On average, you are awoken by marching bands in Bolivia twice per week and at least once per week you will be prevented from falling asleep at night by a marching band and fireworks. I generally like this, and it’s much better than the songs of the 7th Day Adventists every Friday night or the music that my housemates play.
This Wednesday, I didn’t expect anything extraordinary for lack of any national, religious or international celebration, but as coincidence wanted it, a high school in Potosí was just celebrating its anniversary. Students and teachers had been contemplating for weeks how to celebrate this year and finally came up with a creative idea: a marching band and fireworks.
One school doesn’t like to go to the party alone, so they invited all other schools in Potosí to provide a marching band as well. All together, they wanted to march through the city for at least 12 hours, leaving no street unvisited. No wonder that people were hiding in the mines of Cerro Rico.
As soon as I heard the first drum roll, I quickly finished my dinner and stormed outside in order to film the spectacle for you. Watch for yourself and pay attention to the school uniform, the overly brisk body movements, the insignia on the banners and the name of the school.
Ok, and now honestly: Who, at least among my readers with an interest in German history, was not reminded at least a little bit of an SS march?
Everything in fitting black. Black banners with Germanic eagles. (Bolivia doesn’t have an eagle, but a condor as its national bird.) With the slogan “Honor – Discipline – Work”. The name of the school: Marshal Otto Braun College. That sounded very German, and in a small city at 4,000 meters altitude in the Cordilleras, it aroused my curiosity.
Because I knew from experience that such festivities would go on for hours, I walked to the local library and discovered that my knowledge of history is very much limited, both in temporal and in geographical terms. Otto Philipp Braun, or Otto Felipe Braun as he is called in Bolivia, did come from Germany, but he really had no connection with the SS. Rather, he came as a 20-year old immigrant first to the USA in 1818, then to the Caribbean and finally to South America. From a job as a horse trader, he somehow advanced to become a cavalry officer in the army of Simón Bolívar (by far not the only German or European to do so). During the liberation wars against the Spanish, he proved himself more from battle to battle, was promoted and after the wars became governor of La Paz, supreme commander of the military and ultimately Bolivia’s defense minister.
This shows that swift careers by immigrants are not only possible in North America. But why do we never learn of these stories in Germany?
Marshal Braun died in 1869, so he didn’t have anything to do with the German Reich either, which was not yet in existence by then. So why the German eagle and the black SS uniforms? It’s easy to imagine how this came about. “Hey, in a way, we are a German school. What do we want to wear?” “Leather pants!” “Too cold for that in Potosí.” “Mmhh, I will go to the video store and get some films about Germany.” Well, those films were Schindler’s List and Valkyrie and thus the image of Germany remained frozen in 1945.
The bandmaster was slightly more modern than the costume designer, creating an odd dissonance between repertoire and dress code. A marching band in SS uniforms is playing “They don’t care about us” by Michael Jackson.
It got more bizarre. A smoke grenade was lit, the lead dancer gyrated with his fancy stick in a cloud of green smoke, and then the whole show degenerated into a completely kitschy Las-Vegas-style revue.
That’s when I realized what had been the inspiration: “Springtime for Hitler” from the film The Producers, although I am uncertain if the parody was intended. Searching for more photos of this school band, it turned out that the SS uniforms are relatively new. Three years ago, the musicians in the marching band of Marshal Otto Braun College in Bolivia were still wearing German-Reich-style spiked helmets. (After minute 4:40, you even get some simulated machine-gun fire thrown in.)
If you ever receive Bolivian exchange students in Germany, please take the time to inform them of the progress made since 1945. And maybe advise them carefully that they shouldn’t wear these kind of uniforms when arriving at the airport.