Argentina History

The Exterminating Angel: Avenging the Dead of Patagonia

Source: Osvaldo Bayer, La Patagonia Rebelde. Txalaparta, Tafalla, 2009;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2013.

Between 1920-1922 a massive wave of strikes swept the desolate Patagonia region of Argentina. The conditions were harsh in the region, and so was the class struggle, and in 1921 the workers took up arms. The strikes reached the apex of their violence in late 1921, with workers taking rich landlords hostage and even executing some. By the time the fight ended in early 1922, 1500 rural workers had been killed in battles and mass executions by the Argentine army under the leadership of Colonel Hector Varela. Argentina, like many other countries, had its anarchist fighters who knew how to mete out justice, men like Severino Di Gionvanni and Simon Radowitzky. And Kurt Wilckens.

Even at that early hour at 5:30 on January 27, 1923, it was clear it was going to be a hot day in Buenos Aires. The blond man got on the tram at Entre Rios and Constitucion and got a worker’s ticket. He rode to the Portones station in Palermo at the Plaza Italia. He picked up a package that perhaps contained his lunch, or maybe his work tools. He looked calm. A few blocks after getting on he started reading the copy of the Deutsche La Plata Zeitung that he'd been carrying under his arm.

He got off at Plaza Italia and headed west on Calle Santa Fe towards Pacifico Station. Once he'd gone past that he stopped on the corner of Calle Fitz Roy, across from a pharmacy.

It was 7:15. The sun was already beating down. There was much movement: people, carts, autos and transport vehicles. In front of him were the barracks of the First and Second Infantry troops. But the blond man didn’t look in that direction: his eyes were glued on the door of 2461 Fitz Roy.

Was today the day? It seemed not. No one came out of the building. The minutes passed. Had he gone out earlier? Did he have suspicions?

No, there he is. An officer exited the building. It was 7:55. But again there was something: he was holding the hand of a little girl. The blond man made an imperceptible gesture of anger. Now the soldier stopped and spoke to the child. She told him that she didn’t feel well. The officer quickly took her in his arms and took her back into the house.

Just a few seconds passed and now, yes, the soldier came out alone. He was wearing his day uniform with his saber attached to his belt. He walked to Calle Santa Fe on the same side of the street as the blond man. His determined character could be seen in his walk. And he was on his way to meet death on a beautiful though somewhat hot morning.

This was the famous Lieutenant Colonel Varela, better known as “Comandante Varela,” the man the workers most hated and despised. They called him “The Executioner of Patagonia.” “The Bloodthirsty.” They accused him of having executed 1500 defenseless peasant in the south. He had made them dig graves, undress, and then executed them. He ordered that the workers’ leaders be beaten and stabbed before giving the order to shoot them each four times.

This is the legendary Comandante Varela? This was who the blond man was waiting for?

This blond man was related to none of the executed, nor did he know Patagonia, nor had he received even five cents to kill him. His name was Kurt Gustav Wilckens. He was a German Tolstoyan anarchist, an enemy of violence. But one who believed that in extreme cases, in the face of the violence from on high the sole response must be violence. And he would carry out what he believed was the act of individual righteousness.

When Wilckens saw Varela approach he didn’t hesitate. He walked towards him and stood in the entrance way to 2493 Fitz Roy and waited there. He heard the sound of the soldier’s footsteps and stepped from the entrance to confront him. But things weren’t going to be that easy. At that very moment a little girl crossed the street and stood three steps in front of Varela, walking in the same direction as he.

Wilckens had no time. The appearance of the little girl threw off his plans. But he made a decision. He took the child by one arm and told her to rush across the street: “Run, a car is coming!”

The girl didn’t understand, grew frightened, hesitated. Varela observed the strange scene and slowed his steps. Wilckens, instead of throwing the bomb, advanced towards him, as if protecting the child with his back, and she now finally ran away. Wilckens stopped in front of Varela and tossed the bomb on the ground between himself and the officer. It was a percussion or hand bomb of great power. The splinters struck the surprised Varela in the feet, but also struck Wilckens who, when the pain hit him, returned to the entranceway and instinctively climbed three or four steps in order to recover, the explosion having been tremendous and had left him stunned. It had all taken just three seconds. Wilckens immediately ran down the stairs, but the anarchist understood that he was lost, that he couldn’t flee, having broken his leg (the fibula, shattered, hurt him horribly, and his other foot was immobilized by a splinter that had destroyed his instep).

Upon exiting the entranceway he encountered Varela, both of whose legs were broken and who, while holding himself up by his left arm against a tree, was trying, with his right hand, to pull his sword from its scabbard. The two enemies were again face to face. Wilckens approached Varela, dragging his feet and pulling out a Colt revolver. Varela issued a shout that was more a death rattle, as if to frighten this unknown man with the deep blue eyes who was about to shot him. The comandante was falling, but he was not one of those who either gives or asks for mercy, and he continued to try to pull his saber from its scabbard, but in vain. He'd almost succeeded in doing so when he received the first bullet in the chest. He had no more strength and began to slowly slide down the tree trunk to the ground, but had enough time and strength to shower insults on the man who was shooting at him. The second bullet split his jugular. Wilckens emptied the entire drum; every shot was mortal. Varela looked like he was screwed to the tree.

The explosion and the shots frightened the women nearby, caused men to flee, and spooked horses.

Lieutenant Colonel Varela was dead. Executed. His attacker was badly wounded. He made a supreme effort to reach Calle Santa Fe. The bystanders began to crowd around and beat him. Sensing the worst, Varela’s wife had gone into the street and saw her husband, dead, finished off in so dramatic a fashion.

In the meanwhile, some neighbors hurried to the fallen man and tried to lift him to carry him to the pharmacy on the corner. Others followed the strange stranger with an air of a Nordic sailor. They looked on warily, since he still held a gun in his right hand. But two policemen rushed to the scene, Adolfo González Díaz and Nicanor Serrano. When they were a few steps from Wilckens they pulled out their guns but didn’t have to do any more, for Wilckens handed them his own revolver. They took his gun and heard him say in poor Spanish: “I have avenged my brothers.”

In response Officer Serrano – Blackie Serrano, as he was known at the 31st Commissariat – punched him in the mouth and kicked him in the testicles. Wilckens’ hat, a typical little German hat, with a broad brim, a crease in the crown, and the bow in the back, had fallen off. He raised himself, his head uncovered and doing a strange dance, like a bird with a broken claw, to keep himself balanced.

This was the first act of revenge for the bloodiest working-class repression of the twentieth century, with the exception of the Videla dictatorship. The first chapter took place far to the south two years earlier in Patagonia, between the cold and the eternal southern winds, with the most widespread rural strikes in the entire history of South America.