- Latin America and the First World War by Stefan Rinke
In Latin America and the First World War, Stefan Rinke asks how Latin Americans understood the role of the Great War in their identity and history. He finds that, despite hailing from different socioeconomic backgrounds or countries with discrete levels of involvement in the conflict, they largely saw it “as a critical turning point in their own life world” (10). In so doing, Rinke adds an original argument to a topic that he otherwise surveys admirably in this sweeping analysis.
Most of the book, progressing chronologically, is concerned with the elements that historians have long studied, namely the diplomatic and military involvement of Latin America in the war and its economic impact on the region. It details the diplomatic wrangling between Europe, the United States, and the various governments of Latin America that broke relations with the Triple Alliance, declared war, remained neutral, and/or sent troops (including some from the West Indies), and the all-important timing of these decisions, making the case throughout that the war gave Latin Americans an early foray into global diplomacy. The economic impact on the region was more dramatic still, and Rinke counters the impression that a spike in demand for foodstuffs and materials proved uniformly good for business. Yes, some exporters benefited, but the war’s blockades also halted much trade, and the demand for cotton came at the expense of foodstuffs. Food prices shot up, budgets dove deeply into the red, and most countries suffered joblessness and worker discontent. The overall impact was to demonstrate Latin America’s overwhelming dependence on world markets and delegitimize the reigning ideology of economic liberalism.
The main contribution of the book, in its last two chapters, is its argument about Latin Americans’ perception of their changing place in the global scheme of things. From the first stirrings of war talk in Europe and the pervasiveness of German U-boat warfare in the Caribbean and the Atlantic, urban Latin Americans (there is little sense that rural populations were even aware of these events) were deeply worried that their beloved models of modernity—London and especially Paris—were under threat. (The disenchantment with Spain had already occurred.) As the catastrophe dramatically worsened, observers from the region saw their careful distinction between civilization and barbarity collapse and identified less and less with a Europe whose humanity seemed to have lost its moral compass. The most affected countries seemed to be those with the greatest recent waves of immigration from Europe—producing a fair number of neutralistas—mainly Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Many filled the void with their own newly reimagined roles as global diplomats and merchants, while others turned inward, toward economic protectionism, strong states, left- and right-wing nationalism, regionalism, transnational organization, alternative identities [End Page 495] based on indigenous or African origins, and radical critiques of capitalism. “Countless observers agreed,” Rinke concludes, “that the future of civilization now lay in the Americas” (222).
The book’s sources vary, from the archives of 12 countries to fascinating cartoons and magazine covers. Since much of the book is concerned with discourse analysis, the most useful sources are the newspapers, magazines, and books of the era, in which the Germans and the Triple Entente fought their propaganda war. While the writing is clear, some readers might find it dry and analytical, shorn as it is of interesting characters or dialogue.
Rinke’s achievement is a fine addition to the individual country studies and the monographs on diplomatic or economic affairs that have so far dominated the topic. It should stand for years as the single best overall interpretation of the First World War’s impact on Latin America. In a compact format, it incorporates German plotting, US interventions, wireless telegraphy, labor strife, Versailles diplomacy, and much more, in a framework that still leaves room for a convincing argument about how a supposed faraway war can change a region’s identity.