Julie Gibbings on affective politics and Guatemala’s 1944 revolution

Although our seminar series mostly plays host to visiting speakers, we do sometimes give a platform to our own colleagues. Last week, we were lucky to hear a talk by Julie Gibbings (Edinburgh), our newly appointed historian of the indigenous Americas. She told us more about her fascinating work on the Guatemalan Revolution of 1944. Marina Moya Moreno was in the audience and sends this report. You can also listen again to Julie’s talk via the Audiomack link or on the CSMCH podcast. 

Julie started her talk with a contextualization of the 1944 Guatemalan Revolution that inaugurated the so-called ‘Ten Years of Spring’ before being brutally terminated in 1954 by a CIA-supported coup. She also explained how the idea of the 1944 revolution is still present in Guatemala. Even if it does not carry the same meaning as it did seventy years ago, it has become a symbol of justice and democracy. As she showed in her slides, these links to the revolution are still visible in demonstrations and public commemorations.

Julie introducing the complex dynamics at play in the Guatemalan Revolution

Following this introduction, Julie argued for the need to reconceptualise the Guatemalan revolution after the end of the civil war in 1996. Traditionally, the revolution has been framed by the dynamics and geopolitics of the Cold War. This analysis, however, leaves out the key point of land ownership, one of the main focuses of her research, which seems to be absent in most of the literature.

In her talk, Julie identified different elements playing an important role in the reappraisal of the Guatemalan revolution and adding layers of complexity to the process, like a sense of historic justice over dispossessed lands from Guatemalans, the national claims over expropriated lands in the 1950s from German and German Guatemalans. Finally, she made reference to the role of intimate politics and the intricacy of family relationships, loyalties and rumours, and how these can help us understand the meaning of revolution for Guatemalans at that time.

In Guatemala, similar to what happened in other places within Latin America, a populist dictator had come to power after the depression on the eve of the Second World War, and had found support from fascist groups in the process. Interracial relationships and marriages were common in Guatemala and praised by the state, as German Guatemalans were considered la raza mejorada (the improved race).

Even though such policies were marginalised after the US declared war on Germany (and with it, most of Central America), the racial tensions and complexities did not disappear from society. Social and personal dynamics in plantations demonstrated the result of these cultural understandings. For instance, some employers would pay German workers extra for impregnating Guatemalans, this being a practice that was considered to ‘improve the race’. Even within families or closed communities, racial differences carried a strong symbolic meaning in terms of social status.

Julie used the personal story of Hugo Droege to walk the audience through these tensions within Guatemalan society in the middle decades of the twentieth century. After the First World War, a number of German citizens found in Guatemala a new land of opportunity. Hugo Droege was one of them. He migrated to Guatemala, where he ran the plantation of San Vicente and married Dorotea Winter Tot, who herself was mixed race.

In 1936, following a common practice at the time, he left Guatemala and his family to find a German wife back in Europe. He returned to Guatemala with his new wife, with whom he started a new family, and displaced Dorotea to a small house in a different plantation. The story of Hugo Droege was not a particularly unique one, but it interacted in important ways with a broader historical context.

As Julie made clear, the international situation played a significant role in Guatemalan politics, especially when the country declared war on Germany. The government published lists of German businesses and assets, and established constitutional limits and guarantees for Germans appearing on that list. This increased existing tensions, not only for Germans, who could face expropriation and deportation, but also, and especially for, mixed races families. Shortly after, the state nationalised German properties across twelve departments in Guatemala, which was justified as a public need.

This gave rise to significant expectations within certain parts of society, but also to a deeper social and political rupture. As World War Two drew to a close, university professors and students, as well as the middle classes more generally, used the language of antifascism as a way to articulate their protests against the government. This ultimately led to the 1944 revolution. However, the advent of a new regime could not immediately solve the complex picture of competing nationalisms, intimate politics and racial tensions that were deeply embedded in Guatemalan society.

In the last part of her talk, Julie emphasised the importance of plantation politics through two key aspects: inheritance politics and plantations as political entities. The Decree 900, a land reform law passed in 1952, was meant to redistribute unused lands of great size to local peasants. This was again a source of tension particularly for mixed race families, with descendants of Germans claiming the right to the property of their parents.

Not only were familial politics at play in land reform, but also the politics of inheritance and social status. For instance, when it was clear that Hugo would not be able to recover his plantation, he took a job as an administrator at a different one, and ended up being sold a part of it for a knockdown price, as the owner preferred that situation than the land being given to a peasant.

At the same time, Julie emphasised the role of plantations as important hotbeds of labour activism, which were affected by racial tensions, family disputes and cultural differences. At times, plantations were used as political entities, with employers coercing their workers against voting, or forcing them to vote in their own interest.

Julie concluded her talk by reflecting on two dichotomous narratives that have prevailed in Guatemalan imagery about the revolution: the first blaming Guatemala for the abandonment of their loyal German immigrants, driving the country towards modernity, and the second still regarding the revolution as a period of hope and social justice, still invoked in the present. These two narratives remain unresolved, especially given the collapse of the country into a genocidal civil war after 1954.

Julia comments on Julie’s paper

Julie’s talk was followed by a comment by Julia McClure (Glasgow), who reflected on the intersections of gender, race and status in this process, and how they conditioned the politics of reproduction and the politics of land reproduction in the Guatemalan revolution.

Marina Moya Moreno is a PhD student in History, working on the analysis of representations and memorialisation of the Spanish transition. Her research focuses on analysing the changes in the definitions of different narratives and portrayals of this period found within Spanish society. She is a CSMCH steering committee member.