In his delightful encyclopedia of invented Hitler sympathizers, Nazi Literature in the Americas, Roberto Bolaño talks of a large estate located south of Chile’s capital—“at the end of the world”—called Colonia Renacer (Rebirth Colony), which at first glance seems like many other immigrant communities in the region. But upon a closer look, one finds important differences. “To begin with, Colonia Renacer has its own school, medical clinic, and auto repair shop,” Bolaño writes. “It has established a self-sufficient economic system that allows the colony to turn its back on what Chileans, perhaps over-optimistically, like to call ‘Chilean reality,’ or simply ‘reality.’ Colonia Renacer is a profitable business. Its presence is unsettling: the colony’s members hold their festivities in secret; no neighbor, be they rich or poor, are invited. The colonists bury their dead in their own cemetery.” But “perhaps the most vital,” Bolaño continues, is the ethnic origin of its inhabitants: They are all, without exception, German.
Though many of the Hitler sympathizers in the book are fictional, when it comes to this German outpost, Bolaño isn’t making anything up. In South America, colonias is the word used for immigrant colonies. There were plenty of them, many agricultural in nature—places where Jews, for instance, relocated from Poland and other parts of the “Pale of Settlement” starting at the end of the 19th century. Other immigrants, among them Germans, Italians, Swiss, French, and Belgians, had their own colonies too. But one of the most infamous was Colonia Renacer’s real-world analog: Colonia Dignidad, on the banks of the Perquilauquén River, a magnet for Nazi emigrants that, from its founding in 1961 until the early 1990s, was the site of countless atrocities, a vast majority of them committed under the auspices, and with the blessings, of Augusto Pinochet’s military apparatus. The colony, which in many respects resembled a cult compound, was led by a Hitler enthusiast who had served as a medic in a German field hospital in occupied France; its members, including a few Indigenous children “accepted” into the cult in order to be redeemed from their own fate, believed the place to be an arcadian haven.
Chile’s newspapers frequently reported on the rumors surrounding Colonia Dignidad: that its leader, Paul Schäfer, who had a glass eye, was a pedophile who had escaped the German postwar authorities to become a successful “collectivist” entrepreneur (Colonia Dignidad was at times described as a kibbutz); that during Pinochet’s dictatorship, especially in the ’70s, the colony had served as an extermination camp where the regime’s political prisoners were “disappeared,” meaning they were imprisoned, tortured using Nazi techniques, and killed; and that the colonists, only a few of whom were in the know, buried the victims on their own land, albeit not in the communal cemetery so as not to “contaminate” the Aryan purity of those interred there.
With Chile’s return to democracy in 1990, all of these speculations proved to be well-founded. If Latin America’s celebrated magic realism is a literary style in which the unbelievable becomes mundane, Colonia Dignidad is Exhibit A—except that, in this case, the unbelievable was tragically real. In Bolaño’s novel, the suggestion is made that Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele, and many other notorious Nazis and other fascists who had escaped from Europe by taking “the ratlines” to South America actually hid in Colonia Renacer. Nobody would be surprised if one or more did the same in Colonia Dignidad. Now a six-part Netflix documentary, A Sinister Sect: Colonia Dignidad, offers an opportunity to look at its history with critical acumen. The series opens up a fresh line of inquiry not only into Latin America as an immigrant destination (in the US media, it is frequently portrayed as the reverse) but also for the role it played as a safe haven for European criminals, Nazi and otherwise, after the Second World War.
Perhaps the most daring aspect of A Sinister Sect is the study it offers of government policies in the region, dating back to colonial times, that embraced white Europeans as “favored” newcomers capable of pushing these countries from what was perceived to be their primitive state of development into a more advanced (meaning cosmopolitan) model. While Colonia Dignidad represents a malevolent example, plenty of others are seen these days as marking a decisive turning point in Latin America’s road to modernity. The region’s hierarchical structure has made it easy for European immigrants to climb the economic ladder rather quickly, and even the best of these colonies, collectivist and egalitarian in nature, only cemented this fact.
As far as documentaries go, A Sinister Sect is fairly conventional. Even the least discerning viewer of a typical Netflix investigative film is by now able to quickly identify its most common tricks. The flashy cinematography keeps the audience enthralled (the use of drone cameras is now a sine qua non) at the expense of any serious plot elaboration. While at the beginning a clear-cut argument appears to be in the making, it soon becomes obvious that the filmmakers are in the business of improvising—that is, they often don’t know where they should be going. And a mixed bag of talking heads, some more prominent than others, become themselves unreliable storytellers.
A Sinister Sect includes all of these tricks and more. In other words, it is in many respects trite, predictable, and—the worst sin of all—frighteningly ahistorical. The audience finishes it with a sense of having participated in a sensationalist trek through the past, one that fully explains the conditions that made such a past possible. Nor is Germany, which partially financed the production, seriously implicated. In fact, as the narrative develops, it often feels as if—simply by virtue of focusing their gaze on Colonia Dignidad’s appalling history, as if this were in and of itself a courageous act—the German filmmakers, Annette Baumeister and Wilfried Huismann, exonerate their country. This is a shameful cop-out, since the ethos of Colonia Dignidad was, at its core, Germanic as well as Chilean. A more probing interrogation of what created it, what cultures and structures of power sustained it, and what these mechanisms say about Latin America would have significantly enhanced its value.
In a self-righteous way, Colonia Dignidad traffics in morbidity in the act of telling a lurid story. Viewers get to follow Margarita Maino, the sister of an activist murdered by the Schäfer cult, as she attempts to locate the exact place where her brother’s remains are buried. Anne Schnellenkamp, the daughter of one of Schäfer’s capos, exculpates her father by positing the well-worn theory that he and others were “hypnotized” by an impeccably constructed dogma. And Salo Luna, a local living near the colony, offers testimony about how Schäfer, “el monstruo,” abused boys like him for decades without anyone at the colony apparently raising an alarm. In 1991, after one too many exposés, Colonia Dignidad’s name was changed to Villa Baviera (Bavarian Villa). Today, it is a museum and tourist destination. If you ever wanted to experience the xenophobic edges of the region’s magic realism, visiting the colony is your chance: A guide will take you on a visit to the rustic cafeteria where Schäfer preached to his captivated audience while one or more adolescent boys leisurely sat on his lap, then through the torture chambers where dozens of desaparecidos were last seen, ending with a stop at the cemetery where unmarked tombs are still the rule.
Yet, despite all of its shortcomings, the series is an invitation to reflect more widely on Latin America as a machine of macabre neofascist dreams. Watching A Sinister Sect alongside reading Bolaño’s phantasmagoria on Nazis themes is a useful reminder of the eugenic discourse that has lurked beneath the surface in Latin American culture. In Chile, writers such as Miguel Serrano—a diplomat, ideologue, and friend of Herman Hesse and Carl Jung who championed, in such writings as his book Adolf Hitler, the Last Avatar (1984), a philosophy he called Esoteric Hitlerism, which anticipated the rise of a Fourth Reich in South America—are gaining increased popularity among Latin American extremists. And Norberto Ceresore, a vociferous anti-Semite and confidant of Hugo Chávez, was among the architects of hate who believed in an Israeli plot, in the spirit of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, designed to usurp a large portion of Patagonian land so as to create another Jewish homeland.
Schäfer represented another track of the racism rife in Latin America. He was a friend of William Marrion Branham, an American Christian minister who believed in the return of the apostolic early Catholic Church, and was convinced that an age of religious and racial purity, a return to a more pristine time, was due and that his actions were a step forward in the advent of such a utopia. In Schäfer’s time, he was hardly alone in embracing these campaigns of political cleansing. Latin America was home to a cesspool of conspiracy theories embraced by the far right, some of which informed the rule of dictators in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and other countries, often with the support of the United States. Fascist forces were involved in the anti-immigrant labor unrest under the watch of Radical Civic Union president Hipólito Yirigoyen (the so-called “father of the poor”), including a kind of pogrom in Buenos Aires in 1919, known as the Tragic Week, that left an estimated 100 people dead, thousands arrested, and scores of businesses looted, many of them Jewish.
Nazism in São Paulo and in Brazil’s southern region of Timbó, Santa Catarina, was rampant. Only the Volksdeutsche—those who defined themselves as pure Germans—could join the nation’s chapter of the Nazi Party. In his memoir, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number (1981), about the Dirty War in Argentina, in which an estimated 30,000 people were murdered, journalist Jacobo Timerman recounts being interrogated by military and intelligence figures. A Jew who edited the left-leaning newspaper La Opinión from 1971 to 1977, Timerman was repeatedly told that the job left unfinished by the Nazis would now be completed in the Southern Hemisphere. And in the incendiary—and misconstrued—feature film New Order (2020), by the Mexican director Michel Franco, a coup in Mexico City results in images reminiscent of torture sessions and collective baths that recall Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps.
Like his pal Donald Trump, Brazil’s embattled President Jair Bolsonaro frequently employs a racist and authoritarian rhetoric in his speeches. His eugenic views are palpable in the way he talks about Brazil as a homeland. Though he might sound extreme, Bolsonaro sits comfortably in the hall of fame of Latin America dictators like Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, who—as in the case of the Parsley Massacre of Haitian immigrants in 1937 (known as kout kouto-a in Creole and el Corte in Spanish)—annihilated particular groups because of their skin color and religious beliefs. While the majority of Latin America’s colonias served as a springboard for an odyssey of assimilation into mainstream culture, Colonia Dignidad was an exceptional example of the twisted link between a handful of immigrant waves and the far-right forces that they, at crucial historical junctures, assisted in carrying out extremist policies.
A Sinister Sect is a helpful resource in documenting the chronology of Colonia Dignidad. After an introductory collage of footage, it traces Schäfer’s background in Germany as a preacher who established a youth home. He was quickly accused of abuse and forced to flee. In spite of his checkered background, Schäfer had no problems entering Chile, nor any problems building a gated colonia southeast of the city of Parral. The allegations against him in Germany also persuaded him to build his colony in such a fashion that he might win public support. Tapping into his experience as a medic during World War II, he insisted that his colony was a philanthropic project, and he built a hospital inside Colonia Dignidad at which the locals could get free medical care.
This approach was successful. In a period when health care was beyond most Chileans’ means, especially in the countryside, the hospital in the colonia was seen as a godsend. Schäfer’s right-wing politics also attracted the attention of those in Chile attempting to thwart the rise of the left in the country, especially after Salvador Allende’s successful presidential campaign in 1970 and Pinochet’s coup d’état on September 11, 1973. Schäfer not only instructed the colonia itself in the doctrines of anticommunism; he also became friends with Pinochet and his wife, Lucía Hiriart. Schäfer proved to be a popular figure with the military regime, wining and dining with the dictator and benefiting politically in all sorts of ways. Building torture chambers, including tunnels and bunkers, in exchange for mining licenses and other perks, Schäfer turned Colonia Dignidad into a veritable economic engine.
There are hints that the East German intelligence services were involved in the coordination of the torture chambers and in the production of weapons, although these suggestions are never developed. There is also a discussion of Schäfer’s chauvinism and his fears about miscegenation and the need for the colonia to resist “impurity” at all costs, especially as it grew to a population in the hundreds. Even in the final years of the Pinochet era, Colonia Dignidad remained an antidemocratic bastion, repudiating any effort to bring about change, including during the national plebiscite, in which the “No” voters asked the Chilean dictator to pack his belongings and get out of La Moneda. The colonia partnered with the “Sí” vote. After the free elections of 1988, the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation concluded that as many 100 people had been murdered at Colonia Dignidad. Even after Pinochet lost power, secret operations continued for a while there. Schäfer antagonized the country’s democratic president, Patricio Alwyn, becoming an emblem of how Chilean conservatism had turned into a horror show.
The last part of the Netflix series follows the escape of two young men from Colonia Dignidad, one a German and the other a local who, like the rest of its population, had reputedly been brainwashed by Schäfer. It is the kind of Hollywood-style chase that, while thrilling in its own right, cheapens the seriousness of the narrative. There is a pursuit by Schäfer’s guards that culminates in an airport sequence designed as a denouement. After it, the scaffolding that supported the pernicious, brutal ecosystem of Colonia Dignidad rapidly falls apart. Given the trashy diet of exposés that viewers are fed on all streaming platforms, A Sinister Sect is a welcome (if flawed) respite. Its valuable message is that tyranny doesn’t exist in a vacuum. All sorts of factors—foreign and domestic, a few of them camouflaged under a facade of innocence—help to lay its foundation and perpetuate its barbarism.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to reflect that Chile returned to democracy in 1990 not 1981.