Olga Benário Prestes

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File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-P0220-304, Olga Benario-Prestes.jpg
Olga Benário Prestes during her imprisonment in Brazil 1936. She was shortly afterwards deported to Germany and murdered by the Nazis in Ravensbrück.

Olga Benário Prestes (February 12, 1908 – April 23, 1942) was a German-Brazilian communist militant.


Olga was born in Munich as Olga Gutmann Benário, to a Jewish family.[1] Her father, Leo Benário, was a Social-Democrat lawyer, and her mother, Eugenie (Gutmann), was a member of Bavarian high-society. In 1923, aged fifteen, she joined the Communist Youth International and in 1928 helped organize her lover and comrade Otto Braun's escape from Moabit prison.[2] She went to Czechoslovakia and from there, reunited with Braun, to Moscow, where Benário attended the Lenin-School of the Comintern and then worked as an instructor of the Communist Youth International, in the Soviet Union and in France and Great Britain, where she participated in coordinating anti-fascist activities. She parted from Otto Braun in 1931.

After her stay in Britain, where she was briefly arrested,[3] Olga attended a course in the Zhukovsky Military Academy, something that led her to be charged in rightist histories with being an agent of Soviet military intelligence.[4] Be that as it may, due to her military training, in 1934 she was tasked with helping the return to Brazil of Luís Carlos Prestes, to whom she was assigned as a bodyguard.[5] In order to accomplish this mission, false papers were created stating that they were a Portuguese married couple. By the time they arrived at Rio de Janeiro in 1935, this cover had become a reality, as the couple had fallen in love. After a failed insurrection in November 1935, Benário and her husband went into hiding, and after barely escaping a police raid at Ipanema,[6] they were both eventually arrested in January 1936, during the harsh anti-communist campaign declared after Getúlio Vargas had proclaimed martial law and was already plotting the 1937 coup that would eventually lead to the institution of the fascist-like Estado Novo régime.

Pregnant and separated from Prestes, Benário clung to her alias, only to have her real identity disclosed by Brazilian diplomats, working hand-in-hand with the Gestapo.[7] Her lawyers attempted to avoid extradition by means of a habeas corpus at the Brazilian Supreme Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal), based on her pregnancy, because extradition would have left a newborn Brazilian national in the power of a foreign government. As Brazilian law forbids the extradition of nationals,[8] Olga's lawyers expected to win time until Olga gave birth on Brazilian soil to an ipso facto Brazilian citizen - irrespective of the child's paternity, which remained legally doubtful in the absence of evidence for Olga's and Prestes' marriage[9] - something that would have rendered extradition quite unlikely.[10] The plea, however, was speedily quashed, the rapporteur-justice alleging that habeas corpus was superseded by martial law[11] and that Olga's deportation was justified as "an alien noxious to public order".[12] She was then, despite an international campaign, taken back to Germany in September 1936, the commander of the German liner that took her having cancelled scheduled stops in non-German European ports, therefore foiling communist attempts at rescuing her.[13] On arrival, she was put in prison, where she gave birth to a daughter, Anita Leocádia. The child was subsequently released into the care of her grandmother, Leocádia Prestes.

Olga was eventually sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp and from there to Bernburg Euthanasia Centre in 1942, where she was gassed (see: Action T4).

As Vargas joined the United Nations and Brazil entered World War II against the Axis, Luís Carlos Prestes, the father of Anita Leocádia and former partner of Olga Benário, eventually struck a political partnership with him in order to avoid Vargas' immediate ousting in 1945, which was demanded by his more rightist domestic opponents, as well as by the US, represented by Ambassador Adolf Berle .[14] This move was in line with Popular Front Communist policies of the time:[15] Prestes argued that, by declaring himself against Vargas' immediate resignation, he wanted to avoid a "redemptory coup" as well as to take a stand against "the decrepit remains of reaction".[16]


In the postwar German Democratic Republic, Olga was presented as the model of the female revolutionary, and the writer Anna Seghers wrote a biographical sketch about her for International Women's Day in 1951.[17] Her "official" 1961 biography by Ruth Werner was written from the same standpoint.[18]

In 2004, a popular Brazilian film based on Benário's life, Olga, directed by telenovela director Jayme Monjardim, which offered a thoroughly depoliticized account of Olga's life, centered on her love affair with Prestes, was released, to the disappointment of German critics, who called it "kitsch advertising".[19] She was also the subject of a German documentary (with reconstructed scenes) directed by the former assistant to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Galip Iyitanir, Olga Benário - Ein Leben für die Revolution.[20]

Today, a street in Berlin bears her name.

In 2006, the opera Olga, by Jorge Antunes, premiered on October 14 at the Theatro Municipal in São Paulo, Brazil.

Olga Benário was also subject of an opera Entre la Piel y el Alma by G. P. Cribari, which premiered in Glasgow at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama on May 22, 1992.

In January 2013, the English language play Olga's Room by German playwright Dea Loher, was presented by the Speaking in Tongues Theatre Company at the Arcola Theatre in London.[21]

Jorge Amado, in his 1942 biographical book "Vida de Luis Carlos Prestes", compared her with Ana Ribeiro da Silva, the Brazilian wife of Garibaldi - and remarked that "in the person of Olga, Europe repaid the debt to Latin America" (i.e., in her case it was a European woman revolutionary who married a Latin American revolutionary leader).

See also


  1. [1]
  2. Teresa A. Meade, A History of Modern Latin America: 1800 to the Present, Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, ISBN 978-1-4051-2050-0 , page 186
  3. Nigel West, MASK: MI5's penetration of the Communist Party of Great Britain. New York: Routledge, 2005, ISBN 0-415-35145-6 ,page 23
  4. For instance in the accusatory, anticommunist history of the 1935 uprising in Brazil by TV Globo journalist William Waack, Camaradas, São Paulo, Cia. das Letras, 1993, ISBN 85-7164-342-3 , page 94 (a version which is repeated by Shawn C. Smallman, Fear & memory in the Brazilian army and society, 1889-1954, University of North Carolina Press, 2002 page 51) ; Waack admits, however, that according to existing archival evidence, the actual appartenance of Olga to Soviet intelligence is only a possibility, albeit a strong one: Camaradas, page 100
  5. Katherine Morris, ed., Odyssey of exile: Jewish women flee the Nazis for Brazil. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-8143-2563-7 , page 126
  6. Having as an unwitting witness the writer Pedro Nava, who wrote about the episode in his memoir Galo-das-trevas: as doze velas imperfeitas. São Paulo: Ateliê Editorial, 2003, ISBN 85-7480-160-7 , 451
  7. João Henrique Botteri Negrão, Selvagens e Incendiários: O Discurso Anticomunista do Governo Vargas. São Paulo: Humanitas/FAPESP, 2005, ISBN 85-98292-74-5 ,page 163
  8. Carmen Tiburcio, The human rights of aliens under international and comparative law. The Hague: Kluwer Law International, ISBN 90-411-1550-1 ,pages 132/133
  9. Vargas' propagandists at the time sustained that Prestes' mariage was a sham, a cover for the fact that Olga had been posted besides him as a liaison for the Soviet political police: Robert M. Levine, Father of the poor?: Vargas and his era. Cambridge University Press, 1998, ISBN 0-521-58528-7 , page 43
  10. Stanley E. Hilton, Brazil and the Soviet Challenge 1917-1947. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991, ISBN 0-292-70781-9 , pages 81/86.
  11. Paulo Fernando Silveira, O morro das sete voltas: guerrilha na serra da Saudade. Curitiba: Juruá, 2008, ISBN 978-85-362-2058-1 ,page 100
  12. Emília Viotti da Costa, O Supremo Tribunal Federal e a construção da cidadania.São Paulo: UNESP, 2006, page 90
  13. Nigel West, MASK, page 24.
  14. David Rock, ed., Latin America in the 1940's: War and Postwar Transitions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994, ISBN 0-520-08416-0 , pages 152 and 157
  15. According to the explanation offered by Prestes in a later broadcast interview: Paulo Markun, O melhor do Roda viva: Poder. São Paulo: Conex, 2005, ISBN 85-7594-054-6 ,pages 52/53
  16. David Rock,Latin America in the 1940s" ,152
  17. Wiebke von Bernstorff, Fluchtorte: die mexikanischen und karibischen Erzählungen von Anna Seghers. Göttingen, Wallsten Verlag, 2006, page 55. However, for Seghers Olga was also a character that joined "ideal German qualities with the exotic Latin American aura - a dreamy synthesis between two worlds that charmed Seghers" (Friedrich Albrecht, Bemühungen: Arbeiten zum Werk von Anna Seghers 1965-2004. Bern: Peter Lang, 2005, ISBN 3-03910-619-8, page 430
  18. Waack, Camaradas, pages 93/94
  19. "Filme "Olga" decepciona crítica alemã (in Portuguese)". Deutsche Welle. Retrieved 7 October 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "Olga Benario, ein Leben für die Revolution". Kino. Retrieved 7 October 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "Speaking in Tongues Theatre Company presents Olga's Room". Arcola Theatre. Retrieved 7 October 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

Media related to Olga Benario-Prestes at Wikimedia Commons