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Remembering the horrors of Colonia Dignidad in Chile

Chile and Germany have agreed to push for a memorial for the victims of sexual violence, torture and murder in the former German cult. But this isn’t the first time such promises have been made.

If you ask Anna Schnellenkamp what she thinks of a memorial on the former Colonia Dignidad site, a notorious German cult-like enclave in Chile, she becomes obviously angry.

She grew up in the so-called “colony of dignity,” lived there for 30 years and experienced the psychological terror, the forced labor and the beatings firsthand. The fact that many perpetrators and accomplices still have not been held accountable is something she just cannot understand.

“I’m for a memorial, but it has to tell the whole truth. We cannot forget that the first person who spoke out about what was going on was arrested. And we see that the Chilean state is clearly avoiding responsibility for what happened here.”

Schnellenkamp is one of those who have been let down twice — by Chile and then by Germany. First in her childhood, when criminal cult leader Paul Schäfer painted the picture of a perfect German world for outsiders, while internally he had set up a brutal machinery of suppression, sexual violence and torture. And as a grown woman and mother she was let down again, stigmatized for still living in what is now Villa Baviera, or the “Village Bavaria.” The tourist attraction is on the site of what was formerly Colonia Dignidad.

“What happened here must not be repeated and has to be made public,” Schnellenkamp demands. “There are plans on how to commemorate the Chilean victims. But we can’t be left out.”

She says that Paul Schäfer was only able to do what he did because governments did not stop him, especially the Chilean one.

Chilean-German commission signals support

More than three decades after the end of Colonia Dignidad, a memorial and a documentation center are to finally shed light on Schäfer’s reign of terror. A Chilean-German commission to deal with Colonia Dignidad recently met in Berlin for its eleventh session. “This body aims to ensure the participation of all victims’ groups and civil society organizations involved, and also to make suggestions for the people currently living there,” the commission said in a press release. 

The statement of the joint commission suggests there is common ground between both sides and agreement on how to contribute financially to a memorial and a documentation center.

Need for a memorial

Yet the victims of the Colonia Dignidad do not always agree on how the crimes and brutal repression should be remembered. It almost seems as if Paul Schäfer, who died in 2010 in a prison hospital in Santiago de Chile, still wields sinister power and plays his victims off against one another from beyond the grave.

There are the Germans like Anna Schnellenkamp, who are trying to use Villa Baviera as a tourist attraction, complete with Bavarian folklore, and make a living from what used to be a place of torture. Then there are the Chileans who were victims of sexual violence here as children or whose mothers, fathers and siblings were murdered on the site because they were opponents of the Chilean military dictatorship.

And there are also people like Winfried Hempel, who grew up in Colonia Dignidad and now live in Chile, Germany or elsewhere. Unlike some of these, who are simply trying to leave the past behind, Hempel is a lawyer in Santiago and represents 120 of the so-called “colonos” and also some of the Chilean victims of abuse.

“About 80% of the former colony residents, who now live outside of it, support the idea of a memorial,” he says. “Some who still live there are skeptical about a memorial because they think it will stigmatize them. They prefer beer fests and tourism, as if nothing had ever happened there, and in fooling the Chileans into believing that things are normal.”

Justice or memorial?

One year ago, the lawyer won a case against Colonia Dignidad. After 26 years of litigation, a court forced the sale of a large property belonging to the former sect. The resulting compensation for the 11 Chilean victims and their relatives was €1.5 million ($1.65 million).

Hempel thinks it is good news that finally there is to be a memorial but he remains cautious.

“Discussion about how to remember and commemorate should actually be the last step. The memorial should come once legal issues have been settled, the perpetrators punished and the victims compensated. Of course, this is good news, but you have to be careful that

Political support  

Hempel thinks the discussion has finally started to move on because of Chile’s new president, Gabriel Boric. Already as a member of parliament, Boric had met with victims of Colonia Dignidad and is very familiar with the issue.

“The history of Colonia Dignidad is terrible,” Boric said when he met German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Santiago at the end of January this year. The two heads of government both expressed their support for a memorial. But words alone are not enough to get things done, warns Hempel.

“Both countries are always dancing on eggshells. Germany says it’s a Chilean problem, and Chile says it’s a German problem. I describe it as a legal limbo, the issue is stuck somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic,” he adds. 

Slow progress in Berlin  

On the other side of the Atlantic, Jan Stehle works tirelessly to ensure the crimes of Colonia Dignidad are dealt with both legally and politically. He works with the Center for Research and Documentation Chile-Latin America in Berlin and wrote his thesis on how the German judiciary and foreign policy have dealt with the Colonia Dignidad problem.

In short, it was not exactly handled well: Hartmut Hopp, who worked as a medical doctor at Colonia Dignidad and who was Paul Schäfer’s right-hand man, lives at large in the German town of Krefeld and is not being extradited despite a Chilean court sentencing him to five years in prison for child abuse. And the German Foreign Ministry has not prioritized dealing with the issue. So while Stehle also welcomes the plans for a memorial, he, too, remains doubtful.

“In 2017, we had the creation of the joint commission between Germany and Chile which was supposed to deal with the establishment of a memorial,” he says. “Six years have passed since then. In 2018, [former German chancellor] Angela Merkel and [former Chilean president] Sebastian Pinera said they supported the establishment of a memorial and now, five years later, Scholz and Boric are saying the same thing. So when I look at what happened in the past years and decades, I’ll believe all that once I see it with my own eyes.”

Both Hempel and Stehle agree that mid-September would be a good time to start work on a memorial. 

September 11, 2023, marks the 50th anniversary of General Augusto Pinochet’s brutal coup. It is that coup that turned Chile into a military dictatorship for 17 years and turned the “colony of dignity” into a torture center for the Chilean secret service. Stehle demands that Germany should finally fulfil its obligations in Chile, especially when there is so much talk of a values-based foreign policy in Berlin.

“I’m a bit surprised by the language used recently, where the German side sees the responsibility for the process more in Chile. I would like both sides to work on the implementation in equal parts. Either way, it would be appropriate if Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock would come to Chile for the symbolic groundbreaking ceremony,” Stehle concludes optimistically. 

Source: Deutsche Welle