Benjamin Bryce. To Belong in Buenos Aires: Germans, Argentines, and the Rise of a Pluralist Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018. 248 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5036-0153-6.
Reviewed by Gene Cassidy (Miss Porter's School)
Published on H-TGS (September, 2019)
Commissioned by Alison C. Efford (Marquette University)
Benjamin Bryce’s To Belong in Buenos Aires is a detailed, well-researched, and cogent study of the experience and activities of German-speaking immigrants in the Argentine capital in the late nineteenth and opening decades of the twentieth centuries. Bryce focuses on the work of social welfare organizations, schools, and religious groups to demonstrate how Germanophone immigrants imagined and asserted their place in Argentine society. His book is an important read to those interested in Germans in Argentina, the integration of immigrants more generally in Argentine society during the period, and the relationship of that integration to Argentine government policy. While Bryce also examines transatlantic connections between German religious and educational groups in Argentina and Germany, this book is ultimately a study of the local Argentine setting, which is both a strength and weakness.
Bryce’s core argument is that concern for future generations compelled German immigrants in Buenos Aires to push for a pluralist society, asserting that it was “possible to be both ethnic and Argentine” (p. 1). He contrasts this position with that of the Argentine governing elite, which promoted a linguistic and culturally homogenous vision of nation, wherein the Spanish language and Hispanic culture would unify the disparate groups of European immigrants arriving by the millions to the country. Using this central contention as his foundation, Bryce explores assorted German immigrant organizations, challenging the commonly held idea that such groups sought to isolate the Germanophone community. Instead, he demonstrates that integration in their new homeland was at the core of these groups’ activities.
For example, he finds that social welfare organizations created by wealthy German speakers helped assert a patriarchal vision of society, wherein men served as breadwinners and women, through constructions of their alleged “respectability” (sexual morality), encapsulated the overall morality of the German immigrant community. In doing so, the leaders of these organizations connected masculine health and female virtue with the strength of the country, thereby asserting the place of the German immigrant community in the Argentine national narrative. Bryce argues too that bilingual schools (he takes pains to show how “German-language schools” is a misnomer, since instruction was at times in German and at others in Spanish, while Argentine history and civics were central subjects) also served to champion a model of citizen that celebrated cosmopolitanism while emphasizing the centrality of loyalty to Argentina and its future. He supplements our understanding of such immigrant organizations in the country by placing them in the context of a liberal, laissez-faire Argentine government, thereby revealing how the very policies of the Argentine state allowed and even supported the actions of these groups that worked to reshape understandings of citizenship in the country.
However, while Bryce’s work reveals much about realities of German-speaking immigrant organizations in the Argentine capital, as well as examines connections between such local organizations and Germany, there are some issues that make this book less satisfying than it could have been. For example, since Bryce focuses on the issues of citizenship and belonging in Argentina, examining all of the activity of the groups he researched in this light, he does not do enough to assess what Germanness meant both to the non-German Argentine elite and to the immigrants themselves. Concerning the non-German Argentine view, were the Germans simply another group of immigrants, or was there something unique to the Germans in the eyes of the Argentine government, as there had been among the Brazilian elite? Concerning the immigrants, what did being of German descent mean to them in terms of how they perceived their difference or sameness in relation to other groups? In light of the fundamental connection between nationalism in Germany and the German language, it seems possible, if not likely, that there were at least undercurrents within the immigrant community that perceived Germanness as something more than just heritage, but Bryce’s work does not explore this topic outside of the connection Lutheran organizations asserted between their denomination and German identity. Put simply, did either non-German Argentines or German immigrants in the capital associate “national traits” (cultural, moral, etc.) with Germanness? These are important questions Bryce’s generally insightful study does not address.
Beyond the issue of the discursive meaning of Germanness to the groups Bryce studied, the scope of the work is also a bit unsatisfying. Bryce only touches in a few instances on the German immigrant community outside of Buenos Aires, while he does even less to connect his findings with or put his study in the context of the growing field of work regarding Germans in other parts of Latin America. The lack of reference to Brazil, acknowledged by many as holding a special place in the European-German nationalist imaginary, is somewhat difficult to understand.
Of course, Bryce’s work is intended to be neither a study of transnational Germanness nor an examination of German immigrants anywhere besides Buenos Aires, and his contributions to the study of immigrants in Argentina and especially Germans in that country are undeniable. His work will be important to any scholar of immigration to Argentina, those interested in the development of the modern Argentine state, and those researching Germans in Latin America looking for a detailed study of the case of Buenos Aires.
. For example, see Miguel Calmon du Pin e Almeida Abrantes, Memoria sobre meios de promover a colonisação (Berlin: Typographia de Unger Irmãos, 1846), 1–2.
. For example, see Sebastian Conrad, Globalisation and the Nation in Imperial Germany, trans. Sorcha O’Hagan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 275–333.
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Gene Cassidy. Review of Bryce, Benjamin, To Belong in Buenos Aires: Germans, Argentines, and the Rise of a Pluralist Society.
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