of events long since over. For instance, decades after Nazi and fascist governments were defeated by the Allied military, their psychological impact lingers and festers, as does the legacy of more recent brutal Latin American dictatorships. Sometimes this contemporary sense of a fascist legacy is literal, as when the Peruvian essayist Jose Carlos Yrigoyen, in his 2016 work, Orgullosamente Solos, explores his grandfather’s life as an admirer of Hitler and Mussolini.8

But the greatest example of this twenty-first century recognition of fascist continuity  oeuvre is Roberto Bolaño. In Nazi Literature of the Americas, Bolaño unfolds mini-biographies of fictive Nazi Latin American writers including Ernesto Pérez Mason, a Cuban “realist, naturalist, and expressionist novelist”; Max Mirabelais, a Haitian plagiarist;  and Luis Fontaine da Souza, a Brazilian who exhausts himself trying to refute French Enlightenment thinkers.9 This may seem a diverting counterfactual game, but, as Carmel Boullosa pointed out in her review of the book for The Nation, there were, in fact, many “philo-Fascist Latin American authors.”10  Boullosa goes further to conjecture that, by ridiculing fascist writers, Bolaño was expressing skepticism of writers who came to identify too closely with government power or political authority, right or left.

In turn, Bolaño establishes himself as somebody whose authority lies in witness and empathy with the suffering as a mode of resistance.  In The Third Reich, Bolaño depicts wargamers in Madrid playing a board game reenacting World War II, rendering the contemporary world as a repetition of fascism that, if we are lucky, will this time be farce, not tragedy. And in 2666, his most ambitious works, Bolaño brings together the reclusive German writer Arcimboldi and the femicides in Ciudad Juárez to articulate a contemporary valence based on class and gender and the mystified residue of a Nazi ideology that our world has disavowed but not jettisoned. Bolaño was in Chile in the aftermath of the 1973 Pinochet coup and two of his most harrowing works, By Night In Chile and Distant Star, tell the story of people of intellect, discernment, and talent who are co-opted or fall prey to supporting the military dictatorship at the height of its brutality and menace. As Héctor Hoyos points out, Bolaño ’s world is one where the Right, in its various incarnations from populism to neoliberalism, is ascendant and has the ideological energy, where it is no longer a case of leftist evolution versus stasis and conformism but where the villains have the sense the future is in their corner.11 It is not for nothing that Carlos Wieder, the aviator-poet in Distant Star, is reminiscent of the early Latin American aviators McConahay chronicles in her first chapter. As McConahay shows, Aviators such as the Argentine Jorge Newbery and the Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont , who projected a vague ofuturusm—reminiscent of the optimistic utopianism of the Mexican thinker José Vasconcelos in The Coming Race. But later on this hardened into a militaristic technological exhibitionism. (Vasconcelos himself later became something tantamount to a Fascist).

McConahay portrays the German and Italian interest in Latin America as at once sinister and farcical. But the counter-interest these feelers prompted in the United States has a different cast. Laudably, the United States wished to make sure that the Fascist countries of Europe did not gain a toehold in Latin America. Distressingly, though, the means used to achieve this end relapsed into the clumsy compromises of Latin American sovereignty which Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy had earlier promised to lessen. There was a ‘soft’ version of US pressure, as, led by Nelson Rockefeller as Director of the Office of the Coordinator for Latin American Affairs (CIAA), the US sought to counter the machinations of Goebbels’s and the Nazi publicity machine  by mounting an “all-out propaganda pitch” of its own. Rockefeller, whose family had destroyed a mural in Rockefeller Center by the Mexican painter Diego Rivera in the Thirties because they saw it as too provocative and revolutionary, oversaw a display of “soft power” that included a heavy reliance on Walt Disney and its films, something which explains the force and passion behind Ariel Dorfman’s and Armand Mattelart’s How To Read Donald Duck.12 Indeed it could be said that the dominant ideological messages of postwar US popular culture in its entirety were road-tested in Latin America during the war, and then brought home. McConahay also makes clear that this Disneyfication of the Good Neighbor policy was not for ideological reasons alone, but was fueled (literally, in terms of fossil fuel) by US desire for access to oil, minerals and other natural resources possessed in abundance by Latin American countries and vitally necessary for the US war effort and industrial machine.

But along with this US soft power there was hard power, as US Secretary of State Cordell Hull sought to extradite all Japanese immigrants residing in Latin America and intern them in the United States. McConahay speaks of Hull desiring to cleanse the continent of Japanese people, who were alternately supposed to be used as hostages for prisoner exchanges or simply processed and eventually expelled to Japan once the war was over.

McConahay shows that the US government had no right to extradite Japanese from Peru. It was a violation of national sovereignty, and verged on the preposterous in that the US was at once claiming Japanese were enemy aliens but then saying, in effect, all Japanese in the Americas had to be housed in the US. In turn, the Peruvian Japanese—the Nikkei—did not necessary identify as Japanese. They had come to Peru for work, found they could have lives and families there, spoke Spanish, drink chicha morada or Inka Kola during the day with perhaps a pisco sour nightcap. Sometimes (like Alberto Fujimori, born in 1938) they were baptized and raised Roman Catholic. They felt at home in Peru. Even if they continued to drink sake and observe Shinto worship, they had elected to maintain these Japanese customs in Peru, as Japanese-Peruvians, not as Japanese in Japan, which was their civil right to do. The US government, bizarrely, not only regarded them as Japanese but tried to teach them Japanese culture, including traditional Japanese food ways and spiritual practices,  in order to prepare them for future repatriation in Japan—a fate which few of them desired. The internees had chosen the very American future that US forces were fighting Japan for, but, as McConahay shows, the US insisted that their heart was with the enemy.

The United states, despite itself being such a polyglot and hybrid nation, could not accept the diasporic nature of Nikkei identity. That people who looked phenotypically Asian in fact were deeply Peruvian and committed themselves to the Peruvian ideal in, to use José Maria Arguedas’s book title, ‘todas las sangres’, was simply not readable by a crude and monolithic US understanding. Understanding that Latin America is full of diasporic identities—not just Iberian and Amerindian, but Arab, Jewish, Asian, African, and Muslim—has been a struggle for the US.13 The US seemed to be at once contemptuous of and envious of the way Peru had managed to make mestizaje part of its quasi-official national conception.

Though McConahay is writing over seventy years after these events, she still managed to talk to some survivors and eyewitnesses or their children. The case of the Japanese Peruvian internments is a bravura example of that, as she relates the experiences of a family that thought they had lost their father only to have him reappear in Lima decades after being interned. One of McConahay’s skills as a writer is her ability to be a listener, to be there as a witness to the testimony of the few impacted subjects of these events that still remain. Part of the poignancy and the unique achievement of The Tango War is that it could only be written at this particular time, where enough history has passed for us to have some respective eon these events but where eyewitnesses can still testify to their lived experience. McConahay’s book is written in a style accessible to the general reader and this has both virtues—such as clarity, argumentative vigor and vividness—and also some drawbacks. The reader never gets a full sense of just what fascist ideology meant in Latin America and how fascism would have dealt with the large African and indigenous presence in the region. The anti-Japanese hysteria in Peru was, McConahay tells us, stoked by a fear of a possible Japanese-indigenous collaboration—a Tupac Amaru III operating with the blessing of the Chrysanthemum Throne. But organic and autochthonous elements in indigenismo could also have fascist overtones, as seen in some aspects of later political movements such as the Etnocacerista movement of Isaac and Antauro Humala (father and brother of the 2000s Peruvian President Ollanta Humala). There was a certain aversion to heterogeneity that infested even progressive rhetorics in the Americas, from the willingness of Roosevelt’s New Deal to (as Ira Katznelson has pointed out) cultivate the continued  loyalty of Southern Whites, not to mention the Japanese-American internments themselves, and also the way, as Julián Herbert points out in The House Of The Pain of Others, how anti-immigrant and anti-Asian opinion could coexist with a certain strand of elicit progressivism.14 These ideological contradictions and perplexities are scanted in McCohanay’s work, which has little interest in intellectual history.

What McConahay does demonstrate is the contemporary pertinence of the 1930s and 1940s, and her book is therefore an invaluable resource for readers puzzled as to why the major Latin American novelists of the past twenty years have consistently turned to World War II and the legacies of fascism and Nazism as subjects. If Gabriel García Márquez lamented  this seemingly separate development of Latin America, where the continent seemed simply unable to catch up to the apparently active modernity of Europe and North America, the more contemporary novelists wonder if anywhere in the world has ever become fully modern, and in this light Latin America might not be an exception but a vividly clarifying example of what Enrique Dussel has termed “the underside of modernity.15  Acknowledging the Latin American aspect of World War II not only admits the region into the full range of global twentieth century history, but spotlights how the cruelty and arbitrary governance that has so often afflicted Latin America is not cordoned off from political developments in the rest of the world. Trump and Bolsonaro are obvious examples of this. (Federico Finchelstein, whose historical researches have traced a direct line from twentieth century fascism to twenty-first century populism, has described the Brazilian leader’s tactics as being taken “straight from the Nazi playbook”).16 Although the threats to democracy and pluralism are the same, the era is different. Today’s Latin Americans respond to that by eschewing the “dictator novel” made famous by  García Márquez, Augusto Roa Bastos, and Miguel Ángel Asturias in favor of the people who enable, tolerate, respond to, and rebel against figures of regressive authority. Even Castellanos Moya, in Tyrant Memory, focuses less on the person of the Warlock then the lives he has ruined by his tyranny, and those who have ruined their own lives by enabling it. If the portrait of human nature in these books is damning, there is also an exhilarating moral enfranchisement—the ball is in our corner, to succumb to fascism or to reject it. The democracy that had seemed to be dominant in Latin America in the 1990s is receding and in peril. The US has made clear it will not renounce interventionist impulses—as seen in the twenty-first century in Venezuela and Honduras. The particular tunes of what McConahay calls the Tango War may be quaint, but its rhythms, she shows, are still highly relevant to US-Latin American relations.

Nicholas Birns teaches at New York University and co-edited Roberto Bolaño As Worked Literature (2016) and Vargas Llosa and Latin American Politics (2010).

Show 16 footnotes

  1.  Mary Jo McConahay, The Tango War:  The Struggle for Latin America’s Hearts, Minds, and Riches During World War II, (St. Martin’s, 2018).
  2. Jorge Camarasa and Carlos Basso Prieto,  América Nazi: El Último Refugio de Hombres de Hitler (Buenos Aires: Aguilar, 2014).
  3.  Uki Goni, The Real Odessa: How Perón Brought The Bali War Criminals To Argentina (London: Granta, 2002), p. 147.
  4.  Horacio Castellanos Moya, Tyrant Memory, tr. Katherine Silver (New York: New Directions, 2011), p. 242.
  5.  Guillermo O’Donnell, Modernization and Bureaucratic-Authoritarianism: Studies in South American Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).
  6. Larry Birns’ remarks, Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee conference, Wilmington College, Wilmington, Ohio, August 1980.
  7.  Jorge Volpi, In Search  of Klingsor. Tr. Kristina Cordero, (New York: Scribner, 2007), p. 159.
  8.  Jose Carlos Yrigoyen, Orgullosamente Somos, (New York: Random House, 2015).
  9.  Roberto Bolaño , Nazi Literature in the Americas, (New York: New Directions, 2008), p. 54.
  10.  Carmen Boullosa, “A Garden of Monsters,” The Nation, March 31, 2008, https://www.thenation.com/article/garden-monsters/, accessed 11 April 2019.
  11.  Héctor Hoyos, lecture at Wellesley College, November 2017.
  12.  Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, How To Read Donald Duck, (New York: International General, 1975).
  13.  For more on Japanese Peruvian communities and culture, see Ignacio Lopez-Calvo, The Affinity of The Eye: Writing Nikkei in Peru, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, ,2013).
  14.  Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and The Origins Of Our Time, (New York: Liveright, 2013); Julián Herbert, The House Of The Pain of Others, tr. Christina MacSweeney (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2019).
  15.  Enrique Dussel, The Underside of Modernity, tr.  Eduardo Mendieta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).
  16.  From Fascism to Populism (Berkeley: University Of California Press, 2017).