The alien world: searching for ‘living space’

August 1990

The bus drops us off in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, carrying on along the roughly paved road and leaving us amongst what seems to be endless grasslands punctuated by scrubby trees. A heavily rutted dirt road stretches out ahead of us, a road that the bus driver had assured us would lead to the small town of Hugo Stroessner, named after the father of Alfredo Stroessner, the dictator who had ruled over Paraguay for 45 years and who had been deposed just the year before. Before that it was identified on maps as Nueva Londres, but the town we are looking for was originally called Nueva Australia and it isn’t easy to find.

The local bus service, 1990. Photo by the author.

August 1896

A school teacher sits in a rudimentary hut writing a letter to a friend back in Australia. Her name is Mary Cameron and she is writing to Henry Lawson, who had just published his short story collection While the Billy Boils and is starting to make a name for himself as Australia’s finest writer. She is flushed with excitement to finally find herself in Paraguay, following in the footsteps of William Lane, the founder of the New Australia colony that she had worked so hard to promote. She wasn’t able to sail out on the Royal Tar with the other founders in 1893, and in the meantime the colony has broken up in discord, with Lane and his loyal supporters creating a second colony not far away known as La Colonia Cosme.

Portrait of Dame Mary Gilmore by Adelaide Perry (1928). Source.

March 1888

Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche sits under a beautifully shady tree in the grounds of her new mansion, Försterhof, in the colony of Nueva Germania, located in the harsh Chaco region to the north of Paraguay’s capital, Asuncion. The wives of other colonists are gathered with her, drinking coffee, and don’t seem in the least bit resentful that so much effort has been expended over the last year in building this residence while the rest of them continue to live in hovels. Herr Enzweiler is giving a laudatory speech that hails her as the ‘Mother of the Colony’ before everyone sings ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’ as they go into the house.

Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche by Edvard Munch. Source.

The desire for living space

The concept of Lebensraum (which can be translated as ‘living space’) first emerged in the 19th century but is most closely associated with the Third Reich and Hitler’s expansionist moves through Europe which were explicitly tied to the supposed racial superiority of Aryan Germans. Overpopulated Germany supposedly needed more living space and that would come at the expense of their neighbours deemed to be of inferior stock. The Fascist regime in Italy came up with the similar concept of spazio vitale to justify their own colonial expansion.

Why Paraguay?

Okay: utopia, living space. Fine. Of course it needs to be found somewhere, but why did Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche’s German fascist utopia and Mary Gilmore’s Australian socialist utopia both end up locating themselves in Paraguay and within a few years of each other? The answer is connected with another fascinating woman, an Irishwoman called Eliza Lynch.

Eliza Lynch, long time companion of Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano López, c.1864. Source.

August 1990 and after

When the three of us made it down the dirt road to the settlement there wasn’t an awful lot to see: a scattering of houses, a collection of goats and chickens, some stands of Ilex paraguariensis, which is harvested to produce mate (usually consumed cold in Paraguay, from a vessel through a metal straw which is passed from person to person as they sit around and chat about nothing in particular), and a small church. At the church we found an Irish priest who was happy to chat to us about the area and he directed us towards the house of an old man who, as far as he knew, was the few surviving descendants of the original Australian settlers who still lived in the town.

The Paraguayan countryside, 1990. Photo by the author.

October 1899 and after

Mary Cameron did get married after all, and within a year of her letter to Henry Lawson. She hitched herself to a shearer from Victoria, William Gilmore, and in 1898 she gave birth to their son Billy. Her initial enthusiasm for Paraguay didn’t last and she and her family resigned from the colony in August 1899. They needed money to get a passage back to Australia so William went shearing in Argentina to try to raise funds, leaving Mary and Billy behind in Cosme. She wrote to him in October 1899:

Mary Gilmore on the Australian ten dollar note. Source.

May 1889 and after

Everything had fallen apart in Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche’s life by 1889. Her brother had suffered a mental breakdown in Turin after witnessing the beating of a horse in the street. He would never regain his sanity. Back in Paraguay her husband was crippled by debt from the Colony and, increasingly consumed by despair, had been on a six week bender in the town of San Bernadino before poisoning himself, a suicide which Elisabeth covered up. Even as she made her plans to return to Germany she was trying to save the reputation of Nueva Germania and her husband and she published an account in 1891 that tried to paint the movement as a success in an effort to attract more colonists. Unlike Mary Gilmore she wasn’t prepared to accept the failure of something she had believed in and tried to insist that all was well, writing that, ‘The climate of Paraguay is like paradise to me, and on this visit to Germany I view the weather here with a shake of my head,’ among many other manifest untruths. She returned to the Colony in 1892 but it was steadily falling apart. One of the colonists summed up the situation:

Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche handshake with Adolf Hitler. At far right probably Martin Heidegger. Source.

The king of infinite space

I’m writing this in lockdown in Melbourne and my living space has been greatly constrained. I can leave my house for no more than a few hours each day for exercise or for buying essential goods. I can travel no further than 5km from my house in order to do those things. I must teach my classes from home. Even when we haven’t been in lockdown over the past two years (and Melbourne recently clocked up 200 days of lockdowns) I haven’t been able to follow in the footsteps of Mary Gilmore and set out for parts unknown as the border has been closed (apart from some brief windows of time when it was possible to travel to New Zealand, windows that are shut once more).

With my Paraguyan host family in 1990.

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Blair Mahoney

Blair Mahoney

Teacher of Literature and Philosophy, prolific reader and sometime writer