November / 16

The End of World War I in Buenos Aires: Grand Celebrations and Deep Disappointments

Juan Morello.
Conicet/Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero

In October of 1918, newspaper predictions of a possible end to the four-year catastrophic war started to increase seemingly exponentially. The whole world, including Buenos Aires, of course, was eager for a definitive end to the conflict, a resolution that would bring with it lasting peace. But not everyone received the headlines with the hope of a better world on the horizon. Buenos Aires’ German speaking community, which watched as the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires lost ground in their respective battlefronts, began to taste the bitterness of defeat. ​

In 1918, the population of Buenos Aires was reported approximately 1.6 million residents. Data on the German speaking community of Buenos Aires in this period were never very precise. The 1910 municipal census counted 7,444 German citizens. Other sources have adjusted their calculations and arrived at figures estimating between 50,000 and 200,000 German speakers in the whole country. It was a small, heterogenous community, dispersed among various Buenos Aires neighborhoods, but during the war they became relatively united in defense of their homeland. 

When the conflict started, life in Buenos Aires took a dark turn for German speakers. The German Empire— not without reason— was accused of being the instigator of the conflict, and sooner or later the mainstream press in Buenos Aires tended to support Allied interests and influenced public opinion. Because of this, defamatory content about the Kaiser, as well as representations of Germans and their culture as stereotypically barbaric, became commonplace in the pages of many newspapers and magazines. 

The press of the German-speaking community felt obligated to respond. Their largest newspapers — the conservative Deustche La Plata Zeitung and the liberal Argentinisches Tageblatt — adopted rhetoric that was defensive of the German Empire and maintained their stance until the end of the war. Their goals were centered on keeping their readers informed, on equipping them with a series of arguments they could use to defend themselves against day-to-day attacks, and on highlighting their community’s “German” characteristics in order to sustain a kind of internal cohesion. But none of these issues were easily resolvable. Information access became more and more complicated. Firstly, because the Allies cut German underwater telegraph cables and monopolized news distribution. And secondly, when the US entered the war in 1917, what wireless communication that still existed was lost. Finally, the German attack on Argentine boats led to a total loss of sympathy for the German speaking community in Buenos Aires, and even reached physical aggression. 

At the end of the conflict, the two large newspapers made significant efforts to hide a reality. But day by day, this approach worked increasingly against their own interests. The Deutsche La Plata Zeitung even shamelessly denied publicly known facts. When news of the armistice arrived on November 11, 1918, the deception felt by readers was not simply knowing that their country had suffered a crushing defeat, but also, in addition, they had been misled by their own press.  

1. Victory Celebrations / Caras y Caretas (Buenos Aires). 16/11/1918, no. 1,050 / 47. Image digitized by the National Library of Spain. 

The streets of Buenos Aires filled with marches lauding the Allies and singing the Marseillaise. The community press portrayed the Argentine, Italian, French, and American attendees as uncivilized for, among other things, blocking public transit, being noisy, and breaking a street band’s instruments when they refused to play the French national anthem. In German speakers’ diaries, there are entries about how English and North American banks celebrated with champagne and passionate cheers for American president Woodrow Wilson. Throughout, a heavy feeling of neglect befell German immigrants. If daily life had become difficult during those past four years, now it seemed even worse. The press tried to suppress what they had printed just a few days earlier, but they couldn’t help that in the community, resentment arose. ​

What came after was a time of change. One part of the community, as expected, maintained their distance from these conflicts. But the other, the more politically active one, occupied itself with countering accusations what each had done during the conflict. The Pax Romana between German-speaking media outlets that had been in place during the conflict came to an end, and a new journalistic struggle commenced, this one between traditional media sources and new ones that had emerged. The new debates revolved around defenses of the Weimar Republic, laments about the fallen monarchy, and new ideas about Communism. The passage of time would not see these divergent perspectives reunite, even though certain points of friction did slowly fade. 

Further reading

The End of World War I in Buenos Aires: Grand Celebrations and Deep Disappointments