- La matanza del Seguro Obrero (5 de septiembre de 1938)
The "Matanza del Seguro Obrero" is a staple element in any account of the election of President Pedro Aguirre Cerda, the first of Chile's three Popular Front presidents. [End Page 134] Before the matanza, the right-wing candidate, Gustavo Ross, had been favored in a three-way race, but then the Chilean Nazi party staged an abortive coup in order to place the third-place candidate, former dictator Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, back into the presidency. The coup misfired, the rebels were massacred, and in retaliation for the massacre the Nazis threw their support to Aguirre Cerda, helping him to a narrow victory of 4,000 votes out of more than 440,000 cast. The matanza thus represents a pivotal event that shaped the course of Chilean politics and, arguably, the wider history of the Latin American left. Nevertheless, the matanza itself is rarely the subject of direct analysis and most descriptions of it are thin on detail. This book by Marcus Klein shows that a close review of the event and its context can provide a penetrating insight into the political history of the period.
The book begins with a brief narrative of the events of September 5, 1938, including an overview of the Nazi plot and the reasons it failed. From there, Klein goes back in time to explain the origins of the plot. He gives a short history of the Chilean Nazi Party (the MNS) from 1932 to 1938 and the party's relationship to the government of Arturo Alessandri. He then describes the field of candidates competing to replace Alessandri in the 1938 election. This overview makes clear that the MNS sought an undemocratic route to power because of their bleak electoral prospects. The subsequent chapters analyze the key decisions made by both the plotters behind the coup and the government officials who blocked it. A final chapter traces the aftermath of the coup in the early Popular Front period and recent attempts to use the massacre to justify Nazi authoritarianism.
The book corrects many misconceptions about the matanza. Historical references to the affair often leave the impression that the actual course of events remains unknown and responsibilities unclear. Klein's account reveals that many of the details were actually quite well documented at the time both in newspaper coverage and congressional investigations. In addition, later revelations and memoirs have largely confirmed initial impressions. Thus, Klein is convincing in his conclusion that Arturo Alessandri must have given the order by which Nazi prisoners were taken from the University of Chile to the Seguro Obrero building where they were shot. Klein is also convincing in his conclusion that President Aguirre Cerda pardoned those officials subsequently convicted for participation in the matanza because he had promised such a pardon in order to end right-wing protests over the outcome of the 1938 election.
Indeed, the larger contribution of this book is to our understanding of Chilean political life in the middle decades of the twentieth century. In particular, this book lays bare the weakness of Chilean democracy in the decade that followed the Ibáñez dictatorship. It is striking, for example, that the Nazis were surprised in September 1938 that the military did not intervene in support of their rebellion just as parties of the mainstream right were surprised a month later when the military did not intervene to block the election of the Popular Front candidate for president. As late as 1938, then, important political actors were not really convinced that the new democratic rules of the game were there to be obeyed. Thus, Klein's work casts doubt on interpretations of [End Page 135] Chilean history that place undue emphasis on the country's political stability and commitment to democratic forms.