Latin American Studies World War I in Latin America
Stefan Rinke
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0248


The First World War was a global event that intensively involved Latin America. From the beginning, Latin Americans sensed that this war had worldwide scope. For many observers, the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 represented a profound turning point in the unfolding of history. Because of the breakdown of the European civilizational and development model, and in the unreserved belief in human progress in the years from 1914 to 1918, a world where Latin America had occupied a fixed position was effectively gone. Many contemporary witnesses agreed that an era had ended in the days of August 1914, and a new, still uncertain age had begun. The war stimulated the massive utilization of new forms of media like photography and cinema. Press photography proved to be an important instrument of propaganda, which contributed to the worldwide circulation of war pictures that seemed to depict objective reality. The understanding of reality expanded, for what was real no longer simply pertained to one’s own life, but also to events mediated through imagery. It was precisely in places like Latin America, where there was a geographical separation from the front lines that people experienced the war, both privately and publicly, through media-produced images. What is more, the World War I took place there especially as a propaganda war, which also caused a largely unprecedented form of radical hatemongering among rivals to spread in the subcontinent. Consequently, the traditional bias toward European models proved to be obsolete and the future had to be conceived anew. Due to this attitude, the call for a reorientation of identities on a national and regional level, which had already gained momentum before the war, became even louder. Scholarship on Latin American history has for decades largely ignored the First World War as a major event in which the continent played a part. This was mainly due to historiography’s focus on the nation and as well as initially on military and diplomatic, and later social and economic, topics. Only recently, with the rise of the new cultural history and global history, have the tides started to turn. Several important studies have now been published.

General Overviews

For decades, an awareness of the interrelationship between local development and global entanglements during the First World War was hardly expressed in the historiography of Latin America. In general, historiography tends to separate the developmental phase of the Latin American states in the “long 19th century” from their evolution into modern mass societies until around 1930. All the same, a comprehensive historiography of the Latin American role in World War I emerged early on. The first contributions that appeared at the end of the war were trying to make sense of its impact, and arguments were a kind of score settling. Texts such as Gaillard 1918, Kirkpatrick 1918, or Barrett 1919 concentrated on the diplomatic level and mostly distinguished in their assessments between “good” (those who supported the Allies) and “evil” (those who stayed neutral) countries. Martin 1967 (first published 1925) was the first to take a less partisan look at the subject, though Martin’s evaluation of Mexican politics remained wholly under the sway of anti-revolutionary sentiments. Afterward, the First World War fell out of sight for some time, as the Great Depression and World War II drew the world’s attention. It was not until the advent of dependence theory that interest was rekindled in the significance of the Great War. Frank 1969 identified the period of the First World War as proof of the thesis that independent industrialization in Latin America was possible due to the break with external ties. As historians examined the theories of the dependence theorists more closely, however, they proved largely untenable. Albert 1988 demonstrated that external dependencies rather increased because of economic warfare, and that the export sector actually grew. The first comprehensive study of Latin America and the World War I based on multi-archival research in most countries of the region is Rinke 2015. This work is written from a perspective of global history integrating the Latin American experience into the historiographical trend of globalizing the war, which up to that moment had been written mainly from a European angle. Rinke and other historians of Latin America have also amply contributed to the 1914–1918-Online: International Encyclopedia of the First World War, a most helpful and up-to-date open-access online tool covering all world regions. Most recently the volumes Garciadiego 2017; Compagnon, et al. 2018; and Correia and Moreli 2019 have contributed to decentering the historiography of the First World War by discussing Latin America cases.

  • Albert, Bill. South America and the First World War. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511529184

    An economic and social history of four South American countries during wartime and a standard work.

  • Barrett, John. Latin America and the War. Washington, DC: Pan American Union, 1919.

    An overview by the director general of the Pan American Union, who claimed that by no means could the maintenance of neutrality by Latin American countries be viewed as an unfriendly act toward the Allies.

  • Compagnon, Olivier, Camille Foulard, Guillemette Martin, and María Inés Tato, eds. La Gran Guerra en América Latina: Una historia conectada. Mexico City: Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos/Institut des Hautes Études de l’Amérique Latine—Centre de Recherche et de Documentation des Ameriques, 2018.

    A volume offering interesting case studies of Latin American involvement in the war from different angles, including the media, the economy, diplomatic relations, and the attitude of famous intellectuals.

  • Correia, Sílvia, and Alexandre Moreli, eds. Tempos e espaços de violência: A Primeira Guerra Mundial, a desconstrução dos limites e o início de uma era. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Autografía/PPGHIS, 2019.

    Another proof of the recent wave of important new research on the war, including contributions about the military dimension, diplomacy, cultural and social history, and even environmental and sport history.

  • Daniel, Ute, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, et al., eds. 1914–1918-Online: International Encyclopedia of the First World War. Berlin: Freie Universität Berlin.

    This online reference encyclopedia is an open access publication based on the work of more than a thousand specialists from more than fifty countries, “the largest network of WW1 researchers worldwide.” It offers the most comprehensive study of the war to date, featuring innovative navigation and search functions.

  • Frank, André Gunder. Latin America: Underdevelopment or Revolution. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969.

    A fundamental work of dependency theory, which cited the First World War period as proof for independent industrialization and development in Latin America.

  • Gaillard, Gaston. Amérique latine et Europe occidentale: L’Amérique latine et la guerre, Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1918.

    One of the first overviews of Latin American involvement in the war still very much in the style of a propaganda work and aimed at strengthening the French position there after the end of the war.

  • Garciadiego, Javier Dantan, Hg. El mundo hispanoamericano y la Primera Guerra Mundial. Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 2017.

    A number of top international experts contributed to this important volume combining chapters on the political and cultural impact of the war.

  • Kirkpatrick, Frederick Alexander. South America and the War. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1918.

    Similar to Gaillard 1918, but from a British point of view.

  • Martin, Percy A. Latin America and the War. Gloucester, MA: P. Smith, 1967.

    This book was originally published in 1925 and was the first fairly objective study on the diplomatic involvement of Latin America in the war, based on sources.

  • Rinke, Stefan. Im Sog der Katastrophe: Lateinamerika und der Erste Weltkrieg. Frankfurt: Campus, 2015.

    The first comprehensive study of Latin America during the First World War, combining a global history perspective with multi-archival research and the use of visual sources. An English edition was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017, and a Spanish translation followed in 2019 by Fondo de Cultura Económica, México.

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