Bernhard Förster was full of hope when he arrived in Paraguay in 1886. The small, landlocked country was still recovering from the crippling War of the Triple Alliance, when three more powerful neighbors — Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay — seized its territory and slaughtered nearly half of its inhabitants.
In response, Paraguay flung open its borders, offering cash or homesteads to potential immigrants in an effort to rebuild its population. Förster, brother-in-law of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, jumped at the offer. An intrepid explorer and early theoretician of anti-Semitism, Förster despised a Europe that seemed aflame — the British monarchy flailing, the Prussian Empire dying, the Jews constituting “a parasite on the German body.” His solution: Create a racially pure Nueva Germania in South America.
Förster, his wife, Elizabeth, and 14 families from Saxony crossed the Atlantic in the dead of winter and reached Paraguay in the swelter of summer. They carved a settlement out of the rainforest northeast of the capital, Asunción, but the isolated community was soon infested with bugs burrowing into fingernails and toenails and laying eggs beneath the skin.
The strict colony’s young bucks pounded nails in the coffin of a New Germany when they began bedding and wedding local women. Plagued by sickness and unpaid bank loans, Förster retreated to the Hotel del Lago in the town of San Bernardino in 1899 and committed suicide by shooting up with morphine and strychnine in Room 19.
The country’s linkage to Germany didn’t end with Förster. “For Paraguayan history, [Förster’s suicide] was just one thing of many,” says Osvaldo Codas, the Hotel del Lago’s manager and de facto historian. Consider this: The first official National Socialist party outside Germany was organized in Paraguay, in 1927. “Under that mango tree here, they put the table,” Codas says, pointing.
The Hotel del Lago, where you can still rest your head today, was a central location for much of Paraguay’s National Socialist history
So powerful was the connection that the Führer, who knew Förster’s widow as a motherlike figure, sent soil from Germany to cover Förster’s grave in Paraguay, along with a tombstone plaque that read “The place where the father of National Socialism lies,” according to The Forgotten Fatherland by British historian Ben MacIntyre.
Other Paraguayans supported the Third Reich from afar. The country’s first national police director named his son Adolfo and ordered his cadets to wear swastikas on their uniforms. When World War II began, Paraguay backed Germany, although it switched sides once the outcome was clear. Mennonite colonists at Fernheim, Russian refugees from Stalinism, were united in language with their German neighbors, and many in the colony were sympathetic. “One teacher put National Socialist messages into the schools,” says Patrick Friesen, communications manager of the Paraguayan Mennonite colony of Chortitzer.
After the war, the country became a famous hideaway for National Socialist refugees. Some historians believe the Doctor Josef Mengele hid out on a Paraguayan farm near the Argentine border. One of Hitler’s personal pilots was an adviser to Paraguayan president Alfredo Stroessner, who was the son of a Bavarian immigrant.
During the Nuremberg trials, one defendant testified the National Socialists wanted to put Stroessner in power to create a friendly haven in South America, according to Argentine journalist and author Abel Basti. He also contends that Hitler, after initially fleeing to Argentina, escaped to Paraguay, living there until his death in February 1971. Basti and other journalists reference anecdotes about a funeral in the bunker of a German-owned hotel in Paraguay; many attendees believed they were sending Hitler off to the hereafter. “Maybe in this hotel,” says Codas, who has hosted Basti. The two men searched the premises, Codas says, but failed to find any evidence of a bunker or the Führer’s remains.
Hotel del Lago, however, isn’t clear on its own history: Its website claims that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a guest, yet the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian lists no FDR visit to Paraguay (notably, in 1936, he did visit Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay — Paraguay’s three bitter enemies in the Triple Alliance War).
And yet revisionists can point to some eerie evidence to bolster their far-fetched case for the Fürher’s escape to South America. The only physical proof of Hitler’s suicide is a fragmented skull — bullet hole and all — recovered by Red Army troops from the German leader’s Berlin bunker. In 2009, DNA analysis showed the skull had belonged to a female under the age of 40. And a year ago, Argentine officials found a trove of National Socialist paraphernalia, including busts of Hitler, in Buenos Aires. Basti claims that the German leader traveled through the Argentine capital en route to … ?
What’s more, history might be repeating itself in strange ways, says Codas. He notes that as Förster did more than a century ago, Europeans perturbed by the influx of non-white invaders from Africa and Asia. “Two weeks ago, I received a young German couple with a baby, trying to find a place to live here,” he says. When he asked why they were considering Paraguay, they told him: “There is a doctor from Austria who is trying to create a paradise city.”