THE Costa Rican author Carlos Alvarado has done his US neighbours something of an historical service by transporting us back through time to the second world war when his country’s government rounded up citizens with Germanic links and shipped many of them out.
For this is a story that is both little told in Costa Rica but also suppressed in the US itself, not least in history textbooks – a dramatic irony in a country where it is likely that German Americans in fact make up the largest ethnic group. The issue is of clear contemporary relevance given the experience in recent times of Muslim Americans who have found themselves on the sharp end of the US defensive reflex.
Such is the lack of public knowledge about this history in the US that in 2005 the German American Internee Coalition was formed by and for German American and Latin American citizens and residents who were interned by the US during the war. Its aim is to make public the US policies that led to internment, repatriation and exchange of civilians of German ethnicity, both in the US and Latin America.
Costa Rica was not the only country in the region to participate actively in the detention of people associated with the Axis countries under US supervision, and alongside a large camp in San José, internment camps were also built in Cuba, Nicaragua, Panama and Colombia.
However, the internment of Germans in Costa Rica under the otherwise progressive Rafael Ángel Calderón – whose government also confiscated their considerable assets, including coffee plantations and banks – ultimately came at a high political cost, deepening the divisions that would spark the uprising under José Figueres and the brief but bloody civil war in 1948. In some ways, modern Costa Ricans may have much to be grateful to the Germans for – Figueres established the framework of the stable and democratic state that has distinguished this country from its neighbours to this day.
Alvarado’s novel weaves this troubled episode in the history of his own country through a tale of modern discovery involving two rather ordinary protagonists coming to terms with their own problems and personal trials.
During the war, Washington employed an array of constitutionally questionable methods to control US citizens and residents with an ancestry that, for some, put their patriotic credentials in doubt. These included internment, deportation, travel restrictions and the confiscation of property.
Perhaps the most well known stories have concerned the Japanese but few people are aware that 11,507 Germans and German-Americans were interned by the US. In areas where those internment camps were sited – including Crystal City and Kenedy in Texas – a semi-official code of silence about what happened persists.
Internment is an unavoidable but nonetheless distasteful fact of war – but a clear breach of most international legal conventions and, in countries such as the US, arguably flies in the face of constitutional rights.
However, we must not forget that ethnic Germans were also interned in Britain and other Allied countries at the outbreak of war, and also that the British have practised internment in more recent times – finding it easy to avoid discussing how they used it in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and compounded their crime by mistreating detainees and forcing thousands of fearful Catholic families to flee into the Irish Republic.
Alvarado takes us back on a journey of discovery into the human cost of internment by highlighting Latin American complicity in these acts. Under US pressure, Latin American governments arrested at least 8,500 people with Germanic ancestry. They shipped about half of these to the US itself, where they were interned, and sent an unknown number to Germany – many in exchange for Americans and Latin Americans being held there.
Las Posesiones tells the sad tale of Stefan Schmitz, the Costa Rican son of German emigrants who was interned in San José during the war and lost everything as a result – including the love of his life, Beatriz. We are taken through his tortured last years by way of the experience of Ana Rodríguez and Samuel, a contemporary couple who learn of his fate through letters given to Ana on the death of her biological father, Marcos Arias.
Through these letters we learn how Marcos betrayed Stefan and stole his love, but also how the internee never gave up hope of recovering her heart as he was shuffled between internment camps in Costa Rica to the US and eventually to a Germany in ruins. His efforts to return home eventually claim his life and he dies alone and with a broken heart. We discover later that he left offspring in Germany through the efforts of his troubled grandson, Gerhard, to find out more about the childhood memories that haunt him.
The “possessions” in the book play off the central act of the plot – probate in the will of the deceased Marcos, whose worldly possessions were, in fact, largely acquired through his betrayal of Stefan – but more realistically relate to the ghosts of the past coming to life in the present through the efforts of Ana and Samuel to uncover a story of which they now form part.
Alvarado – a journalist – clearly has a profound interest in the history of his own country, and sheds light on a fascinating period. If the plot at times is jumpy and the reader must work hard to piece the jigsaw puzzle together, he writes with a clear, crisp style that greatly eases the reading. Ana and Samuel are irritatingly conventional, although their temperaments are plausible, but the diatribe by Samuel’s cousin Moshé advancing a form of moral relativism that compares the treatment of ethnic Germans with that of the Jews seems contrived.
The history of this period is also much more complex than suggested from a simple US or European judgement about how ordinary Costa Ricans behaved in this period.
In countries such as Mexico and Argentina – despite progressive political currents – there was considerable popular support for the Axis powers. What took these countries into the war against Germany was in many cases high domestic and international politics – and powerful US pressure – and not popular sentiment.
From his distance, and through his letters, however, the tragic Stefan’s determination to return home – this being Costa Rica, not Germany – leaps from every page and Beatriz, his silent love, is transformed into the motherland that he yearns for with all his heart.
It is this sentiment, and the very Costa Rican sense of an affront to the underlying tolerance that characterizes this very special little country, that is bequeathed by this book.