Colonia Dignidad in Chile: Shared Responsibility

In the German cult village of Colonia Dignidad, people were tortured and murdered. A memorial is now planned – but many questions remain unanswered.

An undated photo shows children sitting at a dining table in Colonia Dignidad

An undated photo shows children sitting at a dining table in Colonia Dignidad Photo: Villa Baviera/picture alliance

For decades, a regime of forced labor and sexualized violence prevailed in Colonia Dignidad. During the Pinochet dictatorship, political prisoners were tortured and murdered on the grounds of the German sect settlement in Chile. Now a memorial and a documentation center are to be built there.

Chile wants to create a non-profit organization organized under private law, which will take care of the preparation of the necessary measures. Representatives of the Chilean government presented guidelines for this on April 18 in Berlin as part of the Chilean-German “Mixed Commission” to process Colonia Dignidad. “We will quickly clarify which form of organization is best able to solve the complex tasks and then clarify possibilities for German participation,” said Tomás Pascual, head of the Department for Human Rights in the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In 1961, the German lay preacher Paul Schäfer founded the German sect settlement in Chile with around 300 followers. In the strictly sealed settlement, the residents had to do forced labor. Schäfer raped and abused children and young people who grew up in the settlement, later also Chilean children from the area, some of whom were forcibly adopted. Neither the German nor the Chilean state prevented the crimes.

The sect leadership cooperated closely with the Chilean dictatorship (1973 to 1990) and the secret service DINA. Hundreds of political prisoners were tortured on the site, dozens murdered, their bodies buried, later dug up and burned.

Bavarian style tourism

Today about 120 people live in the settlement, which is now called Villa Baviera. They operate agriculture and maintain – particularly controversial – a tourism business in the Bavarian style. The settlement is constituted as a non-transparent holding company of closely intertwined stock corporations. Few people hold posts on company boards, and with them power and wealth. In 2017, the German Bundestag decided to investigate the crimes of Colonia Dignidad, and the Chilean-German “Mixed Commission” was also founded.

According to a joint statement by the two governments, the non-profit corporation that is now to be established should involve all victim groups and civil society organizations in the planning of the memorial and also develop proposals for the people currently living on the site.

As early as 2021, a group of German and Chilean experts developed a concept for a memorial, documentation and educational site on behalf of the “Mixed Commission”. You can now refer to this, said Tomás Pascual. According to the joint statement, the German side supports the plans, which are intended to speed up the construction, and will examine possibilities for financial participation. Twelve commemorative plaques are also planned at historically relevant locations in the settlement. The Chilean side is preparing the inauguration in the context of official events marking the 50th anniversary of the coup in Chile.

For Renate Künast (Greens), member of the German Bundestag, establishing a foundation or similar structure is a key issue. You can address the financing from German and Chilean government funds and other complex issues.

It is crucial to clarify the ownership of the site and the buildings that have been placed under monument protection and are to become part of the memorial. According to Künast, it must also be clarified for today’s residents where they can find suitable living space in the long term. In addition, during conversions, it must be taken into account that the Chilean judiciary is still examining the site for traces of people who have disappeared.

Jan Stehle from the Research and Documentation Center Chile-Latin America also welcomes the fact that the memorial site process is progressing. “In view of the joint responsibility of Germany and Chile for the crimes of Colonia Dignidad, both governments should be equally involved in the implementation of the memorial concept and its sponsorship,” he demands. Overall responsibility should not be shifted to Chile.

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