On July 2, 1942 a German submarine sunk a United Fruit Co. boat and killed 24 Costa Rican workers. Two days later a riot targeted shops and homes of German-Costa Ricans, which destroyed more than 100 buildings.
In his presentation given to the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto, scholar Carlos Meissner detailed how these two days fit into a difficult era for the German population in the country. His research work, titled “The German minority of Costa Rica and the Second World War,” underscores their persecution during World War II.
Now a scholar of the German Academic Exchange Service at the Universidad de Costa Rica, Meissner himself shares citizenship between here and Germany.
Even before the boat’s sinking or the riots, he said, the bombing of Pearl Harbor led to aggressive measures against the German population in the country. Costa Rica declared war just a day later.
According to Meissner, some German Costa Ricans were ordered under house arrest while another portion was taken into custody. “In San José, others were detained in a camp that had been erected next to where the Municipalidad is today or in the penitentiary, which is now used as the Museo de los Niños,” he said. Nearly 380 were moved to internment camps located in the U.S., while 235 more are thought to have been sent to Berlin via Washington.
Meissner said that most of the anti-German influence in policy making was coming directly from Washington.
“The campaign against German Costa Ricans was initiated by the U.S. Department of State, which effectively dictated its policies to the Costa Rican government,” he said. “However, San José learned to take advantage of the situation for itself as well.”
Often the property and businesses of those uprooted were expropriated to pay for public debts or for Costa Ricans to make private profits. Per outside orders, the Costa Rican government created the Junta de Custodia de la Propiedad to carry out the expropriation, Meissner said. The U.S. said it would refuse any sugar or coffee exports from the country if it did not take over the German businesses in these industries, Meissner said in his presentation.
German-Costa Ricans not only lost an enormous amount of material wealth but also experienced the physical and psychological struggles that come with marginalization, he said.
In all, more than 4,000 Germans living in Latin America were sent to the U.S. for detainment. His research showed that the month after the war concluded there were still 150 German-Costa Ricans detained in U.S. internment camps.
But within Costa Rican borders, Meissner said that after the war’s end, the resentment towards Germans had faded. When José Figueres rose to power after the 1948 civil war, his pro-German sentiment washed away the old guard of political elites who organized the initial persecution. This shifted perception allowed people to look back upon the things done to innocent citizens as clear injustices, he said.
“Surely, the violence of July 4, 1942, when many German Costa Rican shops were looted and homes attacked, marked a low point,” he said. “However, the visible abuses of the Costa Rican government during the conflict allowed for German Costa Ricans to be seen as victims.”