Paraguay's „Great War" against the Triple Alliance 1864-1870

Ralph Rotte


Paraguay’s war against the „Triple Alliance“ of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay 1864-1870 practically does not exist in the historic awareness of Europe. Although it was followed attentively by contemporary observers, the number of articles in German-language military, history and social sciences after 1945 is rather limited. Up to the middle of the 20th century conservatives as well as nationalists interpreted the Triple Alliance War as a war of heroes of an authoritarian model state against a liberal and superior alliance, a conspiracy supposed to have been controlled by British imperialism. On the other hand, scientific examinations of the war after the Second World War were limited mainly to two aspects: firstly, the aspect of Paraguay’s total warfare, which in a way was seen as an example for the German experience 1939-1945, and, secondly, the issue of the third world political explanation of resistance of relatively modern but isolated Paraguay against a system of states oriented towards world market. Even in international historical sciences and in Latin-America research Paraguay’s war against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay 1864-1870 has begun to attract more attention only recently. As a matter of fact, the Triple alliance War has been unique for several reasons: It was the greatest war which was fought on South-American soil, and it already had the same distinctive character of modern industrialized warfare as the Crimean War 1853-1856 and the American Civil War 1861 - 1865, and especially as the First World War in Europe. Above all, however, it can be called the first real modern “total” war with good reason, as far as Paraguay is concerned, whose relative losses go beyond anything experienced by the Soviet Union or Germany even in the two World Wars. Today the Triple Alliance War is considered to be an important part of the nation building process in South America of the 19th century. Thus, it contributed considerably to Argentina’s national consolidation, in spite of the following uprisings of provincial governors in the 1870ies. In Brazil it led to a strengthening of republicanism especially among the younger officers’ corps, due to the senselessness of the war going on and on. Together with the gradual abolition of slavery until 1888, which was due to the recruiting of numerous black volunteers (releaseds), this in the long term led to the abolition of the monarch system in 1891. In the case of Paraguay, the collective memory of the Triple Alliance War also was the basis for distinct nationalism. When in the beginning of the 1939ies the disputes with Bolivia over the Chaco area began, because crude oil deposits were expected there, Paraguay was ready to push its demands through with force of arms against a neighbouring country three times bigger. In a war lasting for three years, from June 1932 until June 1935, Paraguay’s army, which was inferior in terms of numbers and technology, but superior in tactical-operational as well as in logistic terms, succeeded in defeating the Bolivians clearly and securing about three fourths of the disputed area for Paraguay. So one can find a special emphasis on territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country until the present day, as has been shown by the borderline tensions with Brazil in the autumn of 2008.