Germany looked other way on disappeared
Declassified documents suggest Helmut Schmidt gov’t knew about dictatorship atrocities
The West German government of the late 1970s, then led by former social-democrat chancellor Helmut Schmidt, was not prepared to get involved in Argentina’s domestic affairs despite being aware of the forced disappearances taking place in the country at the time, Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine has revealed, citing declassified Foreign Office documents.
Schmidt’s government had described human rights and the protection of Germans in Argentina “a primary concern” during the era in which as many as 30,000 people are believed to have been disappeared by the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976-1983.
Despite this general concern for its citizens, the German ambassador in Buenos Aires at the time, Jörg Kastl, was reported in the declassified documents as having described the dictatorship as “the only way,” while the head of the Foreign Office’s Latin American office at the time, Karl-Alexander Hampe, had also been warning against any measures that would jeopardize German-Argentine relations.
“Our intervention on the issue of human rights should not go so far as to cause lasting damage to the Argentine-German relationship,” he is quoted in the documents as saying, while also commenting that the West German government “is interested in (former dictator Rafael) Videla’s continuity.”
According to the documents, there was also a fear within West German ranks that another type of dictatorship — a “leftist authoritarian” model — could have taken hold in Argentina amid the Cold War, Der Spiegel reported.
The declassified documents suggest the German government saw the dictatorship as temporary as they include comments made internally by then Foreign minister Karl Mörsch, who had said after a visit to Argentina that the Junta would eventually hand over power and that its leaders were not just “cynical dictators.”
The West German government had in 1983 publically recognized the forced disappearances that had been taking place in Argentina, though the magazine report suggested that the documents show the Foreign Office officials had known about the situation since at least 1980.
Germany was the first European country to participate in the trials over human rights abuses during the last military dictatorship, as a plaintiff in the 2010-2011 El Vesubio case that focused on — among other dictatorship-era incidents — the 1977 kidnapping and murder of 30-year-old German national Elisabeth Käsemann, who was one of the estimated 70 to 100 German victims of the dictatorship.
The country’s participation in the case came about when the families of 10 German victims of the Argentine dictatorship filed criminal complaints in the country in the late 1990s, leading to German court’s decision in 2001 to file an extradition request for former commanding officer of the Army Pedro Durán Sáenz, who managed the clandestine detention centre in Greater Buenos Aires known as El Vesubio where Käsemann, along with around 1,500 other people, had been detained and tortured.
During the trial, writer and activist Osvaldo Bayer showed a part of his documentary about the Käsemann case, which he said “revealed a critique of the (former West) German government, which took a long time to react (to human rights atrocities) and was doing good business in Argentina” at the time of the dictatorship. He accused former officials in the German embassy in Buenos Aires of “complicity” for having allegedly given Argentine dictatorship officials information that had been handed over to them by the family members of German victims, and for having sold to the dictatorship frigates and submarines.
Germany eventually withdrew its extradition request for Durán Sáenz after Argentina revoked the Due Obedience and Full Stop laws that had impeded a trail against him and other repressors.
The El Vesubio trial began in 2010 and saw Durán Sáenz charged with 63 counts of kidnapping and 19 homicides, but he died from respiratory failure in June 2011 while he was awaiting his sentence in home detention.