The Smoking Snakes

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.jornal_o_globo_1942

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. BoliviaColombiaEcuador, Paraguay, PeruChile, 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.

175px-distintivo_da_feb“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!

(Hier gibt es diesen Artikel auf Deutsch.)

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Brazil, History, Italy, Military, Politics, World War II and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to The Smoking Snakes

  1. Pingback: Die Rauchende Schlange | Der reisende Reporter

  2. David says:

    “The heroic nation of Argentina” – that was very funny!

  3. Fabio says:

    Dear Andreas,
    here’s a Brazilian movie (A Estrada 47 / Road 47) about the FEB participation in WWII. It was shot in Italy in 2005:

  4. It is a shame that your country of origin, Germany, does NOT remember the end of the war on 8 May 1945. It is telling what the country thinks of this period in its history.

    • David says:

      I am not clear as to the point of your comment. I have no idea exactly how the end of the war is commemorated in Germany, but I’ve always heard that Germany faced the atrocities it committed head-on, much more than other countries such as Austria and Holland. I take it that Andreas will respond with his views.

    • David, I tend to agree with you, but with caution.
      The saddest part of how Germany and Germans have been facing their history were the decades after 1945. At that time, many people were ashamed, everybody wanted to forget, and the East-West confrontation pushed everything else into the background (even de-Nazification was no longer carried out with any zeal). About two decades were lost.
      But beginning in the 1960s and mainly with prosecutions of former SS members (and also the renewed interest due to the Eichmann trial in Israel). things began to change. I am talking about West Germany here, because the East basically said “we are communists, we were always anti-fascist, we are a new country, we have nothing to do with this, let’s look forward”.

      There could always be done more, and much was only done due to pressure (for example, the forced laborers were only compensated after class-action lawsuits were brought in the USA), but in comparison with other countries, there is quite an astonishing consensus in Germany about the historic guilt and the ongoing responsibility for it. I also see in young people that their interest in this is not diminished. Many of them are volunteering to work at memorial sites, do school projects or engage in local history. The awardees of the Obermayer Award are just some examples:

    • Anyone who say that Germany does not commemorate 8 May 1945, must never have been in Germany on that day, or at least not anymore since the 1970s.

      In East Germany, 8 May was always celebrated as a day of liberation.
      In West Germany, there was indeed a dispute whether 8 May 1945 was a day of liberation or a day of collapse and no agreement could be reached in the first two decades or so after the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany. This debate continued, also because the situation was complicated by East Germany still not having been free (from the Western perspective) until 1990. To some, it seemed a bit strange to have an official Day of Liberation, when half the country was under a communist/socialist dictatorship. (Let’s not forget that West Germany did not regard East Germany as a foreign country, but maintained the claim to represent the whole German people.)

      The breakthrough in the West came on 8 May 1985, with a speech by then-President Richard von Weizsäcker:
      You will notice that this was a remembrance ceremony in the Bundestag, something which is being held every year. (True, we don’t celebrate it with parades of tanks like in Russia, although there are many more flowers on that day before the Memorial to the Soviet Soldiers in Berlin.)
      As to days of remembrance, I would however say that 27 January ranks higher. It is the anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps in Auschwitz and the official memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust. What I have found most impressive is that in some years, a survivor of the Holocaust was giving the speech before Parliament. You find the full list here:

    • David says:

      Thanks for your take.

      Re East Germany, yes, the Communists’ view (not only in E. Germany) was always “we were always anti-fascist, so we shall examine nothing”. Molotov-Ribbentrop is conveniently glossed over…as is widespread local collaborators in certain countries.

    • The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (or “Hitler-Stalin Pact” as it is known in German) is indeed overlooked too often.

      In the countries that still uphold (in part) the Soviet narrative of the USSR single-handedly having rid Europe of fascism (Transnistria comes to mind), it is overlooked that Stalin basically invited the Nazis into Eastern Europe. To be fair, the Nazis might have attacked Eastern Europe anyway, but that doesn’t diminish Stalin’s participation.

      But also in some Eastern European countries that now define themselves by their anti-communism (for example in Lithuania), I have seen the weird phenomenon of people bitterly complaining about the Soviet occupation and dismissing the period of Nazi occupation as “not so bad in comparison”. They completely overlook that the Soviet occupation was based on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and thus had explicit German approval.
      But there are probably other factors at play. One is that the Soviet occupation continued for longer and was the more recent memory, basically until 1990.
      The other is sadly reflective of local tacit support for the Holocaust because I have often heard in Eastern Europe: “sure, the Germans also occupied us, but they behaved well”, completely ignoring that they did not behave well against Jews, Roma and other minorities. To me, it shows that the idea that one can be Jewish and Estonian or Roma and Romanian is still a foreign concept to many.
      As an example for this distortion of history, I point to Grutas Park in Lithuania.

    • David says:

      well said.

      And thanks for the link to your post on Grutas Park – I read your blog religiously (if you’ll excuse the word:-)) but either I missed that one or I forgot it.

    • That’s a religion that even I can accept. ;-)

      But to be fair, the article about Grutas Park is more than 5 years old. This makes me think abut all the old articles which are buried under sands of time, only waiting to be detected by a reader who has broken a leg and is sitting at home, bored.

    • David says:

      Ah, that was before I discovered this blog, as I recall. So i’m not senile yet.

    • And now you know what you can look for if you are ever super-bored. :-)
      Maybe I should re-publish some of these old articles, for otherwise they will hardly ever be found. (Except for a few long-term classics which get many hits every day, like the one on suicide or the the one about the practicalities of traveling to Israel and other Middle Eastern countries).

    • David says:

      I don’t think I saw the one on suicide.

      As to the other one – the former is impossible and the latter not advisable for me :-)

    • Well I was born in East Germany and therefore May 8 is a well known date for me. However, ask anyone today about the date and what has happened and a great number of people will shrug their shoulders. Of course it is laudable that the Germans have no parades showing off their tanks etc. but a public reminder what the day stands for I think is necessary.

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