A Paradise-Haunted Land

ASUNCION -- Like many before them, the Nazis came to Paraguay as a last resort. In those years, crossing the equator for an unknown southern land meant forsaking not only the comforting clockwise flush of the toilet, but also a way of life. It was an epic and arduous journey, and indeed in the case of Australia's convicts nothing short of the gallows convinced them to undertake it. Paraguay was, in a way, an anti-Australia: if Australia's magic was to take bonded criminal dross and transmute it into civilization, Paraguay's was to take freely-settled cultural and religious aristocrats and reduce them to beggary and ruin. It is where pretenses to civilization came to die.

Yesterday I promised a short tour of the luckless utopian movements that preceded the Nazis.

In the eighteenth century, Jesuits went native and set up a series of priestly states called "reductions," where thousands of Jesuits and Guarani Indians lived and worked together. The reductions were a sort of Catholic version of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq: priests collaborated with Indians, figured out how to improve their economies, and accrued souls and goodwill along the way. The experiment ended when the Jesuits were kicked out of the Americas in 1767. All that remains are large red abandoned stone structures that poke up through the foliage in a few scattered sites. Utopian principle: Jesuit-Guarani harmony and peace. Reason for failure: Jealous Spanish royalty.

One hundred years later, the real craziness began. In 1887, Elisabeth Nietzsche, the deranged sister of the deranged philosopher, founded the colony of New Germany deep in the Paraguayan jungle with her husband Bernard Foerster. Foerster was a zealous pamphleteer who had been arrested for beating a Jew on a German streetcar. The couple detected an alarming current of philo-Semitism in late nineteenth-century Germany (really), and convinced a few dozen other families to strike out into South America and found a civilization based on the robust Aryan virtues that Germany had forsaken. Within a few years a large fraction of the settlers had starved, gone home, or died horrible deaths from infection. Elisabeth returned to Germany, Bernard ate strychnine and died in a hotel room, and the colony quickly forgot its purpose. Several German families still live there (I visited them two years ago), but none of them cares about Nietzsche or the Jews anymore. Utopian principle: Extreme anti-Semitism. Reason for failure: Even extreme anti-Semites vulnerable to lockjaw.

A few years later, renegade Australians arrived just outside Asuncion and settled a commune known as New Australia. They founded their settlement on strict separation of races, sharing of property, teetotalism, and family values. They quickly erupted in conflict over just about everything, and within a few years New Australia disbanded. Utopian principle: Teetotalism, marriage. Reason for failure: An Australian colony founded on teetotalism?

Finally, after the First World War, Mennonites arrived to colonize the Chaco region of northern Paraguay. Expelled from Europe, they settled in Canada, Paraguay, and Mexico in successive waves in the twentieth century. But nowhere did their experiment fail more spectacularly than in Paraguay, where the territory they arrived to farm turned out to be dry, unsuitable, and viciously contested in the only mechanized war ever fought in the Americas. In the 1960s their fortunes changed (the introduction of buffalo grass led to a switch from growing runty, shriveled vegetables to raising healthy dairy cows). But, predictably, the worldly success of their dairy cooperatives compromised the integrity of their world-denying community. Mennonites rose to political power and fell to womanizing and corruption (one of them, a celebrated Mennonite race car driver, was exiled to Manitoba, so grave were his perversions). The community has lately continued to re-examine its purpose. Utopian principle: Withdrawal from the world. Reason for failure: Even the Chaco is part of the world.

My dozens of Paraguayan nationalist commenters will object that I have portrayed only a few of the many strains of settlers in their country, and that I have chosen the strangest and least representative. They are correct, in that few of today's Paraguayans trace ancestry to abstemious Australians, to wayward Nietzscheans, or to Anabaptists gone wild. But for such a tiny country to attract so many eccentrics is surely worth noting -- and, I hope, noting with some pride.

Part of its attraction is that it is relatively unpopulated, and that its land appears tabula rasa to any social entrepreneur with big ideas. My own favored concept of utopia is a place where many proposed paradises can coexist and compete with each other, and where some of them perish when exposed for being dystopias in disguise. The paradises above are Paraguay's dystopias. There must be some satisfaction, though, in being in a place that had inspired so many attempts at paradise, even if a few were of the Nazi variety.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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