South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
An enduring air of mystery surrounds the towering cross emblazoned with a swastika in a cemetery near the remote Brazilian jungle outpost of Laranjal do Jari. An inscription on the cross, in German, reads: “Joseph Greiner died here of fever on Jan. 2, 1936, in the service of German research.”
Why is there a Nazi grave in the far reaches of Brazil’s Amazon rain forest?
Researchers have meticulously documented how Nazi war criminals fled to South America in the aftermath of World War II. But much less is known about a plot that took root before and during the war: The Nazis hoped to establish a German bridgehead in South America by conquering a swath of the Amazon River Basin.
The secret plan, called the Guyana Project, had its origins in an expedition into the Amazon led by Otto Schulz-Kampfhenkel, a Berlin zoologist, documentary filmmaker and member of Hitler’s SS.
For 17 months, from 1935 to 1937, Nazi explorers under the guidance of Mr. Schulz-Kampfhenkel hacked through forests around Brazil’s border with French Guiana. They collected animal skulls and indigenous jewelry, and they studied the topography along the Jari River, a 491-mile tributary of the Amazon.
“The expedition started out with the usual scientific pretensions,” said Jens Glüsing, a longtime correspondent in Brazil for the German magazine Der Spiegel who wrote a book about the Guyana Project. “But back in Germany, as the war started, Schulz-Kampfhenkel seized on this idea for Nazi colonial expansion.”
Mr. Schulz-Kampfhenkel presented his plan in 1940 to Heinrich Himmler, the chief of the SS and the Gestapo. It envisioned the endeavor as a way to blunt the regional sway of the United States by seizing control of French Guiana and the neighboring Dutch and British colonies (now the independent nations of Suriname and Guyana).
But the dream of forging a German Guiana fizzled. Perhaps it was because French Guiana had already fallen into the friendly hands of the collaborationist Vichy regime.
Or maybe it had to do with the ill-fated Jari expedition itself.
The expedition had a Heinkel He 72 Seekadett seaplane, which was promoted as an example of Nazi industrial innovation. But the aircraft capsized after hitting driftwood a few weeks into the expedition.
Throughout their journey, the explorers from a self-described “master race” had to rely on indigenous tribes to survive and find their way in the jungle.
The Germans were enfeebled by malaria and other illnesses. Mr. Schulz-Kampfhenkel endured severe diphtheria, and an unspecified fever killed Mr. Greiner, the expedition’s foreman. His grave stands to this day as a testament to the star-crossed Nazi foray into the Amazon.