The white supremacists chanting “blood and soil” as they marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, last year were probably unaware that the leading Nazi ideologue who used the original slogan of Blut und Boden to promote the creation of a German master race was not himself a native German. Richard Walther Darré, who proclaimed the existence of a mystic bond between the German homeland and “racially pure” Germans, was actually born “Ricardo” on the other side of the Atlantic, in Argentina’s prosperous capital, Buenos Aires.
Sent by his German immigrant family to the Heimat for schooling at the age of nine, Darré later specialized in agriculture, the logical choice for someone with an Argentine background at a time when the succulent beef and abundant wheat of Argentina’s pampas made the country renowned as the “breadbasket of the world.” For a while, during the 1920s, he contemplated returning to Buenos Aires to pursue a career in farming, but that was before his writing caught the attention of Adolf Hitler’s rising Nazi Party. His 1930 book A New Nobility of Blood and Soil, in which he proposed applying selective cattle-breeding methods for the procreation of perfect Aryan humans, dazzled the Führer.
As early as 1932, Darré helped the SS leader Heinrich Himmler to set up the Race and Resettlement Office in order to safeguard the “racial purity” of SS officers. Darré’s work also inspired the Nazi Lebensborn (Fount of Life) program that rewarded “unmarried women and girls of good blood” who had children with racially pure SS officers. Hitler was so impressed with the “Blood and Soil” movement that in 1933 he named Darré Germany’s minister for agriculture.
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Subsequently, in my work as a writer, I focused on how hundreds of Nazis and their collaborators escaped to Argentina. This made me painfully aware of how their presence during the thirty years between the end of World War II and the 1976 coup had numbed the moral sense of what was then an affluent, well-educated nation, with disastrous consequences for its people. Argentines’ forced cohabitation with Nazi fugitives resulted, I came to believe, in a normalization of the crimes that the German émigrés had committed. “He came to our country seeking forgiveness,” Argentina’s Cardinal Antonio Caggiano told the press when Israeli operatives captured the Nazi arch-criminal Adolf Eichmann and spirited him out of Argentina in 1960 to stand trial in Jerusalem. “Our obligation as Christians is to forgive him for what he’s done.”
Some fifteen years later, Argentina began its own descent into full-blown totalitarianism, and its military embarked on a mass killing program that differed in scale, though not in essence, from the Nazis’: an estimated 30,000 people were made to “disappear” by the dictatorship. The same politicians and religious leaders who had turned a blind eye to the presence of Nazi criminals in Argentina looked away again as blood-soaked generals kneeled to receive their blessings in Buenos Aires Cathedral. Much of my adult life has been haunted by the need to answer the question of how this could have come to pass in Argentina. And how it might come to pass elsewhere.
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This normalization of totalitarian undertones accelerated after my family moved back to Argentina when I was nineteen. To make myself better acquainted with Buenos Aires, I would take long walks through the capital. One day, in 1974, I found myself frozen in my steps on the broad 9 de Julio Avenue that divides Buenos Aires in half. In the middle of this avenue rises a tall white obelisk that is the city’s most conspicuous landmark, and in those days a revolving billboard had been suspended around it. Round and round turned the display and inscribed upon it in large blue letters on a plain white background was the slogan “Silence Is Health.”
With every turn, the billboard schooled Argentines in the total censorship and suppression of free speech that the dictatorship would soon impose. The billboard message was the brainchild of Oscar Ivanissevich, Argentina’s reactionary minister of education, ostensibly to caution motorists against excessive use of the horn. His other mission was an “ideological purge” of Argentina’s universities, which had become a hotbed of student activism. During an earlier ministerial term in 1949, Ivanissevich had led a bitter campaign against the “morbid… perverse… godless” trend of abstract art, recalling the Nazis’ invective against “degenerate” art. During that period, his sister and his nephew were both involved in smuggling Nazis into Argentina.
Ivanissevich’s Orwellian billboard made its appearance just as right-wing violence erupted in the buildup to the military coup. That same year, 1974, Ivanissevich had appointed as rector of Buenos Aires University a well-known admirer of Hitler’s, Alberto Ottalagano, who titled his later autobiography I’m a Fascist, So What? His job was to get rid of the kind of young left-wing protesters who gathered outside the Sheraton Hotel demanding that it be turned into a children’s hospital, and he warmed to the task of persecuting and expelling them. Being singled out by him was more than merely a matter of academic discipline; some fifteen of these students were murdered by right-wing death squads while Ottalagano was rector.
As a partial stranger in my own land, I noticed what those who had already been normalized could not: this was a population habituated to intolerance and violence. Two years later, Ivanissevich’s slogan made a macabre reappearance. In the basement of the dictatorship’s death camp based at the Navy Mechanics School (known as ESMA), where some 5,000 people were exterminated, officers hung two banners along the corridor that opened onto its torture cells. One read “Avenue of Happiness,” the other “Silence Is Health.”
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It was in these years in Argentina that I learned how quickly the veneer of legality can be peeled away from a society. In 1977, a year into the dictatorship, I joined the Buenos Aires Herald, a small English-language newspaper that was the only news media outlet reporting on the crimes of the regime. “I had the privilege of speaking out while everyone else kept silent,” says the then-editor of the Herald, Robert Cox, a Briton who now lives in Charleston, South Carolina. It was not the fact that he was British or that his newspaper had a limited circulation that allowed Cox to print what the other newspapers would not. It was simply that he could not bring himself to remain silent about the carnage he was witnessing. Unlike so many Argentines, he had not been desensitized by growing up among Nazi fugitives; instead, he had been raised in wartime London among the rubble of buildings destroyed by Hitler’s bombs and rockets.
But there was a price to pay for the privilege Cox speaks of. Returning home from my very first day of work, I saw three plainclothes police officers—unmistakable despite their shoulder-length hair, leather jackets, and bell-bottom trousers—leaving my apartment building carrying a leather satchel from which a spool of recording tape was visible. The secret police had tapped my phone, the building superintendent whispered to me. A green Ford Falcon was parked across my street.
The discreet tipoff from my building’s super was unusual; it was far more common for people to snitch on their neighbors, and this was, of course, encouraged by the military. In December 1979, Cox was forced into exile, along with his Argentine wife and their five Argentine-born children, after he received threats that revealed a detailed knowledge of his family’s daily routines. To this day, the Cox family remains convinced that it was a close acquaintance who provided the dictatorship with the information. The transformation of friends into informers is a defining characteristic of totalitarian regimes.
If you want to know what sustains totalitarian violence in a society, psychology is probably more useful than political analysis. Among the elite, support for the dictatorship was enthusiastic. “It was seen as kind of a social faux pas to talk about ‘desaparecidos’ or what was going on,” says Raymond McKay, a fellow journalist at the Buenos Aires Herald, in Messenger on a White Horse, a 2017 documentary about the newspaper. “It was seen as bad taste because the people didn’t want to know.”
Those who have lived their entire lives in functioning democracies may find it hard to grasp how easily minds can be won over to the totalitarian dark side. We assume such a passage would require slow, laborious persuasion. It does not. The transition from day to night is bewilderingly swift. Despite what many assume, civilized coexistence in a culture of tolerance is not always the norm, or even universally desired. Democracy is a hard-won, easily rolled back state of affairs from which many secretly yearn to be released.