Paul Schäfer: Nazi colonel who established an anti-Semitic colony in Chile after the war

Phil Davison
Monday 24 May 2010 00:00 BST

Paul Schäfer was a former colonel in Hitler's army who survived the post-war years under the cover of being a Lutheran pastor and running an orphanage near what was then the West German capital, Bonn.

After he was charged with sexually abusing two orphan boys he fled to Chile in 1961, taking many orphans and loyal followers with him, aided by an underground Nazi network in South America and the pro-Nazi Chilean military.

There, near the town of Parral, 220 miles south of the capital, Santiago, he purchased 70 square miles of lush forested land which he called Colonia Dignidad [Dignity Colony]. Behind barbed wire and protected by armed guards and Alsatian dogs – andeventually with the support and protection of his friend, the Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet – he established a secretive anti-Semitic and anti-communist cult which became something of a state-within-a-state, effectively a forced labour camp for the orphans who worked the land from sunrise to sunset, unpaid and barred from leaving. Schäfer built a power plant, a television station and two airstrips within his land, ostensibly to export timber, wheat, corn and German specialities such as pastries and bratwurst.

After Pinochet came to power in a 1973 coup, their friendship meant he could import and export freely without paying taxes. He was aided by support from local farmers who benefited from mutual trade as well as a school and a state-of-the-art hospital just inside the colony's gates, which offered treatment to farmers' children – partly to encourage the local farmers to support the colony and help guard it against intruders. When I tried to interview Schäfer for The Independent in the 1990s I was kept at bay and intimidated by local farmers with machetes, armed German guards with walkie-talkies and Alsatian dogs.

After Pinochet's downfall in the late 1990s, Chileans began to reveal stories of their experiences in the colony. Repentant officers of Pinochet's National Intelligence Agency (Dina) said the airstrips had been used to ship arms to Schäfer and to bring anti-Pinochet political dissidents for "interrogation".

Most of these joined the ranks of los desaparecidos – the disappeared ones – but those who survived spoke of electric-shock torture in underground dungeons from a German who turned up the volume of his Wagner music as he increased the electric current. The survivors and former Dina agents said dozens of political dissidents were tortured to death or murdered by Schäfer with shots to the back of neck then buried in mass graves within the colony.

It was, however, the testimony of people who managed to escape from the colony which eventually led to charges of multiple sexual abuse of minors by the man they had been forced to call Tio Permanente – "Our Eternal Uncle." The escapees said babies were taken from their mothers and raised communally. Schäfer himself, they said, was always surrounded by a group of boys he treated like slaves, using electric shocks or tranquillisers as punishment. Children and their parents were taught that it was an honour for a child to be chosen to share the bed of their "Supreme Leader."

Wolfgang Mueller, now in his sixties, was one of the first to flee, at the age of 16, in the 1960s. He kept silent for years out of fear of reprisals but eventually told investigators: "I remember the first night I arrived. Mr Schäfer abused me. I was just 12 years old but I had to stay all night in his bed."

With the charges pending, Schäfer fled in 1997 and was eventually spotted in neighbouring Argentina. In a search of his colony, investigators uncovered what they called "a military-scale cache of weapons," including more than 100 assault rifles, 90 submachine guns, thousands of hand grenades and even a few surface-to-air missiles. Schäfer was arrested outside Buenos Aires in March 2005 and extradited to Chile, where, the following year, he was jailed for a total of 33 years for the sexual abuse of 25 German and Chilean children, as well as torture, illegally possessing weapons and one case of murder.

At the time of his death he was still under investigation for the 1985 disappearance of a 43-year-old Jewish-American mathematics professor, Boris Weisfeiler, who disappeared while hiking near Colonia Dignidad. A Chilean military officer told the CIA that Weisfeiler had been tortured and killed within the colony once he had been identified as Jewish.

Paul Schäfer Schneider was born in Siegburg, Germany, a few miles from Bonn in the state of North Rhine Westphalia, in 1921. He joined the Hitler Youth in his early teens, was taken on by the Wehrmacht as a medic in occupied France early in the war and ended the war as a corporal. After the war, he managed to blend into the background during the allied occupation by travelling the German countryside as a Lutheran preacher, often playing an acoustic guitar to back up his message of salvation via sexual abstinence.

He already had a strong cult following before he set up his orphanage in his home town of Siegburg. A glass right eye, the result of accidentally injuring his eye with a fork, reportedly added to his charisma and helped instil fear among his followers. It was after being accused of molesting two orphan boys, and fearful that his war record would emerge, that he fled to Chile in 1961. Despite his arrest and conviction, Colonia Dignidad still exists, now re-named Villa Baviera (the Spanish for Bavaria), run with the permission of the Chilean state as a legal farming, business and tourist enterprise by its 300 inhabitants, many of them relatives of the original orphans and other Germans.

Details of Schäfer's funeral inSantiago were kept secret until the last minute, but neighbours who saw the two-car cortège go by threw dirt at the vehicles to express their disgust. His adopted daughter Rebeca, his lawyer and three funeral parlour staff were the only people at the burial. Paul Schäfer, who died in a Santiago prison hospital of heart failure, is survived by Rebeca.

Paul Schäfer, Nazi officer and cult commune leader: born Siegburg, Germany 4 December 1921; died Santiago de Chile, 24 April 2010.

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