Colonia Dignidad
Source: Wikipedia

Germany has sixteen states run by state minister-presidents. One state is currently governed by Germany’s most progressive political party, the Die Linke, carrying forward the intellectual heritage of Rosa Luxemburg, who over one hundred years ago said, We face a choice between socialism and barbarity.

The barbarity came too soon in the form of her murder; next it came in the form of World War I and after that, and worst of all, it came in the form of fascist Nazi Germany.

About 50 years ago, after the killing of Allende, many people faced barbarity in Chile in various torture centres of Pinochet. One of these was the German-run Colonia Dignidad, to be seen on Netflix and – more truthfully – on Al Jazeera.

Working in the anti-fascist tradition, is, for example, Die Linke’s minister-president of the German state Thuringia, Bodo Ramelow.

Recently, Die Linke’s Bodo Ramelow visited Chile during what German newspapers called a “world trip to torture cellars”. In Chile, Ramelow visited Colonia Dignidad, encountering Germany’s Nazi past that stretched deep into the 1970s.

He laid white roses in front of Dignidad’s so-called potato cellar, the name of the room in which Pinochet’s secret police – with the kind support of German nationals – detained and tortured opposition members during the Pinochet dictatorship.

The torture basement is cramped and the ceiling is low. Colonia Dignidad, which translates into Colony of Dignity, offered no dignity – only torture. It is just like Auschwitz’s Arbeit macht frei, where work never set you free, it killed you.

Colonia Dignidad was once a totalitarian sect community of Germans in Chile. We know that the bodies of our relatives are buried here …  but we want to know where they are exactly, says María Escanilla. Her brother was arrested on September 13, 1973, at the age of 15, and disappeared without a trace. I know that he was taken to the Colonia Dignidad. This is where he was killed and buried, Escanilla says. Her brother, Claudio Jesús Escanilla, is a so-called detenido desaparecidothe forcibly disappeared.

Visiting Germany’s Colonia Dignidad was probably the most difficult appointment on his trip. Ramelow,  carrying his party membership book of Germany’s Die Linke in his pocket, would have been identified as someone to be tortured to death by Pinochet’s henchmen. I admit that I had certain jitters before that day, Ramelow says.

Surprisingly, the German Foreign Office advised Ramelow against visiting the former settlement of the German religious-fascistic sect, and Germany’s ambassador to Chile, Irmgard Maria Fellner, did not accompany the minister-president of Thuringia.

German diplomats were aware of the crimes at the time they took place. But they did not intervene and offered no protection to those who would be tortured to death.

Meeting Chile’s new president who has just been elected was one reason for Ramelow’s trip.  Like Ramelow, Chile’s Gabriel Boric was elected by promising to fight rampant neoliberalism. Yet, after a draft constitution fell through in a referendum, Boric has little political leeway left. Right-wing, neoliberal, and conservative parties regard the result as a victory, urging Boric to move away from his original government program.

Besides looking at the German Nazi past and Dignidad, Bodo Ramelow’s visit was about the future. He met with the state secretary for energy and the economic minister, among others. He also visited the Cerro Dominador solar power plant, with a German business delegation almost 30 strong.

But if there is such a thing as an emotional highlight of the trip to South America, it was visiting the former site of the fascistic Colonia Dignidad. Ramelow – who is currently president of Germany’s powerful senate – the Bundesrat – noted, Germany bears an historical responsibility for what happened in the Colonia Dignidad.

The founder and leader of the fascist sect – Paul Schäfer – was once arrested in Germany for the sexual abuse of children. Not unsurprisingly for post-Nazi Germany, he was able to leave in 1961 and flee to Chile. German authorities simply looked away, as so often happened with neo-Nazis and real Nazis.

About 300 followers left with Schäfer for Chile, where they founded the Colonia Dignidad, located about 350 km, or 220 miles, south of Santiago in the idyllic landscape of the Andes. Forced labor, beatings, and sexualized violence were part of everyday life in the fascist colony. Boys and girls grew up separately and without contact with their parents. The residents were not allowed to leave the settlement.

Schäfer abused and raped German boys and Chilean boys who he had had kidnapped from nearby villages. A young man who has been humiliated and had been held as a slave told Ramelow that his brother had fled to the German embassy in Santiago. The German embassy called the fascist Schäfer, who picked up the boy and returned him for further torture. Ramelow says, These are things you can’t walk away from. Today, there are three different groups of victims of the Colonia Dignidad:

  1. those who suffered under Pinochet’s neoliberal/fascist dictatorship;
  2. the kidnapped Chilean children who were abused by the mini-Führer Schäfer; and finally,
  3. the inhabitants of the totalitarian sect community itself.

Members of these groups thanked Ramelow for coming and for listening. Today, Colonia Dignidad is called Villa Baviera – Bavarian Village – and it looks just like that. Where people were once mistreated and tortured, today there is a hotel and a restaurant in the Bavarian style. The so-called “colonos,” who still live on the fascist sect’s property, treated Ramelow to Kasseler (pork), sauerkraut and mashed potatoes – as if nothing had ever happened.

Most of them came to the Colonia Dignidad as children or were born there. Some, like Doris Gert, have moved away. Doris Gert said, I can’t stand the stench of the place anymore. She is supporting the building of a memorial so that others do not suffer the same misery that happened to usdiscrimination, abuse, humiliation, pharmaceutical abuse.

Gert was born and raised in Colonia Dignidad. Today, she suffers from epilepsy, a consequence of the medication that sect doctor Hartmut Hopp administered to her. Hopp was the head of the hospital at the Colonia Dignidad and a close ally of Schäfer, whose victims he treated with psychotropic drugs – against their will.

He was sentenced to five years in prison in Chile for aiding and abetting child abuse, but settled in Germany in 2011, where, as a German citizen, he cannot be extradited to Chile, so the official fairytale goes. This appears to be an often repeated process – perhaps even the usual when it comes to protecting Nazi doctors during the immediate post-Nazi years and today’s neo-Nazi doctors.

With tears running down her face, Gert said, It hurts me a lot that there is no reaction, that he is sitting there freely in his domicile. Schäfer himself fled to Argentina in 1997, where he was arrested in 2005. He died five years later in a prison in Santiago de Chile.

The investigation of the crimes of the Colonia Dignidad continues slowly. Yet, not six years ago, Germany’s then-foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier acknowledged the joint responsibility of Germany. After that, Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, decided to investigate the crimes in the Colonia Dignidad and provide assistance to the victims.

In 2017, a German-Chilean expert commission finally developed a concept for a memorial site. Jens-Christian Wagner, an historian who is part of this commission, planned the memorial. Wagner also heads the Concentration Camp Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation.

However, five years have passed since the Commission first met, and there is still no memorial. Wagner says, I would also like it to go faster. The fact that it takes so long is because of the Chilean and German governments. The former Chilean government of right-wing Sebastián Piñera showed little interest in investigating the crimes of the dictatorship.

Worse, his own human rights minister – Hernán Larraín – of all people – had been close to Paul Schäfer. Perhaps that is why he got the job. In sharp contrast, the new, progressive government of Gabriel Boric in Chile as well as Germany’s progressive government might mean that something could change.

It would be symbolic to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the coup against Salvador Allende on  September 11 next year by highlighting German crimes against humanity at the Colonia Dignidad. On September 11, 1973, neoliberal neo-fascist Augusto Pinochet staged a coup against the elected government of Salvador Allende.

Immediately after that, Pinochet’s military and Dina (secret police) started to persecute, imprison, torture, and murder thousands of members of democratic parties, trade unions, and local neighborhood assemblies. The official number of victims is over 40,000, including 3,065 dead or missing. Many perpetrators were never convicted and have since died.

Ramelow also laid a wreath of flowers for the victims of the dictatorship at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in the capital, Santiago. Pinochet’s reign, however, wasn’t just oppression, torture, and murder. Pinochet’s ministers, who had studied at the University of Chicago under the neoliberal ideologue Milton Friedman, carried out the neoliberal catechism to the letter. This is where the ideology of neoliberalism met neo-fascism.

Allende’s death in 1973 made him a martyr far beyond Latin America. Ramelow acknowledges this when saying, I have a high regard for Allende and that’s why I bow to him. Unlike the minions of neoliberalism then and today, Ramelow said, Allende stood up for the ideals of democracy and the rule of law.

He did this in a country defined by colonialism, racism, a deeply reactionary social structure, latifundia, and semi-feudal land ownership. Ramelow finished his visit by emphasizing that, Salvador Allende wanted to break new ground, and for this he had to give his life in the end.

Thomas Klikauer is author of the Alternative für Deutschland – The AfD: Germany’s New Nazis or another Populist Party?

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