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Villa Baviera: The ghosts of Nazism that haunt an idyllic Chilean holiday retreat

After the dark days dissipate, often we’re left with a totem, a reminder of the black days gone by, something that holds considerable meaning in an educational sense. Whether it be military garb, defunct pieces of currency or works of literature, the past manages to keep itself alive, if only in the phantasmal capacity, by imbuing itself in objects.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be after a period of suffering, either. One only has to note the great monuments of the Pharoah’s that protrude from the golden sands of Egypt to understand this. Humans and epochs leave behind traces, things for subsequent generations to figure out how to fit within our relative understanding of what came before, and how we got here.

Concentrating on architecture, we can learn many things from that left behind by those who came before. Whether it be via the magnific, time-washed works of Ancient Egypt, the eminent ruins of Athens or the great stone serpent that lies atop the back of China, architecture is often the best signifier of our history. However, this is a multi-faceted point. Whilst it can display just how advanced some of our forbears were, it can also be a clear reflection of just how horrific humans can be.

Turning our attention from the ancients to the very modern, central Europe is dotted with pieces of architecture that are totems of our recent past and the darkest days of humanity. Of course, we’re talking about The Holocaust and the bleak but necessary reminders that are open to tourists today, including Auschwitz and Dachau. Locations such as the aforementioned are critical to us in contemporary times understanding just how the atrocities happened, and why they should never be allowed to happen again.

Alarmingly, in recent times, the argument that the spectre of Nazism has never truly gone away reached the most substantial it has ever been. Whilst, this is a point for another day, it wasn’t just ruins that the Nazis left behind. It was an idea, a beliefs system, making it to every corner of the world. We saw it crop up repeatedly in far-flung climes, even if it wasn’t under the explicit red, black and white banner.

One of the places where Nazi ideals and a whole host of the other worst parts of the human condition came to the fore was Chile. All that’s left of it today is a quaint little holiday retreat called Villa Baviera (Bavaria Village).
A German-themed settlement, it houses the Hotel Baviera, Zippelhaus Restaurant and a beautiful artificial pond, and at face value is a piece of heaven. Even though it’s situated in the isolated area of Parral in southern Chile, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the middle of Bavaria and not minutes away from the Andes.

However, Villa Baviera has an insidious recent past, one tied to both Germany and Chile’s darkest days.

Tracing the origins of this quaint faux-Deutschland, we have to cast our minds back to the days when a new order had settled in Europe, American-style capitalism. In 1959, a former Nazi frontline doctor, Paul Schäfer, who had been practising William Branham-influenced Evangelical Christianity
was charged by the West German authorities for sexually abusing young children.

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Fleeing from Europe, he and the followers he’d amassed during his time as a preacher in Germany landed in Chile in 1961. Granted permission by the incumbent government of Jorge Alessandri, Schäfer created the ‘Dignidad Beneficient Society’ on a farm outside of Parral. A 4440-acre ranch, he and his followers began constructing it in their mind’s eye. By 1963, over 230 members of Schäfer’s German congregation had joined him on the ranch.

Some of those who joined Schäfer were ex-Nazi’s, so you can see where this is going. The ranch became known as Colonia Dignidad and was portrayed by their media corps as a collective utopia, but it was all a lie. Masquerading under the pretences of a Christian charity working with impoverished Chileans, Colonia Dignidad became a Nazi enclave, one man’s twisted fantasy of how things might have been in his homeland.

Quickly, guardhouses and lookout towers were erected. Genders were segregated, and if you were unlucky enough to be born into the colony, you had your life mapped out for you by Schäfer. No one was allowed in, and no one was allowed out. People worked over 12 hours a day for no pay and were told it was all for the good of the colony. They wore Bavarian peasant garb, and Schäfer ruled with an iron fist.

There were no calendars, TVs or computers, and Schäfer was referred to
‘Der Permanente Onkel’ – The Permanent Uncle. Almost everyone suffered some form of abuse at the hands of Schäfer bar his inner circle, and when light was finally shed on the inner workings of the colony over the ’10s, it was found that dozens of children were sexually abused there, alongside being forced to live apart from their parents.

When General Augusto Pinochet came to power following the coup in 1973, things would take an even darker turn for the colony. Given immunity by the Pinochet regime, the ranch was used by Pinochet’s secret service, the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA) as a clandestine detention centre. Hundreds of political opponents were tortured in the ranch’s secret underground tunnels. Shockingly, it wasn’t just the secret police, it was also Schäfer’s associates who also had a hand in the violence. In fact, it is claimed that some of the ex-Nazi’s demonstrated to the regime their old techniques.

More than 100 people are thought to have been murdered on the grounds of Colonia Dignidad. The most notable case was US academic Boris Weisfeiler, who went hiking near the ranch in 1984 but was never seen again. There were also claims that the elusive Josef Mengele, ‘The Angel of Death’ at Auschwitz, was also present at the colony. Both the CIA and famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal presented evidence that Mengele had been there.

The German commission charged with paying compensation to the victims of Dignidad released a statement in 2019, which said that Schäfer “tore families apart, abused countless children and actively collaborated with Pinochet dictatorship henchmen on torture, murder and disappearances.”

With the law closing in on him for his multitude of crimes against humanity, Schäfer fled Chile in 1997. He was eventually tracked down and arrested in Argentina in 2005 and convicted of crimes. He died in prison, aged 88 in 2010.

Colonia Dignidad changed its name to Villa Baviera in 1991, and has now been transformed into the German-themed tourist resort it is today. More than 100 people live at the site, and many of them are former members of the commune, and to them, it is the only home they’ve ever known. Although it is aesthetically beautiful, with views of some of Chile’s most breathtaking vistas, don’t let it fool you.

Villa Baviera is a totem of an incredibly sinister chapter in history. If visiting, you should go to learn. The walls have seen sights that we couldn’t possibly fathom. It’s a reminder that evil will do its best to keep itself alive and that we should always be vigilant.

Watch a documentary on Colonia Dignidad below.