Interviews May 1, 2023

European Communities in South America and the Global Total Wars of the 20th Century: An Interview with Dr. María Inés Tato

Total wars do not just affect the belligerent societies. The two global conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century had repercussions in neutral countries and colonial territories that could not escape of their economic and political impact. This was certainly most evident for the European diasporas in the South American region. How did overseas Europeans participate in the war effort? What were the tensions surrounding the mobilization? What were the effects on the relationship with the adoption countries? These are some of the questions that the authors of Transatlantic Battles. European Immigrant Communities in South America and the World Wars (Brill, 2022) address. The book was edited by María Inés Tato, researcher at the National Council of Science and Technic Research (CONICET), in Argentina, and director of the Group of Historical War Studies of the Institute of Latin American and Argentine History “Dr. Emilio Ravignani”, University of Buenos Aires. Under her coordination, this collective project gathered several historians from different backgrounds, including Juan Pablo Artinian, Norman Fraser Brown, Juan Luis Carrellán Ruiz, Hernán Díaz, Marcelo Huernos, Milagros Martínez-Flener, Germán Friedmann and Stefan Rinke. The main goal of the project was to explore how European communities in South America expressed the transnational nature of their national identities through enlistment in armies and the mobilisation of eco­nomic and cultural assets. As Tato says in the book’s introduction, these immigrants, and their families “had two homelands: they were attached to their countries of origin and, at the same time, exhibited strong connections with the societies they resided in, developing a complex identity that recognized their dual allegiance.” Transatlantic Battles should not be understood as an isolated piece of work, but as a contribution to a growing academic movement that, for the last twenty years, has attended to the global dimension of the twentieth-century total wars. Tato herself has published and directed several books on the subject, working closely with colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic.

—Salvador Lima, European University Institute


SALVADOR LIMA: In the last decade, the study of the global conflicts of the two World Wars has dramatically changed. Your edited volume seeks to expand the scope of the wars to include the South American context. In what ways is academia currently addressing and interpreting the global dimensions of the two World Wars ?

MARÍA INÉS TATO: I would say that the 100th-year anniversary of World War I, between 2014 and 2018, reshaped and reanimated historians’ interest in the conflict. Since then, the perspectives of Global History have become necessary tools to interpreting the Great War and its global repercussions. Traditionally, the global outlook of the conflict was very limited—a Eurocentric view prevailed. Nowadays, the peripheries of the war have become the prime objects of interests to scholars, given the windows they provide to understanding other realities besides merely the combat itself. Regarding World War II, this kind of renovation is still pending. There are some historians trying to crack the box and expand the thematic dimensions of the war, but the bulk of academic scholarship still focuses on the main fighting in Europe and the Pacific, as well as on the political dimension of Nazi occupation, the Resistance, and fascist policies in general. For instance, there is a lack of studies regarding Latin America during the World War II.

SL: It is likely that, for Western scholars, the difficulties in approaching World War II from a global perspective relate to the continuing political nature of the issues at stake, such as the debates on fascism, nazi collaboration, or the German-Soviet War.

MIT: Absolutely—and don’t forget about the Holocaust. In certain academic environments, if you are studying World War II it is very difficult not to address the Holocaust and fascist Europe. After all, this war is widely seen as a battle of ideologies: fascism, communism, liberal democracy. So, this side of the story is still very compelling. For Latin America, there are several works related to Holocaust and Nazism. They mainly address issues such as the activities of local fascists and antifascists, Nazi propaganda, war and post-war connections—especially the wide flux of Nazi officials that sought refuge in Latin American countries after 1945. Whatever the reason may be, the main renewal in the historiography of twentieth century world wars has centered on World War I. I am thinking of the historians of the Historial de la Grande Guerre, in and on France, like Annette Becker, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, John Horne, and Jay Winter. In addition, in 2016, French historians Olivier Compagnon and Pierre Purseigle published « Géographies de la mobilisation et territoires de la belligérance durant la Première Guerre mondiale », in Annales, a truly insightful article that conceptualized and demonstrated the global scope of the Great War, with all its repercussions overseas. Later, Compagnon dealt more deeply with the Latin American case in his book L'adieu à l'Europe. L'Amérique latine et la Grande Guerre. These historians have expanded the geographical context of the war and incorporated non-military perspectives, such as the social, cultural, transnational or global, bringing entirely new debates to the academic forum and to the public opinion. World War II historians still need to make this methodological leap.

SL: Where does the idea for a book like this come from? It gathers historians of different national origins, and the diversity of its chapters is remarkable.

MIT: The book is the product of my concern with the ways historians tend to treat World War I. Previously with Olivier Compagnon, Camille Foulard,  and Guillemette Martin we put together La Gran Guerra en América Latina. Una historia conectada (CEMCA, 2018) and with Ana Paula Pires and Jan Schmidt we published The Global First World War. African, East Asian, Latin American and Iberian Mediators (Routledge, 2021). However, these were exceptions, not the rule. Historians devoted to WWI in Latin America usually work in isolation from other colleagues, given the field’s fragmentation. As we had done in the collaborative books mentioned, on this occasion I wanted to overcome this limitation within our field,. The book’s concern was to form some sort of mosaic with different case studies related to the impact of the conflict on the European immigrant communities in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, and on the host societies. To the Spanish-speaking authors of the book, this project was also a tool to make our research known in English, to a broader sector of readers. Besides, it allowed us to establish a more fluid dialogue between historians on either side of the Atlantic, to exchange ideas and knowledge, to expand this network of Global Studies regarding the Great War. It was an enriching way to bring visibility to an area of history that is still developing.

SL: What methodological and linguistic problems does this kind of transnational research pose to each historian?

MIT: Indeed, access to different archives and language diversity are the great challenges of Global History. That’s why it is so important to work collaboratively. In this book, each historian specialized in a certain community or case, being able to understand the specific language and cultural context and to have access to the proper national archives. These are the basis of the historian’s craft. For instance, in my case, going to the diplomatic archives in Europe was a key step to build the framework of my research. This allowed to me to understand how the European officials regarded the immigrant communities in South America, what expectations they had about them, what strategies they implemented to mobilize their resources for the war, and how they conceived of the global struggle in other regions. The press sources were also crucial, specifically to look at the trends of these European communities in the peripheries of the war. As in any historical research, the more archives you consult, the more tools you can use and the deeper your comprehension of the matter will be.

SL: What does the term ‘peripheries of the war’ mean?

MIT: It refers to the regions of the world affected by the conflict, but with no direct involvement in the front or, in any case, with a late and thin participation in it, such as Brazil. Neutral countries, colonies, and latecomer belligerents. It is useful to think of the experiences of war in regions where there was no direct military actions, but other forms of contributing to the fight. When we say ‘peripheries of war,’ what we are trying to do is to claim the proper place of Latin America in the history of the global conflicts. Of course, with its own role and experiences. It is still a developing concept. To most of our Western European colleagues, Latin America or Africa are not on the radar of the World Wars, the periphery of the conflict is the Maghreb or the Balkans. Therefore, there is still much to do to build out the global perspective of the associated War Studies.

When we say ‘peripheries of war,’ what we are trying to do is to claim the proper place of Latin America in the history of the global conflicts. Of course, with its own role and experiences. It is still a developing concept. To most of our Western European colleagues, Latin America or Africa are not on the radar of the World Wars, the periphery of the conflict is the Maghreb or the Balkans.

SL: Within these categories of analysis, why is South America an interesting case study?

MIT: The countries of the South Cone shared the fact of being home to large communities of European immigrants—especially Italians, French, Spanish, British, and German subjects, but also Austrians, Armenians, Croatians, Polish, Swiss, European Jews, and Syrian-Lebanese. As such, they were directly touched by the two global conflicts. In both, their motherlands demanded different types of contribution, from direct mobilization to material support, and participation in forms of economic warfare. In certain ways, the immigrant communities in Argentina, Brazil, or Chile—with their own cultural institutions, newspapers and professional associations—worked as instances of intermediation between the war and those South American societies. In one sense, the foreign communities brought the war. In 1914, they were truly involved in their state’s propaganda and the war effort. Many members of the community were involved in meetings, funding, and public debates. Besides, the diplomatic authorities in these locations tried to mobilize the immigrants in their favour, clashing on many occasions with the economic interests of the immigrant businessmen and the reluctance of the most assimilated elements of the community, especially the second generation. European diplomats’ efficiency in demanding the mobilization of reservists was very limited. The numbers of Italian, German, French, or British who finally volunteered to the front were not remarkable if we consider the populations of these communities. Diplomats did not have the means to force the immigrants and their children to board the ships, nor to sanction them, and yet, the fact that thousands of these men joined the war demonstrates the strong bond between the diaspora and their motherlands.

There was a confrontation here between two ways of understanding citizenship. The South American countries had adopted the European immigrants and, according to the ius solis, considered their children proper citizens of the nation. The European authorities, following the ius sanguinis, did not accept gladly the attachment of the second generation to the countries in which they had been born and raised. They saw them as an extension of the nation in the New World and as tools to increase their influence in those countries. Once the wars were unleashed, the double identity of the immigrants’ children posed a serious challenge to the European jingoism and to ethno-nationalist conceptions of the political community. Now, this varied from one community to the other. For instance, the British citizens in Latin America were the most willing to be mobilized and to support the war, whilst the Italians and the French were much more reluctant to do so. This has to do with the different degrees of assimilation. Wherever they were, English people considered themselves citizens of the Empire.

That being said, we must also consider the case of minorities within this imperial concept. Different works have showed how Southern Slavs, Irish, or Armenians communities in South America struggled between attitudes of support for or rejection of the metropoles’ economic and social mobilisation campaigns. For the diasporas, the global wars were opportunities to claim status, to gain autonomy in the imperial framework, or to achieve direct independence, whilst the imperial states and their officials fought to retain their loyalty. On the other hand, nationals from more “homogeneous” countries, such as France and Italy, did not have this kind of internal tension, but at the same time were more vulnerable to Argentine nationalizing policies, as their assimilation to the host society was more powerful. In any case, what this type of study demonstrates is the intersection between the history of war and issues of identity, nationalism, migrations, and other social perspectives.

SL: What was the general reaction of public officials and newspapers in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile before the European attempt to mobilize people and economic resources?

MIT: There are some differences between the two World Wars. Most South American countries were initially neutral in both conflicts, just declaring war on Germany after the United States did and joining the Pan-American initiatives encouraged from Washington. During the neutrality periods of World War I, the official policy of the South American governments was to allow every foreign community to mobilize and to express its solidarity with its motherland, but to a limited degree. They might have forbidden certain propaganda films, but, as a rule, there was wide tolerance of public war campaigns. Things changed if the country became belligerent. For instance, in 1917, Southern Brazil was very problematic for the government in Rio Janeiro. The states of Paraná, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul were home to the largest German diaspora in Latin America, so when Brazil fought against the Germans, these immigrant communities became the target of social and official discrimination. The fear of the rise of a fifth column in one of the most prosperous regions of the country unleashed a chain of hostilities and government decisions against German-Brazilians and their institutions.

On the other hand, World War II produced a series of much more restrictive measures from South American governments, even during neutrality periods. The polarization around fascist and communist discourses and the associated prejudices had a deeper impact among the politicized sections of the urban populations of South American countries. Therefore, the ideological dimension of the war pushed the Argentine, Brazilian, and Chilean governments to tighten their grip over their public spheres, to avoid the European conflict influencing or inflaming local politics. The censorship of the press and cinema were clear.

SL: To sum up, what is the main contribution of the book to the fields of Global Studies and the History of War?

MIT: I think the main contribution of this book is to demonstrate the much larger complexity of the global wars in peripheral regions: the impacts of the conflicts, in terms of social tensions, economic distress, political disputes, and symbolic fights. The wars were fought in other spaces, beyond the Belgian trenches, the Russian steppes, or the Balkan Mountains. This kind of approach to the World Wars opens several paths of academic research. First of all, and following the central idea of our book, there are the studies of diaspora communities in times of extreme violence in their motherlands, but there are still many other gaps in the literature regarding the attitudes and internal tensions within European communities during the global wars. As I said before, Latin America, and the United States, as host societies for European immigration, are fertile grounds for exploring issues such as identity and nationalism in violent contexts. In fact, the comparison between European communities in Latin America and those in North America could be a worthwhile field of research. Another line of research could be the question of inter-ethnic cooperation: that is, how the allied communities collaborated to gather funding in a transnational manner, crossing borders from Argentina to Brazil, for example. Finally, I believe the historiography of World War II in Latin America still needs a stronger push to make it more complex and more global, but here is our start.

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