The English translation of the title of this book, “Unlimited Markets? German—Latin American Trade Relations from the Age of Imperialism to the Great Depression,” well describes the expectations of German investors in Latin America. This edited volume provides an overview of the most recent scholarship on the “golden age” of German investments in Latin America. Two key interpretive threads run through an otherwise diverse collection of articles. First, Germans regarded Latin America as one of their most important future markets and planned accordingly. Second, those Germans who invested in Latin America soon learned of the relative irrelevance of national boundaries far from home, as they quickly came to cooperate with fellow capitalists from other industrializing countries or from the Latin American host societies themselves. Therefore, most German trading houses became multinational in character during the late nineteenth century, which produced an interesting contrast to the increasingly shrill nationalism that poisoned the atmosphere among the European nation-states.
Surprisingly, Grenzenlose Märkte? begins with a comparative dimension: Rory Miller’s sketch of British investments in Latin America. Next, Boris Barth analyzes the role of German banks in the age of imperialism, and Thomas Fischer discusses the export and import trade of German companies in Colombia. Jan Suter’s essay argues that in El Salvador foreign investment (in which German activity played an important, if dwindling role) constituted an informal empire over a “peripheral export economy.” After Frank Ibold’s excursion into the German-controlled Quebracho industry in the Chacó region of northwestern Argentina, Stefan Karlen (in the only English-language contribution) investigates the influential German “colony” in Guatemala. In the last case study of the book, Stefan Rinke explores the trail of the famous Junkers airplane—an airplane so popular in Latin America that it helped Germans obtain a controlling interest in several South American airlines during the 1920s and 1930s. Finally, Jochen Meissner concludes with perhaps the most significant essay in the volume: an examination of the significance of World War I in the history of German investments in Latin America. Meissner challenges the traditional view that the war led to a great crisis in Germany’s Latin American trade. He convincingly argues that most German companies fared relatively well, except during the 19-month period when the United States was a belligerent. Deprived of the transnational trade network that had aided them before the war, Germans did lose a great number of commercial opportunities to United States and British competitors (pp. 202-3).
Taking stock of recent German scholarship, this collection constitutes an important addition to the historiography of foreign investments in Latin America. The strongest chapters in the book—by Barth, Meissner, Miller, and Rinke—are those with the most general appeal. Like many other anthologies, however, this one is eclectic. While the other contributions display sound research and (with the exception of Karlen) graceful presentation, the book features two articles on Central America but none on Brazil or Mexico. In addition, the editors did not include an article that would have addressed the relationship between German investment and immigration—an issue that would have required an analysis of the large German communities in Chile, Buenos Aires, or southern Brazil. As a further minor flaw, the volume lacks a bibliography and a table of abbreviations needed to solve the shorthand for journals and archives in the footnotes.
This book raises an important question for further research: can one even speak of German as opposed to foreign investments in Latin America? To the extent that foreign investments in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were multinational in character, a research agenda focusing on Germans, U.S.-Americans, French, or Britons constitutes a nationalist construction alien to the historical reality of the time. It is in this issue, however, that World War I may have made the biggest difference. At least in large Latin American cities, the conflict fractured cosmopolitan merchant communities along national lines and ultimately signaled the demise of European influence in Latin America.