YouTubers, conspiracy theorists, angry Facebook users, and Brazil’s president engage in illegitimate historical revisionism
President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro falsely declared that there was “no doubt” that Nazism was a left-wing movement, following a visit to Israel’s Holocaust Museum on April 3, 2019. It’s the latest controversy surrounding this false claim, which first began spreading in Brazil almost a decade ago with the aid of YouTubers and conspiracy theorists.
Tracking the amplification of false claims like this helps illustrate how the internet and social media can be instrumental for political groups seeking to weaponize history. The broad accessibility of the internet and ability of anybody to post topical content — true or untrue — served to weaken significantly journalists’ role as news gatekeepers, thereby allowing the proliferation of false information online. It has also undermined the ability of historians and educators to separate history from pseudohistory. These changes enabled the emergence of a phenomenon the press has deemed “fake history,” an allusion to the popular but unhelpful term “fake news.” Illegitimate historical revisionism of this nature is often used by authoritarian regimes and political groups to create a false narrative of past events that serves a political purpose in the present.
President Bolsonaro made the claim that Nazis were leftists after Brazilian Foreign Relations Minister Ernesto Araújo claimed the association between Nazis and the right of the ideological spectrum was intended to undermine the credibility of the political right. Weeks later, on April 11, Bolsonaro declared “We can forgive. But we cannot forget” the Holocaust. Three days later, he sent a message to Israeli authorities saying that his declaration had been misinterpreted and that “forgiveness was something personal.”
Bolsonaro’s claim about Nazism was not the first time he engaged in illegitimate historical revisionism (as distinct from a legitimate change in understanding of historical facts). During the campaign, then-candidate Bolsonaro blamed Africans for slavery, claiming the Portuguese “had never even stepped into Africa.” In March 2019, he determined that Brazil’s military should celebrate the country’s 1964 coup, which installed a military dictatorship with a record of human rights violations for 21 years. A former Army captain, Bolsonaro considers the coup to have been a necessary move to save the country from communism.
From the American Alt-Right to Brazilian YouTube
The claim that Nazis were socialists or leftists has frequently been used by the American alt-right as a means of shedding its association with Nazism. Dinesh D’Souza, a well-known American author known for promoting right-wing conspiracy theories, is one fringe figure to have amplified the claim.
This claim has been debunked repeatedly. Those who promote it have pointed out that Adolf Hitler’s party was named the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. According to historians, however, the use of the word “socialist” as well as the term “Worker’s Party” both in the name of the party and by Hitler himself, served primarily as a rhetorical strategy to attract members to the Nazi Party by characterizing it as a populist movement. When he came to power, however, Hitler arrested swathes of communists, socialists, worker’s leaders, and other “leftists.” Finally, in 1941,Nazi German invaded the Soviet Union; one of the goals of the invasion, according to Holocaust Encyclopedia, was “the permanent elimination of the perceived Communist threat to Germany”.
In Brazil, an early amplifier of the theory was the self-described philosopher Olavo de Carvalho, who featured a video claiming the Nazis were socialists on his website in 2010 (the video was reposted to Youtube in 2013). Carvalho, who is now considered Bolsonaro’s intellectual guru, has lived in the United States for the past 14 years and is highly influenced by the U.S. alt-right. Among other things, he has contributed to the spread of a series of false claims in Brazil, including the URSAL conspiracy theory, a supposed plot to establish a United Socialist Republics of Latin America modeled after the former USSR.
Another amplifier of far-right conspiracies is rock musician and YouTube star Nando Moura, whose YouTube channel is now one of the most popular in Brazil. In one video from 2015, he claimed that Hitler was a communist, repeated the false claim that the Nazis were socialist because of their party name, and also linked it to the inclusion of the term “Worker’s Party” in the name to Brazil’s Partido dos Trabalhadores, or “Worker’s Party” in Portuguese, then in power in the country.
Moura’s popularity has increased significantly over the past four years, with his subscriber number in particular growing from 300,000 in 2015 to more than three million subscribers to his channel currently. In 2018, Moura received a particular boost thanks to a tweet from Bolsonaro, who recommended Moura’s channel to his voters. Months later, YouTube demonetized some videos in his channel on the grounds that they included hate speech and spread disinformation.
In 2015, Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president’s son and a current congressman, promoted the narrative that the Nazis were communists by sharing a quote misattributed to Hitler to his Twitter account. The quote is actually from early Nazi Party member Gregor Strasser, who had advocated for the Nazi Party to embrace a more worker-focused and anti-capitalist brand of Nazism and who was killed in a 1934 purge on Hitler’s orders due to his personal and ideological differences with Hitler. In addition to the misattributed quote from Strasser, the younger Bolsonaro, who is a follower of Olavo de Carvalho, also published links to Nando Moura’s videos claiming that the Nazis were leftists.
Attacks on the German Embassy
On September 2018, amid the electoral campaign in Brazil, the controversy on Nazism’s place on the ideological spectrum reached Facebook. One month earlier, right-wing extremists had taken to the streets in Chemnitz, Germany, to protest the death of a German national allegedly murdered by migrants. Because the story gained traction in the Brazilian press, the German Embassy in Brazil decided to use the opportunity to reflect on the connection between right-wing extremism and Nazism and about how the history of the Holocaust is taught in Germany. Hundreds of Brazilians commented on the embassy’s Facebook video that the Nazis were, on the contrary, leftists. Many of the users who commented on the video declared their support for Jair Bolsonaro on social media.
Reacting to the comments, the Ambassador of Germany to Brazil made a statement in which he denounced the claim that Nazis were leftists as “complete nonsense.” On Facebook, many Brazilian commenting on the Ambassador’s statement apologized to Germans and the German Embassy.
When President Bolsonaro repeated the false claim that the Nazis were leftists, he was not only confirming the views of his foreign relations minister but also those of his supporters. In a sense, the groups that spread these theories online and the president of the country are mutually reinforcing one another’s claims.
Even though Bolsonaro has often repeated hoaxes and misinformation, his perpetration of outright illegitimate historical revisionism is particularly worrisome. Reinventing history is a strategy typically employed by authoritarian governments such as Russia and China and, more recently, by leaders of illiberal democracies such as the Philippines and Hungary.
Luiza Bandeira is a Digital Forensic Research Assistant for Latin America at the DFRLab.
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