Father’s Nazi past haunts Chilean presidential frontrunner
BERLIN (AP) — The German-born father of Chilean presidential frontrunner José Antonio Kast was a member of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party, according to a recently unearthed document obtained by The Associated Press, revelations that appear at odds with the far-right candidate’s own statements about his father’s military service during World War II.
German officials confirmed this week that an ID card in the country’s Federal Archive shows that an 18-year-old named Michael Kast joined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or NSDAP, on Sept. 1, 1942, at the height of Hitler’s war on the Soviet Union.
While the Federal Archive couldn’t confirm whether Kast was the presidential contender’s father, the date and place of birth listed on the card matches that of Kast’s father, who died in 2014. A copy of the ID card, identified with the membership number 9271831, was previously posted on social media on Dec. 1 by Chilean journalist Mauricio Weibel.
The ID card’s emergence adds a new twist to a highly charged presidential runoff billed on both side as a battle of extremes — between communism and right-wing authoritarianism — and marked by a steady flow of disinformation that has distorted the record and campaign pledges of Kast’s opponent.
Kast, 55, from the newly formed Republican Party, led the first round of Chile’s presidential election last month, two points ahead of leftist lawmaker Gabriel Boric, who he now will face in the Dec. 19 runoff.
A fervent Roman Catholic and father of nine, Kast’s family has deep ties to the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet that came to power following a coup in 1973. His brother, Miguel Kast, served as the dictator’s central bank president.
“If he were alive, he would have voted for me,” Kast said of Pinochet during the 2017 campaign, in which he won just 8% of the vote. “We would have had tea together” in the presidential palace.
On the campaign trail this year, he has emphasized conservative family values, attacked migrants from Haiti and Venezuela he blames for crime and blasted Boric as a puppet of Chile’s communists.
He’s made inroads with middle class voters concerned that Boric — a millennial former student protest leader — would disrupt three decades of economic and political stability that has made Chile the envy of many in Latin America. To underscore those concerns, Kast traveled last week to Washington and met with American investors as well as Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the subcommittee overseeing U.S. relations with Latin America.
Some of his more radical supporters have also launched an online scare campaign involving a fake tweet from leftist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, false allegations that migrants are manning voting booths and a made-up medical report after Kast in a debate urged Boric to take a drug test.
The latest opinion polls give a slight edge in the runoff to Boric, who has pivoted to the center to galvanize support from voters fearful of a return to the country’s tumultuous past.
“This backs up Boric’s framing of the race as a dichotomy between fascism and democracy,” Jennifer Pribble, a Chile expert at the University of Richmond, said of the older Kast’s wartime record. “To the extent Kast seems to be hiding some element of his family’s history, it plays into that narrative.”
It’s unclear if Kast was aware of his father’s NSDAP membership card. Carolina Araya, a spokeswoman for Kast’s campaign, wouldn’t comment when asked repeatedly by the AP.
But in the past Kast has angrily rejected claims that his father was a supporter of the Nazi movement, describing him instead as a forced conscript in the German army.
“Why do you use the adjective Nazi?” he said in 2018 TV appearance in which he said he was proud of his father and accused a prominent Chilean journalist of trying to spread lies.
“When there is a war and (military) enrollment is mandatory, a 17 or 18 year old doesn’t have the option to say, ‘I’m not going,’ because they will be court martialed and shot to death the very next day,” he said later that year in comments posted on his social media account.
There is no evidence Kast had a role in wartime atrocities such as the attempt to exterminate Europe’s Jews. But while military service was compulsory, membership in the Nazi party was voluntary.
Some Germans enthusiastically joined the party while others did so believing it would bring advantages in a society where large parts of public life were expected to fall in line with Nazi ideology from 1933 onward.
“We don’t have a single example of anyone who was forced to enter the party,” said Armin Nolzen, a German historian who has extensively researched the issue of NSDAP membership.
Kast joined the party in 1942 within five months of turning 18 — the minimum age required for membership. He likely was a member of the Hitler Youth for at least four years before joining the party and would have been recommended by the district leader, Nolzen said. In all, the party had 7.1 million members that year — about one-tenth of the population.
Michael Buddrus of the Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History in Berlin cautioned against overestimating the significance of NSDAP membership in people that young, but agreed that Kast must have joined of his own volition.
Given that Kast entered the military soon after, Buddrus said it was possible the teenager had never actively participated in a party gathering or paid dues.
“If you’re a party member, you’re a party member,” said Richard F. Wetzell, a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington. “Being a party member does bind you to the party and its ideology even though many may have joined for purely opportunistic reasons.”
A 2015 book about Pinochet’s civilian collaborators written by Chilean journalist Javier Rebolledo claimed that the older Kast was at first reluctant to join the Nazi party. But he was persuaded by a sergeant to do so as he was being deployed to the Crimean Peninsula, according to Rebolledo’s book, which cites a memoir by Kast’s wife.
The war at the time was dominated by the Battle of Stalingrad, a turning point for Nazi Germany’s assault on the Soviet Union that resulted in some 2 million deaths and the local surrender of Axis forces a few months later.
As the war was ending, Kast, then serving in Italy, obtained a false ID indicating he was a member of the International Committee of the Red Cross, according to Rebolledo.
After twice escaping arrest at the hands of the Allied forces, he returned to Germany and was discovered during the postwar period of denazification. But when he confessed his deceit, a sympathetic prosecutor took pity and in recognition of his honesty burned his army record, according to Rebolledo’s book.
The younger Kast has accused the Chilean journalist of taking his mother’s memoir out of context and distorting facts to attribute sinister motives to his father’s wartime activities.
Whatever his record, Kast migrated to Chile in 1950, followed a year later by his wife and oldest two children, and established himself in Paine, a rural community south of the capital of Santiago. Eventually, the couple built a small business selling cold cuts from a roadside kiosk into a nationwide chain of restaurants and manufacturer of packaged food.
A 1995 law passed by Chile’s congress granting the older Kast citizenship highlights his deep Catholic roots and “grand spirit of social justice” that translated into his role helping build five chapels, hospitals and a youth center as well as providing employees of his company, Cecinas Bavaria, with the means to buy their own homes.
But there was a darker side to the clan’s success.
According to Rebolledo, leftist agitators and peasants had threatened to expropriate the family’s business during the socialist administration of Salvador Allende. The day after Pinochet’s coup against Allende, police in Paine mopped up, disappearing in broad daylight a young militant, Pedro Vargas, who had been organizing workers at Bavaria, as he waited in line to buy bread.
The candidate’s brother, Christian Kast, testified that as a 16-year-old in the immediate aftermath of the coup, he had delivered food to the town’s police and spent the night with them. He told investigators probing Vargas’ disappearance that the next day he attended a barbecue at the police station and saw a dozen detainees — but not Vargas — hauled away, their heads shaven, never to be seen again.
With Vargas missing, a member of his family went in anguish to appeal for aid from Michael Kast.
“I thought he was going to help,” the person told the AP on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation nearly five decades on. “But he told me to go home, that there was a war going on and it was a matter of life and death. I couldn’t believe it.”
Today, just a few miles from where the presidential hopeful lives, symbols of the passions that filled Vargas’ shortened life — a book, a scale of justice, a photo of his dog — decorate one of 70 mosaics paying tribute to each of the victims stolen from the bucolic town that has the distinction of having suffered the most disappearances per capita in all of Chile.
Goodman reported from Miami. AP Writers Patricia Luna and Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile contributed to this report.