History, Department of
Date of this Version
Ethnic and Racial Studies Volume 6 Number 1 January 1983
The anti-German riots in Brazil in 1917 are better understood within a larger context of ethnic history: the behavior of the dominant Luso-Brazilians (persons of Portuguese language and culture) and the minority TeutoBrazilians (as the Germans were often called) may be best interpreted if examined historically in terms of ethnic group relations, perceptions, and images.
Because of the accidents of time and place, the Germans in Brazil had been allowed to develop their own society without much interference. By the 1880s, the last years of the Brazilian Empire, they had become a society within a society - a large, diverse, and structured community with its own values, attitudes, language, and folkways. In general, they were well received, respected, and valued for the contributions they were making to Brazilian culture.
The Luso-Brazilian majority acquired a distorted image of the Teuto-Brazilians. Some elements of the composite picture were correct, others were out of proportion, and a few, one might suppose, were simply wrong. For decades in the nineteenth century, the Luso-Brazilian majority had ignored the question of German assimilation, probably because it had not seemed Important enough to demand action. Then, when the failure of the Germans to assimilate began to be perceived as a problem, some Brazilians tended to overreact and to press for extreme or far-reaching measures that would enforce greater conformity. When national rivalries exploded into world war their sympathies were strongly with the Allies and Luso-Brazilian tolerance for the loyalty Teuto-Braziliansnaturally felt for Germany was correspondingly reduced. Influential political and cultural leaders then attacked Brazil's German ethnic group as a menace to national security and recklessly charged them with a full range of subversive activity. The subsequent anti-German riots of 1917 were thus the natural children born of intergroup tensions in conjunction with events of world history.