Bolsonaro and ‘left-wing Nazism’: what is the goal of the revision of the past?

April 11, 2019

On leaving the guided tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, President Bolsonaro uttered: ‘He who forgets his past is condemned to have no future.’ On the same day, the president ratified the thesis also supported by Chancellor Ernesto Araújo that Nazism was a leftist movement, stating: ‘There’s no doubt, it is the National Socialist Party of Germany.’

The narrative advocated by both the president and chancellor of Brazil has roots in blogs and speeches by far-right politicians, especially in the United States. However, it is in absolute contrast with global historiography, including the explanation given by the Remembrance Center itself.

The Yad Vashem exposes that the German people’s frustration with defeat in World War I, coupled with ‘warnings about the surging menace of Communism, created fertile soil for the growth of radical right-wing groups in Germany, spawning entities such as the Nazi Party.

As we will show below, this revisionist reading of the past, in a manner that escapes from the facts, uses disinformation to keep an apparent distance from the totalitarian regime, politically delegitimize the opposition, and confuse the political agenda.

The rise of Nazism and its politics

After World War I, the victorious Allied Powers stipulated imposed sanctions on the defeated Germany, such as territorial loss and  financial compensation to the victorious countries. These post-war resolutions generated deep resentment in the German population, inciting fear based on nationalism, which materialized in a small Bavarian party, the German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei – DAP). The party attracted unsatisfied layers of the regional middle class, but did not have support of the workers and the rural population.

In order to gather such support, top party members – already led by Hitler – added the term ‘socialist’ to the party’s name, which became National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei – NSDAP), known as the Nazi Party.

Despite opposing socialist ideas that were popular in Germany at the time, Hitler understood that putting the term in the name of the party could facilitate its diffusion. Moreover, ‘socialism’, for the NSDAP, would only mean equality between those of ‘German blood’, excluding all others groups anda minorities, such as the Jewish people.

In 1923, after a failed coup attempt, aimed at overthrowing the Bavarian government, Hitler was arrested. In prison he wrote Mein Kampf, a book in which he defended his ultra-nationalist ideology, supported the use of the structures of the German democracy to seize power, and defined himself as being frontally opposed to communism.

In the book, Hitler rejects the confusion between Nazism and Communism:

‘The red colour of our posters was chosen for us, after careful and deep reflection, in order to excite the left, to revolt it and to induce it to attend our meetings; all this if only to allow us to get in touch and talk to these people.‘

In the following years, the Nazi Party pursued Hitler’s plan, even linking his anti-Semitic nationalism to a socialist rhetoric, looking to gain popular support beyond Bavaria.

Ultimately, the 1929 crisis generated a deep recession in the German economy, weakening the main parties and paving the way for the electoral rise of both the Nazi Party and the Communist Party. In order to face the communist rise, the traditional German right-wing parties formed a coalition with the Nazi Party, believing they would be able to control it after the elections. In the words of Franz von Papen, one of the architects of the plan: ‘Within two months, we will have pushed him so far into a corner that he will squeal.’¹

Needless to say how wrong they were.

The dangers of historical revisionism for democracy

If the historical evidence is so clear, why insist on this seemingly irrational debate?

Although this discourse is sometimes received with humour or little importance, due to its lack of connection with reality, its defense by the president and the chancellor hides nuances that deserve attention.

Disinformation strategies were a defining feature of the 2018 presidential elections in Brazil and seem to have been incorporated into the daily life of our politics. The disseminated narratives, even if not plausible, have objectives that are part of a strategy to obscure reality, either to delegitimize the opposition or to confuse the political agenda.

In this case, there are two goals that complement each other:

  1. To distance the right-wing platform, supported by the president, from the nefarious outcomes of the totalitarian regime, whose crimes against humanity are widely recognized.
  2. To attribute to the political opposition these results, accentuating the distancing between the virtuous ‘us’ and ‘them’ – that inspire fear and must be fought.

In “How Fascism Works”, Jason Stanley addresses the danger of exploiting the division between ‘us’ and ‘them’, which lies in the politics of dehumanizing segments of the population. By excluding certain racial, ethnic, religious or ideological groups, this politics limits the ability of citizens to empathize, justifying violent treatment, repression of liberties and, in extreme cases, mass extermination – the ultimate consequence of Nazism. from which the revisionists seeks to distance themselves.

Moreover, there is also the objective of confusing the political agenda, building a politics of unreality, making the debate on relevant subjects impossible. This politics is intended to replace the facts with the utterances of a single person or party, destroying the common foundations necessary for understanding arguments and building dialogue among citizens.

In a democracy, the debate of ideas requires a set of common presuppositions to be establishedIt is only possible to talk about a rational dissent, based on these requirements. When rational dissent is replaced by fear, prejudice and frustration, there is no longer a common basis for democratic deliberation.

Thus, by replacing historiography with the utterances of a single person, this politics of the unreal aims at generating distrust in institutions, which would have the expertise to approach the matter, and in the other citizens – ‘them’. Those would be simply replaced by that central figure. If this politics succeed, the leader’s speech becomes the only one to be trusted².

Therefore, an apparently innocuous discourse can take a serious contour when supported by figures with such political influence. The adoption of unreality as a political strategy presents itself as a threat to democracy because it deepens the division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and prevents the democratic debate of ideas, replacing it with the word of an allegedly infallible leader.

For more information, access the links below:

What Happens When the Holocaust Memorial Plays Host to Autocrats – a New York Times opinion piece on the use of the Yad Vashem for political purposes by the Israeli government by receiving right-wing authoritarian leaders.

How fascism works – A Yale philosopher on fascism, truth, and Donald Trump – a Vox interview with Jason Stanley.

Hitler gargalhava quando o Nazismo era confundido com a esquerda [Hitler laughed when Nazism was regarded as left-wing] – a report by The Intercept Brazil on Hitler’s own view, depicted in Mein Kampf, regarding the comparison between the Nazi party and the Communists. (in Portuguese)

Nazismo é de direita, define Museu do Holocausto visitado por Bolsonaro em Israel [Nazism is a right-wing movement, defines the Holocaust Remembrance Center visited by Bolsonaro in Israel] – a report by BBC Brazil on Bolsonaro’s visit to the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the museum’s official position on the issue (in Portuguese).

1 LEVITSKY, Steven. ZIBLATT, Daniel. Como as democracias morrem. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2019, p. 18-19.

2 STANLEY, Jason. How Fascism Works: the politics of us and them. Nova Iorque: Random House, 2018. p. 55.