Racial purity dies in the jungle Vision: Founders saw their Paraguayan settlement as a place that would spawn a race of Aryan supermen. But they didn't take into account disease, heat and inbreeding.

Sun Journal

September 10, 1998|By Katherine Ellison | Katherine Ellison,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NUEVA GERMANIA, Paraguay -- It was meant to be an Aryan Utopia in South America, half a century before the Nazis dreamed of propagating a "master race."

But the mosquito-ridden jungle proved hardier than the German colonizers. Their dream of a "purification and rebirth of the human race" in this wilderness unspoiled by Jews or Old World decadence collapsed in disease, heat and inbreeding.

Today, barely three generations after settlers arrived in 1886, their "New Germany" looks much like any other unpaved, ill-lighted town lost in the Paraguayan backlands -- except for the preponderance of blue eyes, blond hair and families named Fischer, Kuck and Stern.

"Nothing, nothing, nothing remains" of the grand project envisioned by founder Elisabeth Nietzsche and her husband, Bernhard Forster, says the town doctor, Christoph Schubert.

Their vision for this riverbank settlement 120 miles north of Asuncion was for colonizers to clear the forest, eat meatless diets, attend Lutheran services and spawn German supermen.

It was not a vision shared by Elisabeth's brother, the famed German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. And it fell apart within just a few years. Many of the original families who weren't wiped out by malaria or sand-flea infections fled Nueva Germania in despair at the scorching heat, pouring rain and unyielding land.

Of the few who stuck it out, those most stubbornly convinced of Nietzsche and Forster's teachings married among themselves so as not to dilute the racial stock.

"You can't deny there was a degeneration," says Schubert, 43. "It is still obvious in the faces of kids in the schools, and in the forest there are families who are very, very slow. In this sense, of course, Forster's project had to fail."

To be sure, things have improved considerably since British correspondent Ben Macintyre came on horseback to research his book, "Forgotten Fatherland," published in 1992. He reported a "critical level of inbreeding," including a "high incidence of mental problems," noting "a slack, be-spit-tled jaw here, there a drooping eye."

Now such problems are less common, says Schubert, who came here in 1988 seeking freedom from vegetable rather than racial contamination after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster made European produce suspect.

Schubert warned his patients of the dangers of cousins marrying cousins. The town's Lutheran pastor, who has since moved away, refused to marry related couples, although he often had trouble distinguishing who was related to whom.

Many of the settlers were only too happy to oblige.

"Forster never wanted us to marry Paraguayans, but there were very few German women here -- and the Paraguayan women were much nicer," explains Rodolfo Halke, 74, who chose a Paraguayan wife.

What certainly helped the adaptation was how quickly the Nueva Germanians managed to forget the town's original goals -- allegedly inspired by the racist musician Richard Wagner, who wrote of the potential for setting up pure Teutonic settlements in Latin America's empty regions.

Paraguay in many ways was hospitable to such a plan. When Forster and his wife arrived here, after several weeks' voyage by ocean steamer, riverboat and oxcart, the small nation's provinces were almost empty, in the aftermath of a particularly bloody, drawn-out war with its neighbors. Land was available on generous terms, and Germans proved some of the most enthusiastic buyers.

Today about one out of 40 residents of this country of 5.7 million is of German descent -- the most notable being Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, Paraguay's dictator from 1954 to 1989 and the son of a Bavarian brewer.

Forster, who urged his settlers to bring "courage and resignation, strength and endurance and the moral fiber from the old Fatherland to pass on to the next generation," couldn't pass his own test.

Depressed by the colony's financial failure, he poisoned himself in 1889 after a drinking binge. He is buried where he died, in the German colony of San Bernadino, just outside Asuncion.

Shortly thereafter, his wife returned to Germany to care for her brother, who by then had sunk into madness. Macintyre, in his book, described how she also became his literary guardian, editing and promoting his works to create an inaccurate image of him as a racist and nationalist, which became useful to the Nazis' propaganda.

Nueva Germania itself contains few aids to memory. There is no longer a German school, and there never was a library. Forsterhof, the grand mansion where Elisabeth and her husband held court, lay for years in ruins but has been refurbished recently by an evangelical sect.

Several of the elders still speak German, and on holidays, in a few homes in the forest, pale farmers take out their accordions and sing songs Schubert remembers from his grandparents' days.

Yet indigenous Guarani is now the predominant tongue, and even the oldest Nueva Germanians have learned to cure themselves with plants and drink brews of a local herbal tea, yerba mate.

And when young residents are asked about Aryans and Jews, they look blank or shake their heads.

"To separate races seems very bad to me, because we're all equal, aren't we?" asked green-eyed Lila Fischer, 22.

Known as the town beauty, Fischer, a law school student in Asuncion, was visiting her parents in Nueva Germania one recent weekend. Although her great-grandparents arrived with XTC Forster and Nietzsche, she speaks no German and knows nothing of Nueva Germania's history. And she confides she is looking for a husband in town -- "a Paraguayan boy."

Friedrich Nietzsche would have been pleased. He had close Jewish friends, and not only did he never share his sister's racist dreams, he once dubbed her a "vengeful anti-Semitic goose."

Pub Date: 9/10/98

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