How was Brazil affected by World War II

The Global War: Espionage, Submarine Battles, and New Dependencies in Latin America

The Second World War had an immediate impact in South America. It hit the continent's economy hard, tore up social rifts - and gave rise to rigid systems of repression.

In December 1939 the war was carried to the coasts of South America. The German ironclad "Admiral Graf Spee" had fought its way free against three British cruisers in a sea battle in the South Atlantic and entered Montevideo severely damaged. Due to diplomatic interventions by London, the ship had to leave the Uruguayan territorial waters a little later. But it was not yet fit for combat, so the commander decided to scuttling in view of the hopeless situation. He let the crew get into the lifeboats and ordered the ship to be blown up. While the "Admiral Graf Spee" sank, over a thousand German marines crossed the Río de la Plata and went ashore in Buenos Aires in front of the amazed Argentine port authorities.

Fear of German attack

The outbreak of war in Europe a few weeks earlier had come as no great surprise to the Argentine government. The worsening crises had also been precisely registered in the far south. It was now a matter of maintaining neutrality. The country thus followed up on the attitude it had taken during the First World War, when, despite massive pressure, it had refused to declare war on the Central Powers. Nonetheless, the incident enlivened the specter of possible German attacks on Latin America. The activities of a subversive "fifth column" were now suspected everywhere.

Meanwhile, the USA tried to prevent the war from spreading to the American continent. At a Pan-American foreign ministers conference in Panama City in October 1939, it was decided to establish a maritime exclusion zone around the neutral states of America, within which warlike actions would have to cease.

The naval battle on the Río de la Plata had shown, however, that partitioning was only possible to a limited extent. In the economic field, the events of the war had already made themselves felt immediately. Above all, the German Reich had abruptly ceased to be an important trading partner for many Latin American states: As in World War I, the British dominated the central sea routes and cut off their enemies from imports and exports. But trade with the allied powers also shifted after they switched to a war economy. Food and raw materials were now in demand. Countries like Argentina, which could supply meat and leather goods, and the oil-producing Venezuela benefited considerably, while the coffee-exporting countries (Colombia, Guatemala, Brazil) suffered losses. To compensate, Brazil was able to ramp up its rubber production.

Latin America was hit even more hard by the discontinuation of European supplies. Machines and chemical products from Germany were now absent, while the Allies needed their industrial capacities for the war. American companies seized the opportunity and took market share from the Europeans. This was where business relationships arose, but also dependencies that were supposed to last for a long time.

The US is building up pressure

The course of the war was the dominant theme in Latin America. The German advance in 1940, the capture of Paris, the sea and air battles, the war against the Soviet Union moved the public to a great extent. The latent tensions between the supporters of Germany (germanófilos) and the supporters of the opposite side (aliadófilos) intensified. While some saw the opportunity to break away from their dependencies on the previously dominant great powers, others feared totalitarian forms of rule spilling over to their own states or even an invasion. The crack went through the societies and extended into the government cabinets.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked the US Pacific fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A few days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. The already globally expanded disputes had finally become a world war. Instead of neutrality, the US now demanded hemispheric solidarity. Some states followed immediately (Cuba, Panama), others were successfully put under pressure. For political reasons, Brazil decided to work closely with Washington. The country received arms deliveries as well as industrial loans and set up an expeditionary force of 25,000 men, which finally fought on the front in Italy in 1944. The US also established naval and air bases in northeastern Brazil.

Mexico, too, was able to improve its traditionally tense relationship with the United States: It deployed an aerial combat unit in the Pacific region - the "Aztec eagles" - and also relieved US agriculture. When the Second World War began, a labor shortage had developed there, which could be covered by Mexican farm workers - «Braceros». This aid program continued well beyond the end of the war until 1964 and provided several million Mexicans with legal work.

Funds from the Lend-Lease Act, which the USA had already put into effect in March 1941, now also flowed to Latin America, so that coastal protection, internal security and logistical support could be guaranteed. However, some states, especially Argentina, eluded the lure and grasp of the northern hegemonic power, which responded with boycotts and embargoes.

The other side did not remain idle either. The submarine war raged in the Caribbean. Oil-laden tankers off Venezuela were the target of German and Italian attacks. In total, more than 400 ships were sunk in this area. At the same time, intensive German espionage activity developed in Latin America, the aim of which was to spy on the economic activities of the enemy powers or to intercept radio communications. Secret broadcasting stations were set up in several countries as part of Operation Bolivar to report the information to Germany. The Allied counter-espionage was aware of these covert activities: the FBI identified a total of 832 Axis spies in Latin America over the course of the war, of whom 336 were arrested; 105 people were convicted. In addition, 24 broadcasting stations could be switched off. A German sabotage unit in Brazil that had already prepared for larger operations remained undiscovered for a long time.

Locked in camp

The German-speaking communities in Latin America, which had split up between supporters and opponents of National Socialism, and Japanese immigrants were quickly targeted. The State Department urged the Latin American governments to expropriate these groups and place them under supervision. The larger states like Brazil, Colombia and Mexico set up their own internment centers; others illegally turned over the incriminated individuals, often their own nationals, to the United States, where they spent the remainder of the war in camps.

The repression against Brazilians of German origin began after Brazilian ships were sunk by German submarines. Everything German was now considered hostile, and the German-Brazilians, who had largely retained their original identity since the 19th century, were under general suspicion of collaborating with the enemy. As a result, schools and clubs were closed, and private property was also confiscated. The rule of law - already restricted under the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas - degenerated into a mere chimera. The principle of denunciation was systematically promoted and created a climate of fear.

Brazilian historiography has drawn connections between this wartime repression and the military rule of the 1960s and 1970s. Permanent police surveillance of larger population groups as well as a preventive elimination of entire sections of society, so the thesis, were tried out in the special situation of the war against the enemy within and applied decades later to other population groups in a changed situation.

The end of the war in 1945 was received and celebrated with great relief, first in spontaneous rallies, then organized by the state. The expeditionary forces of Brazil and Mexico received honors and monuments on their return. The fighters in the ranks of the Allies found their way into the national culture of remembrance; their commitment to democracy, to the fatherland and to freedom is seen as creating identity. However, the immediate post-war period disappointed many Latin Americans. With the entry into the US-dominated economic system of Bretton Woods and above all into the UN, hopes for a better world were connected. The Latin Americans made up 20 of 51 states in the UN General Assembly, but did not understand how to use this weight.

Growing trade and immigration from Europe gave the economy a new boost after 1945. But here, too, there were downsides that continue to have an impact on the collective consciousness to this day. With the urgently needed migrants, thousands of National Socialists, Nazi collaborators and wanted war criminals also came to Latin America. And they found a refuge: Klaus Barbie, for example, in Bolivia, Josef Mengele in Paraguay and Brazil, Adolf Eichmann in Argentina.

Above all, however, many Latin Americans had hoped that the victory of democracy would finally bring the end of oppression in their own hemisphere. And indeed, some of the long-time autocrats like Vargas (Brazil) and Ubico (Guatemala) had to resign. But the traditional structures of rule remained in many places. Unlike the Europeans, including the former opponents of the war, there was also no Marshall Plan for Latin America. The greater region was left to its own devices and classified geopolitically as insignificant - primarily as a sales market and raw material supplier. It was only during the Cold War, when Latin America became a political powder keg and another world war seemed to be looming, that this assessment changed. But by then it was already too late and dark decades began for Latin America.

Holger M. Meding is Professor of Latin American History at the University of Cologne.