Colonia Dignidad: How the foreign office slows down the processing

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Status: 04/16/2023 08:45 a.m

The support of the torture sect Colonia Dignidad in Chile is one of the darkest chapters of German foreign policy. But even under Annalena Baerbock, the Federal Foreign Office is slowing down processing and commemoration.

By Matthias Ebert, ARD Studio Rio de Janeiro

Whenever Doris Zeitner drives to the site of the former German sect Colonia Dignidad in Chile, her heart sinks: “There is so much negative energy in these walls, it’s crazy. So much horror happened there.”

Zeitner was born in the Colonia Dignidad, separated from her parents and had to do slave labor without pay for decades. She cannot forget the chastisement measures of the sect leadership: beatings and electric shocks.

In the 1960s, pedophile lay preacher Paul Schäfer founded Colonia Dignidad in southern Chile. On the outside it was a German model – inside a repressive apparatus with slave labor, abuse and systematic sexual abuse of minors.

Criticism of the Foreign Office because of the lack of investigation of the crimes in the Colonia Dignidad

Matthias Ebert, ARD Rio de Janeiro, Weltspiegel 6:30 p.m., April 16, 2023

Bavarian coziness instead of commemorating torture victims

When the sect opened up to the public after Schäfer’s imprisonment in 2005, Zeitner packed her things, moved away, sought psychological help and has since been fighting with the victims’ organization Adec for reappraisal. “There has to be a memorial there,” she demands.

But the reality is different: Colonia Dignidad is now called Villa Baviera: Bavarian village. It is a tourist business with draft beer, knuckle of pork and obtrusive Bavarian cosiness, where Chileans look for relaxation at weekends.

“Shame on German diplomacy”

“It’s a scandal that Bavarian family celebrations and weddings are being celebrated in this place, where mistreatment and abuse has taken place,” explains CDU MP Michael Brand, who has been pushing the investigation in the Bundestag for years. “This chapter is above all a disgrace for German diplomacy.”

What is meant is the German embassy in Chile, which has known about the cult crimes against German citizens since the 1960s – and yet supported cult leader Schäfer for decades. At that time, German diplomats even sent escaped abuse victims back into the clutches of the pedophile and his loyal circle of leaders.

Killing for dictator Pinochet

Later, in the wake of General Augusto Pinochet’s brutal coup in 1973, Colonia Dignidad became one of the dictatorship’s most secret torture centers. The scientist Jan Stehle from the Research and Documentation Center Chile-Latin America estimates that around a hundred mostly left-wing opponents of the regime were tortured, murdered and buried in the forest of the sect with the help of the German sect leadership.

“The relatives of the disappeared torture victims have been waiting for many years for a memorial to finally be built where the suffering that was caused there will be visible,” explains Stehle. But the plans for this are not progressing.

Ministry dismisses experts

Former sect member Winfried Hempel, who has been fighting for reappraisal for years, sees the failures of the Federal Foreign Office in particular: “The whole thing is going much too slowly. A concept has been worked on for eight years, for which the Federal Foreign Office has contracted extra experts.”

One of them is Elke Gryglewski, director of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp memorial. After numerous discussions with abuse victims, relatives of torture victims, former cult members and victim groups, she and her colleague Christian Wagner submitted a concept for a memorial in 2021.

But at the end of last year, Gryglewski and Wagner were dismissed by the Foreign Office. Apparently also under pressure from the Chilean government, which did not feel sufficiently involved in the development of the memorial. The concept, the result of eight years of work: suddenly worthless.

“Like the Chilean victim groups, I find it outrageous that the memorial site experts were sidelined by the Federal Foreign Office,” explains Doris Zeitner. “We really appreciated the work of the experts.”

Processing slowed down for a long time

It is not the first time that the Federal Foreign Office seems to be obstructing the process. Members of the Bundestag who have been dealing with the topic for a long time have repeatedly experienced considerable resistance in the authority. The SPD politician Klaus Barthel criticizes that “both the Foreign Office and, whenever we have visited the sect, the German authorities in Chile put the brakes on.”

Thuringia’s Prime Minister Bodo Ramelow had very similar experiences in October 2022. At that time he had traveled to the cult grounds as President of the Federal Council. In the former torture cellar he met relatives of the disappeared. For the victims, it was an important visit with symbolic power.

What was unusual, however, was that the German Ambassador to Chile did not accompany Bundesrat President Ramelow. She is even said to have advised against the trip.

From the outset, Ramelow felt that the German diplomats did not provide adequate support – and wrote to the ministry leadership to complain about this. So there was “violent resistance from the Foreign Office” before his trip. In addition, he was described by a department head as an “inflated peacock”.

“Incomprehensible that the Bundestag has to put pressure on”

SPD man Barthel, with the Greens Renate Künast and the CDU human rights activist Brand, pushed through aid payments to cult victims in the Bundestag in 2017 – apparently against the efforts of the diplomats.

Brand now sees similar resistance to the erection of a memorial site: “It is absolutely incomprehensible that the German Bundestag has to put pressure on the Federal Government and the Foreign Office across factions to finally come to concrete agreements.”

What about Baerbock’s “values-led foreign policy”?

How does all this fit into the “value-based foreign policy” that Minister Annalena Baerbock wants to advocate? The ARD Studio Rio de Janeiro sent a list of questions to the Federal Foreign Office. Even after more than two weeks, the authority has not managed to reply.

For ex-sect member Winfried Hempel, everything has remained the same in office under Baerbock. “These new ethics, which the foreign minister is proclaiming in Germany, are not going down here in Chile. It’s going on the same way: a swamp of bureaucracy.”

Klaus Barthel sees Baerbock as an obligation. “If the diplomats don’t do it of their own accord, the Federal Foreign Office must make it a top priority.”

“There must finally be justice”

Memorial site expert Elke Gryglewski hopes that “the German and Chilean states will hold a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony for a memorial site and a documentation center this year.” If possible in September, when the brutal Pinochet putsch will be 50 years old.

The first step could be taken on Tuesday when the German-Chilean government commission meets in Berlin. For Doris Zeitner, this would be emotionally important: “There must finally be justice for those whose relatives have disappeared into the sect. They need a memorial where they can lay a rose.”

It is unclear whether one of the darkest chapters of German foreign policy will be dealt with once and for all. For the majority of the victims, one thing is clear: Places where torture took place should no longer be served beer and tourism next to mass graves.

You can see this and other reports in Weltspiegel – on Sunday at 6.30 p.m. in the first.

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