Germany and Chile have set up a joint government commission to investigate the crimes committed in a Nazi cult in Chile, Reuters reports.
The cult, called Colonia Dignidad, was established by Paul Schäfer, a Wehrmacht medic during World War Two who amassed a religious following while working as a YMCA youth counselor and Baptist preacher in post-war West Germany. The ex-Nazi followed the teachings of American post-war preacher William M. Branham, one of the leaders of the healing-revival movement and a major influence on well-known cult leader Jim Jones.
After many claims that Schäfer sexually abused the boys in his care, a German court eventually charged him with sexual abuse in 1961. But before he could be tried, Schäfer airlifted himself and around 150 of the young boys from his group home — many of whom were to be witnesses or defendants in the case — to a remote region of Chile. He then sold his buildings in Germany, whose earnings he used to buy a plot of land outside of the small town of Parral, Chile. This would come to be called “Colonia Dignidad,” and Schäfer would preside over it for more than two decades.
Over the following months. Schäfer’s 200 followers flocked to his community — which he initially sold to them as a Baptist commune. In practice, however, it was a totalitarian cult based on Schäfer’s own cocktail of Nazi, fascist, and conservative Christian ideas.
Within the commune, Schäfer ordered that all residents transfer their money, assets, inheritance, and pensions directly to him. He also managed to get the Chilean government to recognize his organization as an orphanage, and send him a number of local orphans.
Life in the compound was nightmarish: Schäfer demanded strict celibacy and hard labor from his followers, many of whom would spend 16 hours a day farming and mining. Schäfer set up fences and guard towers to prevent escape, and used confessionals to shame his adherents into obeying and revering him. He likewise forbade personal conversations, and abolished Christian days of rest and holidays. All the while, Schäfer continued to rape the young boys in his community, including those in a connected boarding school from which he recruited young followers.
In 1973, dictator Augusto Pinochet came to power in Chile, and saw a new use for the Colonia. There, he established a prison camp for political dissidents, known as DINA, where secret police tortured and killed inmates.
Throughout this time, Schäfer portrayed his organization and intentions as charitable: He provided free education and health care services to many of the poor in Chile. Few knew of the crimes he was committing.
It wasn’t until 1991, after Pinochet’s removal from power and Chile’s transition toward democracy, that courts first charged Schäfer with aiding in the killings of political dissidents. In 1997, a court charged him with the many counts of sexual abuse that he had committed in Chile. He fled the country, but in 2005 was captured in Argentina, where he was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Schäfer died in prison in 2010 at the age of 88.
Since Schäfer’s death, the community of Colonia Dignidad has changed its name to Villa Baviera, and markets itself as a German cultural outpost in Chile (recent footage shows that most people speak German there), glossing over the crimes of its past.
Now, the German and Chilean governments have created an international commission to uncover the breadth of Schäfer’s crimes, as well as learn to what extent either government was complicit in his actions. The nations likewise intend to establish a memorial fund to compensate Schäfer’s victims.
Next, for more about the fascist history of South America, read about the horde of Nazi artifacts discovered in Argentina. Then, learn about how Nazi language and ideas are bubbling up in Germany’s anti-refugee movement. Finally, see what life was like inside five of history’s most insane cults.