SANTIAGO – Two months before the 1938 presidential election, a group of Chilean Nazis attempted to overthrow the government. After brief clashes with the armed forces, most coup plotters were massacred. The events of that day swung the election to the only candidate who was not linked to the event, resulting in an unlikely victory.
The 1938 presidential election in Chile took place amidst the rising tide of fascism. Inspired by this ideology, dozens of young Nazis triggered a coup attempt in support of Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, who had returned from exile and ran for president against the conservative Gustavo Ross and the progressive Pedro Aguirre Cerda.
Then-President Arturo Alessandri had been in power since 1933 and achieved a remarkable degree of social stability since his previous administration was ended by a military coup in 1924. Alessandri achieved this stability by being cautious and ruthless in equal measure.
On Sep. 5, two months before the election, Nazi supporters of Ibáñez del Campo made a move, but Alessandri got wind of the attempt and sent armed forces, who massacred the insurgents even though they had surrendered. The massacre helped swing the election in favor of Pedro Aguirre Cerda who had nothing to do with the event.
The 1938 Elections
Chile had just recovered from years of upheaval that started in 1924 when Ibáñez del Campo putsched against Alessandri. Ibáñez del Campo was thrown out by a popular uprising in 1932 after the stock market crash shattered Chile’s economy. In the wake of the uprising, socialists established the Chilean Socialist Republic, but the experiment failed within months.
When Alessandri was reelected in 1933, he had learned his lesson. He established a republican militia which helped purge the armed forces of insurrectionists. Alessandri succeeded in rebuilding the economy together with his Finance Minister, Gustavo Ross. Due to that success, Ross also ran for president, for the Liberal Party with support from various conservative parties.
Ibáñez del Campo, however, went into exile until 1937, returning to run for president. Emboldened by the rise of fascism in Europe, he created the Popular Liberation Alliance (APL), a coalition that included the National Socialist Movement of Chile, referred to as Naci due to its close ties with the German Nazi party.
The third presidential candidate was Pedro Aguirre Cerda of the Radical Party. He received support from the Popular Front, a leftist coalition opposed to Alessandri’s government.
During the campaign, Ross consistently polled the highest, followed by Ibáñez del Campo, and Aguirre Cerda last.
The Chilean Nazis and Their Coup
The Naci party was worried that Alessandri would commit election fraud to ensure Ross’ victory, so its members planned to take over strategic positions and force Alessandri to step down. Their targets were the Workers’ Insurance building, in front of the presidential palace; the Universidad de Chile campus; and Hucke radio station, from where they would transmit a general call to arms. At the same time, small groups would sabotage Santiago’s water and electricity supply.
The Nacis, unaware of Alessandri’s purge, believed that the armed forces were still loyal to Ibáñez del Campo and would join the coup.
On Sep. 5, a group of 32 Nacis marched into the Workers’ Insurance building – where today the Justice Ministry is housed – and set up barricades on the top floors. A nearby Carabinero was informed of the disturbance but thought the group were simple criminals. When he confronted the putschists, they gunned him down. At Universidad de Chile, another 32 Nacis stormed the building and forced everyone to flee, except the rector who was taken hostage.
The other Chilean Nazis were not as successful. Conquering Hucke Radio station failed because the operator shut it down. And the group in charge of cutting water and electricity supply failed too.
At 12:25 pm, Alessandri met with the governor in the presidential palace as Carabineros surrounded the Workers’ Insurance building. The putschists, meanwhile, entrenched themselves further, counting on the military to come to their aid.
Historical research established that at 1 pm Alessandri left the presidential palace and ordered the Carabineros to storm the building and eliminate the putschists, hoping the affair would be over before 4 pm. As the Carabineros stormed the building, the military arrived at Universidad de Chile, devastating the entrance with a single cannon shot and surprising the surviving putschists, who surrendered immediately.
The military brought the Chilean Nazis to the Workers’ Insurance building, where they were greeted with cheers from the other coup plotters – until they realized their comrades were prisoners. The Carabineros used the prisoners to force the others to surrender, as the colonel in charge received orders to execute the insurgents.
At 5:30 pm, Carabineros carried out the order and killed 64 Nacis on different floors. Afterwards, they placed the bodies so that it appeared they had died during combat.
The Unlikely Winner
The next day congress created an investigatory committee to find out what happened. The results changed the public’s perception of Alessandri and Ross.
Meanwhile, the masterminds behind the coup turned themselves in along with Ibáñez del Campo. Three days before the election, the supreme court dictated sentences but absolved Ibáñez. However, Ibáñez withdrew from the race and went back into exile. The APL then threw its support behind Aguirre Cerda.
The left winger beat Ross by only 4,111 votes, making it a far tighter race than the controversial 1970 election, when Salvador Allende beat Arturo Alessandri’s son, Jorge, by 39,338 votes.
President Aguirre Cerda pardoned the coup masterminds and pushed those that carried out the massacre into retirement. Meanwhile, in congress a constitutional accusation was brought against Arturo Alessandri, but never materialized. Investigators could prove that an execution order existed, but they failed to trace it through the chain of command to Alessandri.
Diego Rivera is currently a senior in University, finishing up his audiovisual degree. You can find him on Twitter as @Piover45.