If you were looking for a prisoner of war camp, would your first port of call be the Ritz? The Savoy? Claridge’s? Unlikely.
Well in Argentina in 1939, the government in Buenos Aires took the remarkable decision to detain German sailors in a hotel once described as “the most luxurious hotel complex in South America”.
During the opening salvo of World War II, German and British naval vessels slugged it out in the South Atlantic at the Battle of the River Plate.
It was the first sea battle of the war and marked a first major victory for the Allies. Following the British victory, the fate of the German seafarers was scarcely believable.
The German vessel that fought in the battle – Admiral Graf Spee – was intentionally sunk on the orders of its Captain after it had dropped anchor in Montevideo, as the Captain falsely believed the British had scrambled a far superior naval force to apprehend it and that defeat was guaranteed.
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Hitler was furious and following the decision to sink his own ship to prevent unnecessary loss of life, Captain Langsdorff killed himself. Had he decided not to take his own life, however, he may well have enjoyed the luxury that fell upon some of his men.
After the Admiral Graf Spee was sunk, 1,000 German sailors were detained in Argentina. Most were kept in the capital Buenos Aires, however some were interned in a hotel – Club Hotel de la Ventana – at one time dubbed the “marvel of the century” by the Argentine president Julio Argentino Roca.
When it opened its doors in 1911, the hotel constituted a shining example of Argentine economic progress and modernity.
According to local tour guide Pablo Parotti, the hotel was considered worthy of comparison to the lavish interior of The Titanic.
He told Argentinian news outlet Perfil: “The sumptuousness of the hotel is on a par with the Titanic. In fact, they are contemporary.
“Everything you saw in that film is perfectly applicable to the hotel’s décor. It had rattan furniture brought from India, Persian carpets, carrara marble floors, Italian tiles, silverware, cold storage and even electric lights.”
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It’s worth noting that by the time the Germans arrived the hotel had fallen into disrepair. Its remote location and the economic depression caused by the war in Europe in 1914 saw its footfall dry up and it became badly dilapidated. Still, it was certainly better than prison.
In 1939, upon the arrival of the Germans, Club Hotel de la Ventana got a new lease of life. Despite officially being detained, the Nazi occupants of the hotel, with little else to do, set about bringing it back to former glory.
Parotti explained: “Although they arrived at the hotel as detainees, these crew members gave a new life to the entire complex.”
In the two years that the Germans were interned at the hotel, they revelled in their new surroundings and even performed music concerts for the local residents of the area.
One of the sailors who stayed on in Argentina after his detention, Roldolfo Stefanowski, said of his internment at Club Hotel de la Ventana: “The German government wanted to keep us together so that eventually we would fight again.
“Our first officer managed, through influence, to have us transferred to Sierra de la Ventana. (…) We weren’t exactly prisoners. We had a lot of freedom.”
The German admitted that their captors had more interest in keeping their own men in check than their foreign detainees: “Our custodians seemed more concerned with keeping an eye on their comrades than on us.
“The Club Hotel had to be improved because it was in a state of semi-abandonment. We began to repair the deteriorated facilities.
“We fixed the water intake, the power plant, and dedicated ourselves to the conservation of the gardens. Most of us had studied a trade, so that made the task easier.”
After the Germans left, the site was used by a school and then university students, before plans were drawn up to turn the ailing building into a casino.
However, on July 8, 1983, a devastating fire ripped through the structure leaving it in ruins that are still waiting to be remedied.
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