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The Netflix miniseries A Sinister Sect is a welcome effort to familiarise international audiences with the infamous story of Colonia Dignidad, a colony of German settlers located in Southern Chile. Since the mid-1960s the average Chilean has known about the Colonia Dignidad and its history of atrocious criminal acts, including pedophilia, murder, and torture. Now, thanks to the research and archival work of directors Wilfried Huismann and Annette Baumeister, the rest of the world, too, can learn about the history of one of the darkest episodes in recent Chilean history.
A Sinister Sect chronicles the sect’s history from its founding in 1950s West Germany until 2005, when its charismatic leader, Paul Schäfer, was arrested and imprisoned. Across six episodes, the viewer is privy to a bizarre chain of events: starting with Schäfer’s conviction for assaulting two children in Germany in 1961, the cult figure and some three hundred of his followers fled to Chile, settling an agricultural colony at the foothills of the Andes mountains some 400 kilometres south of the capital, Santiago. Beyond the German authorities’ reach, the colony quickly found that it also enjoyed an extrajudicial status within Chile, allowing Schäfer to design his community as a nightmarish “pedophile paradise,” in the words of one of his victims.
To make matters more bizarre, in the 1970s, Schäfer developed a close relationship with the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, offering the colony as a secret detention centre where the regime could torture and assassinate Chilean citizens. Not only was Schäfer personally involved in the killing of prisoners, we learn, but he burned and disposed of the victims’ remains — “disappearing” them forever. As the series effectively illustrates, there was hardly a brand of criminality — corruption, collusion, illegal arms sales, conspiracy against an elected government, witness intimidation — that Schäfer’s colony did not master. Perhaps most shocking of all is the fact that the extrajudicial state of affairs continued after Chile’s transition to democracy in 1990, thereby making the process of bringing Schäfer to justice all the more difficult.
A Sinister Sect delivers this unsettling story effectively through interviews with a wide spectrum of witnesses — mostly the colony’s members and victims — and with the use of never-before-seen film material granted to the filmmakers by Colonia Dignidad’s cameraperson. The series does not necessarily present new information, at least not for Chilean spectators who have suffered Schäfer’s name in their news cycle for three decades now; nevertheless, A Sinister Sect is as gripping as it is informative for international audiences. Along the way, it touches on important issues like the colonists’ psychology, their unique position as both victims and worshipful perpetrators of crimes, and how they reconstruct their memory and explain their deeds years later.
That being the case, one would expect the filmmakers to pose higher-level questions when dealing with a topic as familiar as Colonia Dignidad. In this sense, A Sinister Sect adopts a relatively simplistic stance toward its subject matter.
In the documentary, Schäfer is portrayed as a tyrant who deployed a host of sadistic tactics to control his community and is therefore solely responsible for the colony’s crimes. His loyal inner circle — the interviewees Kurt Schnellenkamp, Gerhard Mücke, and Karl van den Berg, for example — act as if they had little choice but to comply with their leader’s whims.
But the fact that Schäfer managed to control his colony so effectively, even from afar — for example, during a seven-year period as a runaway convict in Argentina — is a mystery that goes largely unexplained. And even if we did accept that guilt lies entirely on Schäfer’s shoulders, a host of outside authorities and institutions should be held accountable for allowing this monstrosity to flourish for so long in Chile.
A ‘Nazi’ in Latin America
Portrayals of South America as a safe haven for Nazis and fascists are by now something of a historical cliché. Being a German production, A Sinister Sect avoids making such generalisations, although it does invite the colonists interviewed to draw connections between Schäfer and Nazism. Their opinions, however, are inconclusive. Even though branding Schäfer as a “Nazi” and a “Hitler enthusiast” has become commonplace, there is an element of exaggeration in those claims. What we know is that Schäfer, born in 1921 and neither a known Nazi Party member nor an SS officer, was as Nazi as anyone living in 1945 Germany.
Still, A Sinister Sect sweeps the question of Colonia Dignidad’s relationship to Nazism under the rug too quickly. For one thing, we know today that the colony belonged to a network of Latin America–based ex-Nazis that included Gerhard Mertins and Walter Rauff. Furthermore, Colonia Dignidad’s ideology cannot be entirely disconnected from Nazism. Schäfer, Schnellenkamp, and Mücke belonged to a generation of young men who believed they were destined to become “the new man” as part of the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft — the “national community”. Their totalitarian ideas were often couched in religious terms but overlapped with Nazi conceptions of communitarianism and sexual purity. As the audio snippets from the series show, Schäfer’s language was also rife with racist innuendos.
One can hardly accuse the Chilean government of willfully allowing Nazis to operate freely within its territory. Still, one must wonder how a runaway German pedophile acquired an exterritorial juridical status and consolidated such immense political power so seamlessly and quickly.
In 1966, the Chilean public first learned about Schäfer’s practices, when a young colonist named Wolfgang Kneese (originally Wolfgang Müller) escaped from the colony and told his story to the press. Despite the major scandal and an arrest warrant over his head, Schäfer succeeded in mobilising multiple influential public figures, making the judge rule in his favour and turning the accuser into the accused. Merely five years after its foundation, Colonia Dignidad’s political power was mind-boggling.
How and why did the Chilean government allow this juridical anomaly to thrive and prosper? A Sinister Sect presents us with several possible answers. For one, the devastation left by the 1960 Valdivia earthquake meant that Chile was prone to allow any foreign “charity” organisation to enter the country. Indeed, a treaty between Chile and West Germany was even signed to foment such activity. By building a hospital, Schäfer cunningly garnered the support of the communities in the colony’s vicinity. A Sinister Sect even goes so far as to imply that Chileans are awestruck by anything German — what cultural critic Ilan Stavans has defined as Latin America’s penchant for perceiving white Europeans as “favoured newcomers.”
These explanations are important, and yet they may distract from one crucial historical truth: the Chilean right is to blame for much of Colonia Dignidad’s existence and criminality. The filmmakers refrain from making such an assertion, but there are no two ways about it: from right-wing Chilean president Jorge Alessandri and his ambassador to Germany, Arturo Maschke, continuing on to Chile’s business elite, judicial system, the Patria y Libertad neo-fascists, the Chilean Armed Forces, and most anybody serving in Pinochet’s governments, including the right-wing post-Pinochet party UDI, whose late leader Jaime Guzmán used Colonia Dignidad as a centre for “indoctrination” sessions, the entire Chilean conservative sector must be held accountable for the national shame that is Colonia Dignidad.
Indeed, Andrés Chadwick and Hernán Larraín Fernández — both UDI politicians, and members of President Sebastián Piñera’s last cabinet — backed Schäfer well into the 1990s. Conservatives who today deride sex education for “inciting pedophilia” facilitated the deeds of one of the most dreadful pedophiles in modern history; those who pretend to be the defenders of the “Christian family” have empowered a sect that systematically enforced the collectivisation of child-rearing; those who demand fealty to Chilean national pride have tarnished the country’s image internationally.
Why Chilean conservatives endorsed Schäfer so wholeheartedly is not an easy question to answer. Their sympathies toward the German colonists were undoubtedly rooted in racial and cultural biases, but there may have been more mundane motives in play. After all, Schäfer was a power broker who could mobilise voters in the countryside in a period — during Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government — when the Chilean right was drastically losing popular support.
Also, Colonia Dignidad was just one out of several Christian societies arriving in Chile — alongside Opus Dei; Schoenstatt; Tradição, Família e Propriedade; for example — that all sought to mobilise ordinary citizens against Eduardo Frei’s Christian Democrats and, later, against Salvador Allende. As such, Schäfer played a significant role in galvanising the Right in plotting against Chile’s democratically elected president. To be sure, some Chilean conservatives — Opus Dei member Joaquín Lavín, to name one — have vocally condemned Schäfer’s crimes. The series even displays Patria y Libertad leader Roberto Thieme deploring the dictatorship’s “murderous excesses.” Even so, condemnation is not the same as bearing responsibility, much less admitting guilt.
And the survivors?
Paul Schäfer died in a Chilean prison in 2010. For his victims, the story did not end there. The whereabouts and livelihood of Colonia Dignidad’s ex-members is a subject A Sinister Sect addresses only superficially. (The documentary Songs of Repression deals with the issue in more detail.) It tells us little of what became of Colonia Dignidad itself, known today as Villa Baviera, and much less about who controls its wealth. Remarkably, the colony’s property has been transferred to an opaque holding company and is currently controlled by the children of Schäfer’s inner circle.
Most colonists have left Villa Baviera by now. Some have remained in Chile, while others returned to Germany and Austria. Having never received a formal education, many find themselves in dire straits. Most of them, now reaching retirement age, receive minimal pensions since Colonia Dignidad only began paying taxes to the Chilean state in the 1990s. In short, the negligence of the Chilean and German governments has left a mark on the lives of numerous men and women to this day.
Germany cannot be easily exonerated in this story either. For three decades, West Germany did nothing to protect its Chile-based citizens from sexual abuse, forced labor, and torture — a fact that the German foreign minister even admitted in 2016. The German government has recently assumed some form of responsibility for Colonia Dignidad’s victims and, since 2018, has paid damages to more than a hundred of them. Notwithstanding, the German government also clarified that these payments should not be considered official reparations but an act of charity. Tellingly, the German juridical system has also refused to enforce a prison sentence against Hartmut Hopp, Schäfer’s deputy, who had been sentenced in Chile to five years in prison in 2011.
More broadly, A Sinister Sects leaves viewers oblivious about just how much Colonia Dignidad has become a cultural symbol in recent years. The past six years have seen the appearance of some half-dozen movies and series — both fictional and documentary — along with numerous artistic and journalistic publications on the subject matter. Indeed, watching how Villa Baviera has become a touristic attraction adds yet another disturbing layer to an already sinister story of criminality and negligence.
Daniel Kressel is a Minerva Stiftung fellow at the Free University of Berlin’s Institute for Latin American Studies. His upcoming book, Hispanic Technocracy: Turning Fascism into Catholic Authoritarianism in Spain, Argentina, and Chile, explores the early phases of Latin America’s neoliberal turn.
Philipp Kandler is the coordinator of the “Colonia Dignidad: A Chilean-German Oral History-Archive” (cdoh.net) project at the Free University of Berlin. He wrote his doctoral thesis on the Argentine and Chilean dictatorships’ reaction to international criticism over human rights violations.