Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the 'Colonia Dignidad' event at the Federal Foreign Office

26.04.2016 - Speech

After a showing of the film 'Colonia Dignidad', Foreign Minister Steinmeier spoke about how the Federal Foreign Office has dealt with the coercive system of the German colony in Chile.

– Translation of advance text –

Friends and guests,

Well, I hope those of you seeing the film today for the first time have had a chance to catch your breath again. It will be good to do so before we talk with contemporary witnesses in a minute. First of all, however, I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the director, Florian Gallenberger, for being here today, and for such an important and tremendously moving film. Without you, we would not be sitting here today in the Federal Foreign Office Weltsaal. This film provided the incentive even we obviously needed to take another look at the subject of Colonia Dignidad and the role of the German Embassy in Chile.


The film we have just watched is not a documentary. Some of it is fiction – like the love story between the characters played by Daniel Brühl and Emma Watson, or the Lufthansa hero at the end. Nonetheless, the film is overwhelmingly true. Which is probably exactly why parts of it are almost unbearable to watch.

In other words, the film is the starting‑point, but we aren’t here to talk about how accurate individual scenes are. We are here to talk about the role of diplomacy and of individuals. This is not easy, as you can imagine. Who among us likes talking about the dark side of our history, particularly when that history is not so very far in the past?


No, our handling of Colonia Dignidad is not a glorious chapter in the Federal Foreign Office’s history. For many years, from the sixties right up to the eighties, German diplomats looked away, at best. Certainly they did far too little to protect their fellow Germans in the colony. Later, too, when Colonia Dignidad was dissolved and the people were no longer exposed to the daily torture, the Federal Foreign Office lacked the necessary resolve and transparency to identify its responsibility and learn lessons.

Why this happened is the question we are asking today. But anyone who is expecting easy answers is, I think, likely to be disappointed.

You have just seen pictures of the colony, so I don’t need to say much about that. In the early 1960s an idyllic valley in the Andes became home to a group of Germans from a Baptist congregation. The sect was led by Paul Schäfer, who – and this at least ought to have been known – was being sought by the police in Germany for child abuse. Allegations of unlawful detention, sexual abuse and forced medical treatment were voiced at an early stage, and also later, after he had settled in Chile.

The colony’s upswing came in 1973 with the Chilean military dictatorship under General Pinochet. Colonia Dignidad enjoyed the regime’s favour, supplying it with weapons and letting the DINA secret service set up a torture camp. This is the period Florian Gallenberger’s film looks at.

While Willy Brandt was propagating the policy of détente in Europe, the Cold War was determining concepts of friend and foe around the globe. Pinochet had powerful friends, for whom the regime was not in the first instance a military dictatorship stamping on liberal values; rather it was and was supposed to be primarily a bulwark against the communist threat.

Respect for political freedoms and human rights on other continents was an issue in political circles and at German universities, but it was not a central focus of foreign policy in Europe – where many European countries were still struggling to deal with the colonial legacy – or in Germany. Perhaps this might help us to understand how in 1977 a member of the German Embassy in Santiago de Chile described conditions in Colonia Dignidad with the words “Clean and tidy, right down to the pigsties”.

So it was that the German Ambassador, Erich Strätling, was formulating public statements honouring the colony while at the same time there were reports of minors who had fled to ask for help from the Embassy in Santiago being sent back to the colony on grounds of custody rights. Among the Chilean public, the name Colonia Dignidad was linked with child abuse, unlawful detention and torture even then.


The Federal Foreign Office was very slow to recognise the dimensions of the Colonia Dignidad problem.

The fact that it did eventually do so was thanks not to a political shift in Bonn, but to individuals, colleagues like Dieter Haller, who is sitting here in the front row. Dieter Haller was posted to Chile as a young man in the 1980s. In 1987 he wrote: “The German nationals living in Colonia Dignidad” were most probably “victims of continuing unlawful detention”. After a visit to the colony he noted: “This must be what Theresienstadt was like.”

Dieter Haller and the few who supported him took action. The practice of automatically approving pensions was stopped. But something that seems almost inconceivable to us now was the unbelievable conflict over the introduction of a so‑called “consular consultation”. We may hear more about this shortly. It was a question of how to give the inhabitants of the colony an opportunity to explain their view of the situation, their hardships and mental sufferings, to the Embassy, without Paul Schäfer’s henchmen being present. In return, Dieter Haller had to cope with complaints from the colony’s lawyers.

The German Embassy’s reputation was not looking good. A husband and wife who had escaped from the colony turned up at the Canadian Embassy for help, for fear that the Germans would just send them back again. Dieter Haller hid the couple in an old people’s home in Santiago.


We have a group of people here with us today – many of whom know so much more about Colonia Dignidad, which is now called Villa Baviera. I would just like to name Dagmar Müller, Anna Schnellenkamp, Peter Rahl, Esther and Michael Müller, who have spent their entire or a large part of their lives there. Wolfgang Kneese was one of the first to flee the colony, on his third attempt in 1966, and has been fighting since then with his wife alongside Hernan Fernandez, a human rights lawyer from Santiago, whom I would also like to welcome as our guest, to ensure that Colonia Dignidad is fully investigated. In 1977, Dieter Maier published a report on the colony for amnesty international in Frankfurt which attracted much attention. Margarita Romero has been campaigning for many years for the rights of so many Chilean victims and is with us today. A very warm welcome to you, too!

You and others – each in their own way but each with courage and resolve – have done much to ensure that ultimately the truth came to light.


Let me try to explain how I see the role of the Federal Foreign Office and its responsibility, and most especially what lessons we want to learn from that. Naturally, we have to resist the temptation to pass judgement lightly.

The Federal Foreign Office is not responsible for the military putsch in Chile and the subsequent 17‑year military dictatorship. It’s not responsible for the crimes which Paul Schäfer and his accomplices committed, in some cases in collusion with the military and dictators.

However, the Federal Foreign Office should have done more to give “Germans advice and assistance according to its due discretion”, as provided for in the Consular Law. And it could have endeavoured at an earlier point in time to exert diplomatic pressure to limit the latitude of the colony’s leadership and to bring about legal action.

The Embassy failed for too long to insist that German nationals – and, after all, that’s what those living in the colony were – be allowed to speak freely with consular officials. It’s clear that the Federal Foreign Office and Embassy lost their way trying to perform a balancing act between protecting the good relations with the host country and protecting human rights.

As a rule, when we think of foreign policy we think of relations among states. But the truth is that diplomacy is not abstract. Foreign policy is set by people. Therefore, it’s not just a state’s compass that matters or how a state defines and weighs up its interests. The compass of each and every individual is important. That’s why our discussion today, indeed the entire Colonia Dignidad case, raises a question which each individual has to answer, namely: how would I have acted? How could this happen? And, how can we prevent similar things happening in future?

These questions are too important to be, as it were, filed away after just one discussion round. Internally, we’ve spent a long time discussing how we should deal with the Colonia Dignidad case in future and use the lessons learned from it.

First of all, we have to ensure greater transparency. By law, the files stored in the Political Archive are not made public for 30 years. That means that the records up until 1985 are already accessible. I’ve decided to shorten this statutory period by ten years. That will make documents from 1986 to 1996 available to academics and the media. In doing this, we must ensure that the victims’ privacy is adequately protected.

The Colonia researcher Dieter Maier once reflected on why German diplomats believed the lies of Schäfer and co. He surmised that they perhaps couldn’t imagine “so much deceit, cruelty and destructiveness”. Perhaps, he stated, “the Federal Foreign Office should send young diplomats off to do an internship in some mafia organisation in order to heighten their vigilance in the face of evil”.

Although I wouldn’t go that far, vigilance is a term which we should perhaps take note of. The Federal Foreign Office wants to learn lessons from how Colonia Dignidad was dealt with. The material in the files will be examined – not simply for the sake of it or to pass judgement on what happened in the past but, rather, to use it for the initial and further training of our young members of staff.

What did we fail to do, what could have been done better? How could similar conflict situations be prevented today? The Colonia Dignidad case study will form the core of a new module at our training centre in Tegel for trainees at all levels of the Foreign Service. The same applies to further training: a discussion about the “inner compass” and the necessary “vigilance”, using the Colonia Dignidad case as an example, will be made a permanent component of the curriculum for our leadership seminars.

The question of ethical standards for our actions isn’t a historical question but, rather, is raised every day anew when we have to weigh up between good relations with the host country and criticism of circumstances which need to be criticised.

There are cases in which acting in line with the law isn’t enough. Cases in which the responsibility we all bear requires us to do more. The absence of instructions from above can never justify us looking the other way or doing nothing. Our hearts and minds, and the courage to act accordingly, should provide us with enough orientation to do what is necessary, and thus what is right.

On that note, I would like to thank you all for this evening. I pay tribute to the victims of Colonia Dignidad, a coercive system. I would like to thank Anna Schnellenkamp and Wolfgang Kneese for being here this evening. And thank you once more to the director. Florian Gallenberger, you can see how important impetus from the world of culture can be for the world of politics, also for foreign policy.

Thank you very much.

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