The settlement is still there today, four hours south from Santiago by car, tucked in the foothills of the snow-tipped Andes. The 50 square agricultural miles of wheat, corn and soybean fields are called by a different name now — Villa Baviera — but the place remains a prewar European time capsule airlifted onto the Chilean central valley. Recent footage shows that German, not Spanish, is still the dominant tongue. The structures are Bavarian-style; the signage is in gothic script.
And although the commune today gins up income from tourism, eight-foot barbed wire fences and German shepherds kept outsiders away and insiders from leaving for four decades.
During those years the settlement was known as Colonia Dignidad and housed a bizarre cult of postwar German emigres. The commune was led by Paul Schaefer, a Colonel Kurtz-like figure who waged shock-and-awe psychological warfare on his 300 or so followers as a means of total control.
The self-proclaimed holy man — a one-eyed ex-Nazi serial child abuser who once reportedly faked the shooting of a cult member in a Santa Claus costume to scare the settlement’s children into obedience — acted with impunity for decades thanks to his close relationship with the government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the military ruler of Chile from 1973 through 1990.
According to later reports from Amnesty International, under Pinochet, Schaefer’s rural “utopia” was a key site in the regime’s shadow war against dissidents and critics. Torture and executions all reportedly took place at Colonia Dignidad, while the government looked the other way from Schaefer’s systemic sexual abuse of the settlement’s children.
And although Schaefer was eventually arrested and sent to prison, the full extent of what happened at the isolated settlement — both to the German nationals who filled the dormitories as well as the Chileans who may have been killed there — has never been put into sharp focus. Earlier this year, Germany’s foreign minister released the country’s documents on the settlement and admitted the country had not done enough for the victims.
This week, another step was taken by both Germany and Chile. According to Reuters, the two countries signed an agreement to work together on a commission on Colonia Dignidad’s legacy, a collaboration that could finally provide some needed answers.
Schaefer is one of the stranger individuals to rattle out of ruin of postwar Germany. According to a deeply reported and definitive 2005 profile of the cult and its leader by Bruce Falconer in the American Scholar, Schaefer was born in 1921 in a small German town near the Dutch border. As the war approached, a glass eye from a childhood injury reportedly kept him out of the SS Corps; he served instead as a medic in occupied France.
After the war, Schaefer worked as a youth minister at a German church, but was fired, according to Falconer “when suspicion arose that he had somehow mistreated the boys in his care.” Instead, he “struck out on his own as a solo preacher, roaming the German countryside dressed in lederhosen, strumming an acoustic guitar, and encouraging all who would listen to confess their sins.”
Schaefer built his base throughout the 1950s, Falconer writes, until he established a community for war widows and their children. Once again, however, allegations of molestation arose, this time from two mothers. An arrest warrant was issued. Schaefer fled the country.
In 1961, he arrived in Chile, buying a 4,400-acre ranch with money donated by his followers back home. By 1963, 230 Germans followers were living at the rural, isolated settlement named Colonia Dignidad.
The settlers were forced into an extreme ascetic life by Schaefer, according to Falconer. The only clothing allowed was traditional German peasant-ware: “the men in wool pants and suspenders, the women in homemade dresses and headscarves.” Men and women were not allowed to live together, but in separate dormitories. Sex was strictly prohibited. Children were not raised by their parents, but nurses at the settlement’s modern hospital. Troublemakers were punished — tortured even. Confession was the key to Schaefer’s cosmology, and he encouraged the settlers to confess sins to one another. Then, according to Falconer:
Every day at lunch and dinner, members of the community were expected to write the names of sinners on a blackboard near the entrance to the cafeteria. After everyone was seated, Schaefer would take his place at a small table facing the group, and, while his minions ate, he’d read through a microphone the names listed on the board. Each sinner was required to stand up and confess. To deny wrongdoing was a great offense, and the prudent among them became adept at inventing sins on the spot.
Meanwhile, Schaefer each night was raping the young boys. The abuse lasted for years. And yet no one among the settlers complained due to fear. “There was a complex network of emotional connections in the Colonia,” a Chilean psychiatrist who later studied the settlers told Falconer. “It was not a concentration camp system in which prisoners tend to think of themselves as individuals. It was a community, and the children suffered most of all.”
The preacher’s religious message was spiked with a heavy dose of anti-communism. When U.S.-backed strongman Pinochet took power in September 1973, he immediately set up a secret police force — the National Intelligence Directorate, or DINA — to root out enemies. Later reports would eventually determine that 38,254 Chileans were imprisoned and more than 2,000 killed throughout the regime’s reign.
Colonia Dignidad served as one of the torture site’s for Pinochet’s DINA. Former torture victims recounted to Falconer how they were taken to the isolated location. Settlers would later tell investigators they drove political prisoners to isolated parts of the commune where they were executed en masse. Residents also reportedly would report digging up bodies and burning them to hide the evidence of killing. Weapons caches were also stored around the property.
Reports of torture were frequent enough to draw attention from groups such as Amnesty International, as well as journalists. The West German government, on the request of Amnesty, asked Pinochet’s government to help investigate the settlement. The request was denied, as were follow-up requests in 1985 and 1988.
In 1980, when Washington Post reporter Charles A. Krause arrived at the gates of Colonia Dignidad tracking down rumors of torture and sexual abuse, he was chased off by authorities, who confiscated his camera roll. “The police, who wore no identification badges, would only say that they were from Parral, about 20 miles to the west, and that they were acting on orders from Santiago,” Krause wrote.
Pinochet’s fall in 1990 started the clock on Schaefer’s loss of control at the site. At some point in the late 1990s, he disappeared from the settlement. By 1996, enough former residents had told their stories to police that a judge in Santiago issued a warrant on charges of child abuse. Despite frequent police raids on the commune, the cult’s leader could not be found until he was tracked down in Buenos Aires by a television reporter in 2005. Extradited to Chile, he was sentence to 33 years in prison for sexually abusing 25 children.
Five years later, he died at 88.
Free from Schaefer’s influence, the remaining cult members issued an apology in 2006, claiming they had been brainwashed by their former leader. Residents remain at the site today, which now markets itself as a Bavarian-themed weekend retreat.
But questions still hang over much of what happened inside the secretive cult — which Chileans were brought to the site? Who was involved in the torture? Who died in the fields?
Reuters reports the recent agreement between Germany and Chile will pool the countries’ documentation related to the cult and torture center, creating a centralized achieve for victims and their family. The deal will also establish a memorial for Schaefer’s victims.