History Lessons in Bolivia

Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Berichts.

As I finally saw a village after a day’s walk through the jungle and several river crossings, I was relieved. When I saw that a village of 300 inhabitants, living so remotely, had an active school, my educated heart was overcome with joy.

Kinder vor Schule.JPG

But before education, there has to be some patriotism, apparently.

Lined up like in the military, the students, all belonging to the Mojeño tribe/nation, warbled the anthem of the Plurinational Republic of Bolivia before marching into their classrooms in an equally military order. Like all buildings in Buen Pastor, the school building was kept rather simple.

Klassenzimmer offen.JPG


To my great surprise, there was a computer room, though, but it had been mothballed for five months. The power supply from the solar panels no longer worked.


There was an engineering student in our group, who checked that both the solar cells and the batteries were okay. Only a small intermediate part needed to be replaced. However, he did not have that part with him, and he would not come back for a few months. So, there would be another semester without electricity.

At least the teachers don’t have to worry about the children being distracted by their mobile phones.

children in class.JPG

Speaking of the teachers: They have to walk through the jungle or, in the rainy season, wade through the mud for 6 to 8 hours until they get to school. All four teachers working there are from other parts of the country, but between the long holidays they have to live in the village without showers, without toilets, without clean water (they drink from the river or rainwater during the rainy season) and now without electricity, all of this for several months in a row. They don’t receive newspapers, and nobody visits them because everybody is afraid of snakes and piranhas. The journey home for the weekend is not worth it because of the long walk. There is no privacy, because everyone lives in open huts around a clearing cut out of the jungle. The doctor comes once a month. After a few weeks, you really can’t stand fish and rice anymore, but there is nothing else to eat. I didn’t even want to ask about the salary.

During the break, which was of course used for football, I snuck into one of the classrooms to take a look at the history and social studies books. And what am I seeing there, in the middle of the jungle of South America?


Of the ten people depicted, 30% are from German history. Plus Vichy-Pétain. The Bolivian history book does not have a single Bolivian or South American on the cover. Where is Bolívar?? No idea why Hindenburg was more important. Well, at least Garibaldi fought in South America, and Napoleon, through his war against Spain, indirectly gave South American freedom fighters the freedom to go on with their revolutions.

On the other hand, as a history nerd from Germany, it fills me with joy that even small children in jungle settlements without electricity or roads know about the Weimar Republic. I am excited to read about Federico Ebert, Adolfo Hitler and Pablo von Hindenburg.

Ebert Hitler Hindenburg.JPG

Of course, I don’t expect a textbook for the third year of secondary school, especially on a distant continent, to provide explanations on the level of the thousand-page tomes I usually devour. But

  • was the Weimar Republic really a “república socialista”?
  • if one writes that Adolfo Hitler was appointed Führer by referendum, should one not mention that on 19 August 1934, the German Reich was already a dictatorship and the referendum was by no means free or fair?
  • referring to the Volksgerichtshof as “tribunales del pueblo” without any further explanation seems to downplay that instrument of oppression.
  • it’s not entirely true that the Nazis introduced a system of social security.
  • in light of all of that, it doesn’t really matter that the Gestapo and the SS were not the same.

But this book at least mentions racism, nationalism, anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews. Another textbook, which I find in the bookcase, deals with the history of the Third Reich without mentioning the Holocaust even once, although Bolivia received relatively many Jewish refugees.

Let’s see how things evolved in this distant Germany.


So, Germany becomes a “global power”, does not pay its foreign debts and puts the unemployed into the military. Hitler and Mussolini ally against the communists and help their friend Franco.

And then – poof, poof – in 1949 “Alemania Democrática” suddenly appears. Grotewohl and Pieck establish the “people’s democracy”, experience “some difficulties” in 1953 and 1961-62, but “things went ahead”. In 1955, the Western powers recognize the Federal Republic of Germany, the heads of government are called Heuss, Lübke, Erhard, Kiesinger, Brandt. If you confuse chancellor and president here, you won’t have any points deducted. On 9 November 1989, the wall is torn down (which wall? by whom? why?).

Something beautiful happens, because the fall of communism will allow the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany to unite and to “enter an era of freedom”. As if both countries had previously been unfree. Gratitude is expressed to Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl, but it remains unclear of which Germany Kohl was chancellor.

No wonder that the image of Germany taught in Bolivian schools sometimes remains diffuse.

But seriously: There are pupils and adults in Germany who do not know or understand or want to know/understand any of this any better. And in my 13 school years in Germany, I never heard anything about Bolivia. Also, I doubt any of my teachers would have swum through a river with anacondas and crocodiles to get to school.


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 Bolivia, Books, Germany, History, Travel, Video Blog and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to History Lessons in Bolivia

  1. Pingback: Geschichtsunterricht in Bolivien | Der reisende Reporter

  2. David says:

    How in the world were those 10 picked? A really strange combination.

    • I have absolutely no idea, and I am especially baffled by Rommel. Even a history book in Germany would not find him significant enough.
      But then, there seems to be some obsession with Rommel in South America (and maybe elsewhere, too). In Cuenca in Ecuador, I sat in the park one evening, when a local gentleman introduced himself, asking where I was from. When I said “Germany”, he volunteered that his second given name was Rommel. “My grandfather was a fan,” he said, and he didn’t seem very happy about it.

  3. Una lectura del libro Los nazis en Bolivia; sus militantes y simpatizantes 1929-1945 (Plural, 2016), de Irma Lorini… Tal vez te interese esa lectura.

    El Nacional socialismo fue una realidad en Bolivia de 1933 y 1945 entre instructores militares, comerciantes, profesores, profesionales y otros alemanes que vivían en el país. Hubo también simpatizantes bolivianos: políticos y diplomáticos; militantes del Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR, 1941), de Falange Socialista Boliviana (FSB, 1937), del Partido Socialista (fundado por Enrique Baldivieso en 1934), además de otros pronazis que defendían a Hitler en artículos de prensa o reuniones sociales. Casi todos relacionados por la Embajada de Alemania en Bolivia, la cual cumplió el rol de reclutar adeptos y difundir las ideas del nazismo.

    El libro de Lorini se limita a la etapa entre las guerras mundiales y no nombra las herencias fascistas que llegaron hasta los años 80, como la participación de alemanes en el golpe de Hugo Banzer (1971), el refugio a Klaus Barbie/Altmann y su influencia en las Fuerzas Armadas bolivianas o la conspiración de los “Novios de la Muerte” como aliados siniestros de Luis García Mesa.

    El primer momento de expansión de los simpatizantes del NSDAP se dio alrededor de la Guerra del Chaco, sobre todo por los resultados adversos para Bolivia. Recuerda Lorini el apoyo militar alemán desde los años 20, incluso con figuras tan em lemáticas como Ernest Rhöm que estuvo entre 1929 y 1930 prestando servicios en el Estado Mayor y luego en reparticiones militares de Sucre, Uyuni y Oruro.

    Rhöm militaba en el nacionalsocialismo desde 1923 y en las tendencias más duras. Eran los paramilitares utilizados como fuerzas de choque y representaban una visión de muchos germanos después de la derrota en la Primera Guerra Mundial, el tratado de Versalles, la República de Weimar. El sentimiento de pérdida fue transformado en amenaza para ocupar otra vez Europa y quizá el mundo entero.

  4. That’s a huge commitment for the teachers. Do they do it by choice or are they somehow forced to do it?

    I remember (a little) of world history taught in United States. And I dont think Bolivia was part of it. But our own US History had huge inaccuracies so being left out might be better.

    • I didn’t want to ask if the teachers did it by choice, because I was afraid they didn’t and that my question would remind them of their fate.
      If indeed this was the case, I would just hope that they would be relieved from their posting after a few years.

      But the teachers definitely came from other parts of the country and unless they were eager to get away from their families or were particularly keen on ethnographic research, I can’t imagine why they would volunteer. (Ok, maybe because the expenses there were zero.)

    • Now that I am studying history, I regret that I didn’t keep anything from high school. I would be curious what we learned back then.

      It’s hard for me to remember because I have learned so much since, and I may have learned things from books/newspapers while at school, but not from school.
      But for example, I am not sure what we learned about German colonialism. I am quite sure we didn’t learn anything about the Armenian genocide. And definitely nothing about Bolivia.
      Back then, it was still focused on long lists of names and reigns and wars, totally different from how history is or should be taught nowadays, with much more focus on social and cultural history.

  5. Klaus Barbie afirmaba que extrañaba visitar las tumbas en Bolivia que consideraba su segunda Patria y las cartas enviadas a su mejor amigo en Bolivia, Álvaro de Castro, entre 1983 y 1991, citadas en el libro Klaus Barbie. Un Novio de la Muerte, publicado en La Paz.
    El Barbie que escribe estas líneas es otro muy diferente a aquel que era teniente coronel honorario del Ejército boliviano, o ese despiadado “Carnicero” durante sus primeros años en Lyon (Francia)”, afirman los autores, los bolivianos Peter McFarren y Fadrique Iglesias.
    Se trata de una obra que introduce una nueva perspectiva en el análisis de la vida de Barbie en Bolivia, tras huir de Europa donde sus crímenes en la Segunda Guerra Mundial le valieron el apodo de “El carnicero de Lyon”.
    Las cartas, recolectadas por McFarren y publicadas por primera vez en español, muestran como Barbie se justifica, siente nostalgia por la libertad, pero también soledad y nunca abandona la esperanza de que sus influyentes amigos bolivianos tramiten su retorno al país.

    “Lo principal es que yo tengo bien la conciencia y que la base de mis hechos es una guerra cruel en la cual hice mi deber por mi patria”, dice Barbie en una carta del 31 de marzo de 1988, cuando cumplía la cadena perpetua que se le impuso en 1987.

    Uno de los autores del libro, Iglesias, dijo que “las cartas demuestran que no se arrepintió” y que incluso creía, de forma discutible, “que si Alemania hubiera ganado la guerra él no hubiera sido considerado un verdugo, sino otros”.
    Con el nombre de Klaus Altmann, Barbie vivió en Bolivia 32 años, entre 1951 y 1983, conectado con políticos y dictadores militares, haciendo negocios y prosperando con la venta de armas y protegiendo al narcotraficante Roberto Suárez (el “Rey de la Cocaína”) con el grupo de neonazis Los Novios de la Muerte a su servicio.
    Tras ser extraditado desde Bolivia a Francia el 4 de febrero de 1983, algo que no esperaba, Klaus Barbie afrontó un juicio histórico en Lyon acusado de diversos crímenes contra la humanidad.

    “Mi vida ha cambiado por completo. Extraño todo, a las tumbas de mi hijo y mi señora, a tu compañía, a todos los amigos y sobre todo al país y a la libertad de la que he podido gozar durante los 31 años de mi vida en Bolivia”, dice Barbie a De Castro.
    Esas palabras están en una misiva del 7 de abril de 1983, en la que cierra con la frase: “Soy un pobre diablo”.
    Según los autores, Barbie también hizo negocios con una compañía boliviana de transporte marítimo y, contrariamente a los que se esperaba, viajaba constantemente a Europa, lo que permitió que los cazanazis Beate y Serge Klarsfeld finalmente lo reconocieran.
    Tenía una característica, que lo diferenciaba de otros nazis que vinieron a América Latina y se quedaron en las sombras: él tenía un afán de protagonismo y en la década de los años 60 hizo una gira de negocios por Europa, donde fue identificado.
    Su influencia en la política boliviana y las cartas también muestran el interés de Barbie por los cambios en la política boliviana al punto que afirma que representan mucho para él en su “triste soledad” en prisión, en la que el 6 de agosto (aniversario patrio boliviano) piensa mucho en su “segunda patria”. Es admirable que Barbie haya logrado conectarse fácilmente con líderes bolivianos ya que fue amigo del presidente militar René Barrientos (1966-1969) y trabajó para las dictaduras de Hugo Bánzer (1971-1978) y Luis García Meza (1980-1981).
    Su relación estaba basada en su experiencia en inteligencia y represión, lo cual también le sirvió para ser espía de EEUU entre 1947 y 1951, e incluso colaborar con Alemania Federal en 1960.

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