Just a few weeks ago, on 8 and 9 May, Eurocentric Europeans celebrated the end of World War II, although in Asia, that show didn’t get cancelled until a few months later. The surviving US-American, British, French, Belgian, New Zealand, Australian, Indian, Canadian, Soviet veterans and even the partisans were celebrated with parades and marches, the dead ones with visits to cemeteries.
But every year, the soldiers of one country are completely forgotten.
No, I am not talking of our grandfathers in the Wehrmacht. Most of them really don’t deserve any celebration.
I am talking about the Brazilian soldiers who helped the Allies to liberate Europe from fascism.
You never heard of them? See, that’s exactly what I mean. They always get overlooked. And it wasn’t just a handful of Brazilians who served in the US-American or British military. No, Brazil dispatched a whole division to Italy in World War II. That was 25,000 soldiers.
As the Second World War began, Brazil wanted to imitate Switzerland, remain neutral and continue trading with both sides. At that time, Brazil was a dictatorship once again, which did have some sympathies for Nazi Germany (although the melting pot of Brazil managed to be fascist light without the racist element). But the North-American charm offensive was simply too convincing, and in 1942, Brazil allowed the USA to establish military bases for the war in the Atlantic.
Neutrality became untenable when, in the same year, German submarines sank 13 Brazilian merchant vessels and hundreds of people died. Actually, the government of Brazil still didn’t want to enter the war against Germany. The calls to do so came from the people and became ever more loud. Protesters demanded an entry into the war and smashed German restaurants. On 22 August 1942, Brazil declared war on Germany, Italy and Japan.
That step was becoming increasingly popular in South America at the time. Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Chile, Venezuela and Uruguay followed suit, in that order. Oh, and the heroic nation of Argentina took the bold decision just in time before it was too late, on 27 March 1945; it was the last declaration of war against Germany.
But even in Brazil, nothing happened after the announcement. Public anger kept boiling, although the real reason for that may have been the cancellation of the Football World Cups during World War II. A saying at the time was that “sooner would snakes smoke a pipe” than the government would send troops to Europe, to express the skepticism whether this would ever happen. In English, one would say “when hell freezes over”, but in Brazil, nobody knows the meaning of freezing.
Finally, almost two years after officially joining the war effort – and conveniently after the successful landing in Normandy, when it had become clear to everyone who would walk off the European battle pitch as winners -, the first Brazilian troops were shipped to Italy on 2 July 1944.
“The snakes are smoking!”, the incredulous cries accompanied the soldiers, and the Brazilian Expeditionary Force self-mockingly selected that symbol for their shoulder patch. War is always chaos, and thus, it only became obvious as the troops landed in Italy that they had no weapons, that nobody had arranged barracks for them and, worst of all, that nobody had told them about winter, cold and snow.
Except for some mountain regions, there is no snow in Brazil. It was an unknown concept to most soldiers. And in the winter of 1944/45, these beach boys were supposed to fight the Wehrmacht’s hardened mountain infantry in the Apennines, where they had dug themselves in along the Gothic Line.
All the more surprising that the Brazilians advanced quite successfully, won battles, liberated Parma, among other cities, and took more than 20,000 soldiers, mainly Germans, as prisoners. The photo shows the German lieutenant general Otto Fretter-Pico surrendering to a Brazilian soldier.
So, the German propaganda had remained ineffective, although there had even been a radio program in Portuguese for the enemies from Brazil: “Hora Auri-Verde”. These broadcasts probably tried to frighten the South-Americans more deeply of even more snow, ice and frost, recommended a return to Rio, and threatened a severe drubbing in soccer should they not heed the advice.
In their propaganda directed at the Italian population, the Nazis also used the fact that many Brazilian soldiers had darker skin. They tried to incite fear of rape and murder, their work now being continued by Italian parties like the Lega Nord.
During the long winter months in the trenches, the Brazilian soldiers had time to think. They realized that it was weird, fighting for democracy in Europe, while being governed by a dictator at home. Thus, it was also under the influence of the returning soldiers, that Getúlio Vargas announced elections in 1945, allowed parties to be formed and promised not to run for office anymore. But to be on the safe side – Brazil struggles with democracy at time –, he was removed by a military-coup, but then re-elected in 1950 and finally, in 1954, confused by the constant back and forth, he shot himself.
For more, there is an interesting documentary with original footage and many original voices (in Portuguese with English subtitles). Enjoy it with a pipe!