Deep in the jungle of central Paraguay, a town announces itself with a wire sign suspended between two stone towers that look like freestanding Medieval turrets: “Bienvenidos a Nueva Germania,” it reads. A few thousand people live in “New Germany” today, but if the town’s founders had their way, it would have taken over the entire South American continent.
In the late 19th century, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche—sister of the famed philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche—and her husband, Bernard Förster, embarked on a journey to establish a utopian colony founded on their ideas of “racial purity.” It’s a patently absurd concept, and one that has fueled many of the most grave and destructive chapters in history. But that doesn’t stop some people who steadfastly hold that worldview.
The Försters were avowedly anti-Semitic and preached the superiority of Northern European races. They also detested the ethnic and racial mixing that was happening in Europe at the time. So, they decided to start anew, in a place far, far away from Jewish people. Nueva Germania was about “the purification and rebirth of the human race, and the preservation of human culture,” Förster wrote.
Förster-Nietzsche and Förster began spreading their campaign for racial “purity” in Berlin, but were ostracized. In fact, Förster lost his job as a teacher for “race agitation.” Stubborn, undeterred, and with unflinching belief in their vision, the couple began proselytizing in rural Saxony and found the followers and initial funding they needed to buy land for their colony. In 1886, the couple selected fourteen families for their purported genetic purity and left Germany for Paraguay. They believed more would follow, including Friedrich Nietzsche, even though he denounced the endeavor.
In his 1992 book Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche, author Ben Macintyre researched the origins of Nueva Germania and even visited himself. He discovered that Förster-Nietzsche and Förster enticed followers by painting a rosy picture about what life in New Germany would be like: “Simple Paraguayan servants rushed to do a white man’s bidding, where the food fell from the trees and where Germans, tired of the economic vicissitudes of life in the Fatherland, could find a healthy climate, cheap food and pleasant surroundings,” he describes in his book.
As soon as the journey began, the harsh reality set in. Their month-long voyage across the Atlantic was plagued with rotten food and cockroaches. They disembarked in Montevideo and spent a week traveling up the Paraná River where they were devoured by mosquitos and bugs that laid eggs under their skin. One of the children died before the group arrived in Paraguay. But more people came: 40 families settled in New Germany within the first two years after it was established. It wasn’t enough to sustain the colony, though, since a quarter of them left by the summer of 1888.
Förster-Nietzsche and Förster were akin to land speculators and they needed to convince 100 families to buy into their scheme—fast. That proved impossible. Colonists weren’t able to successfully farm the land (Förster-Nietzsche and Förster were vegetarians and had to resort to meat eating) and were often disease stricken. With bankruptcy looming, Förster committed suicide in 1889. Förster-Nietzsche stayed in Nueva Germania for a few more years, before leaving in 1893 to take care of her brother, who had fallen ill. (Förster-Nietzsche became his executor and is infamous for manipulating his manuscripts to advance racism and fascism.)
After Förster-Nietzsche abandoned the colony, some colonists stayed and made a living farming yerba mate. There are reports that some resorted to intermarriage to fulfill the Försters’ mission.
In 2013, a New York Times reporter visited Nueva Germania. Residents, most of whom live in poverty, are a mix of German and Paraguayan and some speak both languages. (A 1991 New York Times story on Nueva Germania described it as “a garden of assimilation from a bigot’s planting.) The reporter asked the residents about their town’s history as an Aryan utopia. While some bristled at their history and the racist ideology that gave rise to Nueva Germania, some still believe in it.
Försterhof, the mansion Förster-Nietzsche and Förster once lived in, lies in burnt-out ruins, overtaken by the forest.