Determinations of German identity under question

In his early discussion of German immigrant populations in Brazil, Ross employs a variety of metrics to assess their true identity. He warns against German attempts to leverage this population for political purposes.

Traveling north through the plains of southern Brazil, and then arriving in forested foothills, Ross finds a region inhabited by ethnic Germans. His discussion of this population reveals the complexity of the question of national identity, and Ross’s fundamental indecision concerning that which makes a person German or not. He begins by arguing that, although this population has been in Brazil for three generations, they are still Germans: they don’t speak Portuguese and they have isolated themselves from the surrounding Brazilian population. These Germans have established their own schools and churches, “and so völkische Fremdkörper [foreign bodies] developed, Sprachinsel [language islands] like those German colonies established by Maria Theresia in the Hungarian Banat”. Here, language and culture determine German identity.

But Ross also argues that German language and culture won’t survive, because “strong climatic influences” will have an effect: without a steady influx of Germans from Europe, the climate will erode German language and culture. Ross notes that Germans have the same decayed teeth as their South American neighbors. He blames this on the climate, while simultaneously implying that genetic inbreeding is leading to a degeneration of the population, causing it to be less German, more susceptible to local climate effects, and thus more South American. “Germanness”, therefore, cannot be understood to be merely the product of German language and culture. Perhaps it is a matter of German language and culture with a genetic “umbilical cord” connecting it back to the “real” German population in Europe.

In a section cut in the editions of this book published after 1933, Ross then discusses the relationship of these Brazilian Germans to Germany. Those who see the possibility of an imperialist politics in southern Brazil are absolutely mistaken. The ethnic Germans there are uninterested in any political attachment to Germany and would have opposed any move by Germany to annex these territories.

These Germans are “Zwitterwesen”: whereas Chilean Germans have become just “Chileans”, with a nationalism strong enough to compete with that of the natives, the Brazilian Germans are not Brazilian. But they are not German either. They have a sentimental attachment to the Heimat, but none of them would want to (or be able to) live there. They are uneducated, and don’t really know anything about Germany (with some even asking Ross whether it was true that Germany had lost the war!). According to Ross, everything that had been written about the possibility of the Brazilian Germans rising up to demand German intervention in their country had not only been based on false assessments of the situation, but was also dangerous, because it only served to antagonize the Brazilians.

Kristin Kopp

Colin Ross. Deutschbrasilianer. In: Südamerika, die aufsteigende Welt. 1. Aufl.  Leipzig. F.A. Brockhaus; 1922; 258-266.

Topic: Auslandsdeutsche
Case: Geopolitics

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