A former Nazi soldier who founded an extremist religious cult in Chile has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for sexually abusing children.
Paul Schäfer, 85, was jailed for abusing children at the Colonia Dignidad (Dignity Colony), which he founded in 1961 with several hundred followers from Germany, over whom he exercised absolute control for the next 36 years.
Keeping his followers in almost total isolation from the outside world, Schäfer sought to re-create a rural Bavarian idyll in the shadow of the Chilean Andes, 320km (200 miles) south of Santiago, the capital.
There he preached a harsh regime of work and discipline. He cultivated a godlike image to his followers, who allowed the man they knew as Permanent Uncle to regulate their intimate lives, letting him decide who would marry and when they could have sex.
Schäfer ordered all the cult’s children to be raised collectively and insisted on the right to bathe them himself, selecting some to join him in his bedroom. He also tempted local peasants into sending their children to the compound with offers of free education.
He was charged with child abuse in 1997 after one local boy escaped the compound and alerted authorities to the abuse. Schäfer disappeared before he could be arrested. Tried and convicted in his absence, he was caught in Argentina last year and expelled to Chile, where he was retried and convicted of abusing 25 children between 1993 and 1997.
Victims welcomed the sentence. “We know that Schäfer will never again know liberty and this sentence means he will end his days in a cell in Chile,” Hernán Fernández, a lawyer for several of the victims, said.
Schäfer faces charges of involvement in the disappearance of opponents of Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator. Colonia Dignidad enjoyed special privileges during the dictatorship because General Pinochet looked kindly on its rabidly anti-communist and anti-Semitic ethos. In return Schäfer put the compound at the disposal of the military regime.
Former detainees say that they were brought to the compound by the secret police, where they were tortured. Chilean authorities are digging there for the remains of as many as 30 people. While searching for the remains authorities came across Chile’s biggest illegal arms cache, which included machineguns and rocket launchers.
Hernán González, the sentencing judge, said that Schäfer had tried to convince him that he should be spared judgment because of his age but that he had decided that Schäfer was fit enough and did not deserve any compassion.
General Pinochet has held up efforts to try him for human rights abuses committed under his rule by claiming that he suffers from mild dementia.
The remnants of the cult who still live in Colonia Dignidad, now Villa Baviera, want charges against other members dropped, claiming that, given the control Schäfer exercised over his followers, he alone should bear responsibility.
The Government has appointed an administrator to run the colony and integrate its residents back into society. Many of the original settlers are said to suffer psychological problems because of their isolation and some even have difficulty speaking Spanish despite living in Chile for decades.
Millions of Germans emigrated to South America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These communities played significant roles in expanding the agricultural frontier in Brazil and Argentina, and German businessmen were prominent when the continent started to industrialise. Many South American brewers trace their origins to German immigrants and in Bolivia and Paraguay there are still thriving agricultural colonies of Mennonite farmers.
South America has also been a refuge for German racists since the 19th century. In 1888 Friedrich Nietzsche’s sister helped to found the colony of Nueva Germania in Paraguay, which she hoped would be an Aryan utopia. The colony failed, but its descendents are believed to have sheltered Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz doctor, as he fled the hunters of Nazis.
Mengele was one of many fleeing Nazis who sought refuge in South America, aided by pro-Axis dictatorships in places such as Argentina, whose leader, Juan Perón, operated an elaborate scheme to smuggle in thousands of fleeing Nazis and their allies. Once they arrived they were often helped by sympathisers among the region’s German communities.
Schäfer, a corporal and medic in Hitler’s army, was not charged with any crimes after the Second World War. He became a fundamentalist preacher but fled with his followers to Chile after accusations of child abuse in Germany.