Uruguay debates the fate of a Nazi eagle raised from the wreckage of the ‘Graf Spee’

President Luis Lacalle Pou had announced that the swastika-wielding bird of prey would be melted down and turned into a dove of peace but was forced to backtrack in the face of opposition

The Nazi eagle from the German cruiser 'Graf Spee' in Montevideo, Uruguay.
The Nazi eagle from the German cruiser 'Graf Spee' in Montevideo, Uruguay.MARCELO HERNANDEZ (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

A bronze eagle that once adorned the bow of the Nazi cruiser Admiral Graf Spee, which was scuttled off the coast of Uruguay in 1939, will not be transformed into a dove. On the contrary, the sculpture will maintain its original appearance — a bird of prey clutching a swastika between its claws — just as it was found at the bottom of the bay of Montevideo in 2006 by a local treasure hunter. Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou on Sunday moved to quell the controversy generated by the announcement at a press conference less than 48 hours earlier of a plan to melt and recast the bronze as a symbol of peace.

“Over three years ago, before the electoral process, It occurred to us that this symbol of war could undergo a transformation into a symbol of peace or union, like a dove,” Lacalle Pou said on Friday. By his side was Uruguayan sculptor Pablo Atchugarry, the artist chosen by the president to carry out the work. Atchugarry said he was honored by the responsibility and the challenge “of transforming hate, war and destruction into a symbol of peace.”

Barco de Guerra Nazi
Photograph taken on December 19, 1939, of the German battleship 'Admiral Graf Spee' as it is sunk by its crew. AP

The project was scheduled to be completed by November, they said, with the new sculpture of a dove of peace to be installed on a promenade somewhere along the Uruguayan coast. The plan, however, was unraveled in a matter of hours after sparking the anger of art and history experts and creating a political furor.

“Amid the worst of the water crisis and his shameful absence at the act of recognition to victims of state terrorism, Luis Lacalle Pou has us talking about the eagle of the Graf Spee,” Gustavo Olmos, a deputy of the center-left opposition Frente Amplio party, wrote on Twitter. Olmos was referring to the Lacalle Pou not attending an event held a day earlier in parliament to acknowledge the responsibility of the state in crimes committed during the dictatorship (1973-1985).

The Nazi eagle dominated social discourse over the weekend, with the internet hosting a debate between those in favor of preserving it or transforming it. A petition was started on change.org in favor of preserving the original eagle, which is over two meters high and weighs 350 kilograms (770 pounds). “It should be kept in a museum. History must be remembered so that the same mistakes are not made again. New generations are prone to forgetfulness and recidivism. Remembering evil and the symbols that represent it is a huge responsibility to society” the petition, which has garnered over 20,000 signatures, read.

Some of the president’s inner circle defended the initiative but they were in a clear minority, as Lacalle Pou later acknowledged. The Vice Minister of Education and Culture and president of the Heritage Commission, Ana Ribeiro, said she had learned about the project from the press. Ribeiro, a renowned Uruguayan historian, is in favor of preserving the eagle. “I would keep it [...] I would find it much more educational to make a good museum of the Battle of the River Plate,” she told Radio Sarandí.

Uruguay convertirá el águila nazi del buque Graf Spee en un "símbolo de la paz"
A photo dated February 11, 2006 showing the bronze eagle from the German battleship 'Graf Spee' on display in Montevideo, Uruguay.Iván Franco (EFE)

Legal dispute

Like Ribeiro, several historians have pointed to the significance of the confrontation in the early stages of World War II between the Graf Spee and British Royal Navy ships in the waters of the River Plate. The first naval battle of the war, fought in December 1939, resulted in over a hundred deaths and nearly 90 casualties and the subsequent scuttling of the German ship on the orders of its captain, Hans Langsdorff.

The bronze eagle was salvaged by a team of experts in 2006, giving rise to a legal dispute between the treasure hunters and the Uruguayan authorities. Eventually, Uruguay’s Supreme Court ruled in December 2022 that the eagle was state property.

“The proposal meant that in just 48 hours a debate took place in Uruguay that was positive, and also allowed the president to reverse his decision,” says Emma Sanguinetti, an art critic and cultural manager. The eagle “embodies one of the most fateful moments in human history,” she adds. “History cannot be the object of metamorphosis. Historical objects have the value of leaving the abstract event and passing it to the real. They are an indispensable instrument.” In this sense, Sanguinetti points out that the eagle of the Graf Spee is not a celebratory object and that if transformed it would become something that it never was: a symbol of peace.

In line with her colleagues, Sanguinetti believes it would be best to exhibit the eagle and give it appropriate historical context. “It would be a great opportunity to tell the story of that event, to remind people that this horror reached our shores and that is why the eagle and the swastika are here. The more time goes by, the more the facts become blurred; that is why more history is needed and these objects have greater value.”

Following the controversy generated by his announcement, Lacalle Pou backtracked and acknowledged the proposal went against consensus. " In the few hours that have passed, an overwhelming majority of people has come forward who don’t share the decision. When you aim for peace, the first thing you need to do is create unity and this clearly didn’t,” he said on Sunday. For now, the eagle of the Graf Spee will remain covered up in a Uruguayan Navy facility. “A symbol of peace and union cannot be born of discord,” added Atchugarry.

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