Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, under severe pressure from multiple corners, on Friday fired his culture minister, Roberto Alvim, for recording and publishing what can only be described — with no hyperbole — as a Nazi speech about Brazilian art. Indeed, the speech, published by Alvim on Thursday, plagiarized Adolf Hitler’s Minister of Culture and Communications Joseph Goebbels and deliberately copied his style and aesthetic when decreeing what Brazilian art must be in the years to come:
“The Brazilian art of the next decade will be heroic and national. It will be endowed with a great capacity for emotional involvement and will be equally imperative, since it is deeply linked to the urgent aspirations of our people, or else it will be nothing” — Roberto Alvin, Brazil’s culture minister, January 15, 2020.
“The German art of the next decade will be heroic, romantic, objective, and free of sentimentality, national with great pathos and equally imperative and binding, or nothing” — Joseph Goebbels, Nazi culture minister, October 8, 1933.
The Nazi content, style, and aesthetics of the six-minute speech, set to the score of a Wagnerian opera, are impossible to overstate or even adequately describe in words. It has to be seen to be believed. For that reason, The Intercept has translated the speech into English and is publishing a video of it because it should be seen by everyone:
Brazil’s O Globo newspaper featured this surreal headline on its front page: “Bolsonaro fires Culture Minister after he copies Nazi speech.” The German paper Deutsche Welle featured the photo of the 1933 speech of Goebbels that Alvim copied next to the one delivered by the Brazilian culture minister to juxtapose how similar it was on all levels, beyond just the words.
The content of Thursday’s speech was nothing new for Alvim, once a respected theater director who reinvented himself as a far-right religious fanatic. In his short stint as Bolsonaro’s culture minister and in the months leading up to his appointment by the Brazilian president, he has issued a series of similarly shocking comments — just not quite as shocking as blatantly and deliberately mimicking the speech, style, and mannerisms of Hitler’s most notorious propagandist.
On social media, he has declared himself fighting a “cultural war” in favor of “conservative artists”; denounced one of Brazil’s most beloved actresses, the 90-year-old Fernanda Montenegro, as a “dirty liar” for whom he harbors “contempt”; and attacked the Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa, whose documentary “Edge of Democracy” was just nominated for an Academy Award, as a leftist propagandist disseminating lies.
Notably, Alvim was fired only after the embassies of Germany and — far more importantly to Bolsonaro — Israel issued condemnations containing harsh language rare for diplomatic communications. The Israeli Confederation of Brazil said, “Such a person cannot command the culture of our country and must be removed from office immediately.” The German Embassy in Brazil said, “The period of National Socialism is the darkest chapter in German history, bringing infinite suffering to humanity. …We oppose any attempt to trivialize or even glorify the era of National Socialism.” The center-right presidents of the Brazilian Senate and House also demanded Alvim’s firing, leaving Bolsonaro with little choice. When announcing the firing, Bolsonaro called the speech “an unfortunate pronouncement.”
But it is difficult to believe that absent those reactions, Bolsonaro would have fired his culture minister, whom he has repeatedly defended and praised, including in a Facebook Live chat immediately prior to the instantly notorious Nazi speech, hailing him as representative of “the real culture.” Sitting with Alvim prior to his speech, the Brazilian president said, “Beside me, here, Roberto Alvim, our culture secretary. Now we do have a real culture secretary that serves the interest of the majority of the Brazilian population, conservative and Christian population.”
Whatever else is true, Alvim’s speech, though more stylistically extreme and indelicate in how crassly it copied pure Nazism, is consistent in content with the posture of the Bolsonaro government toward artistic expression and cultural norms generally. Bolsonaro — though currently on his third wife while still claiming to be devoutly Catholic — has also adopted a form of evangelic fanaticism, a rapidly growing political force in the country, as part of his public identity and ideology (his current wife is evangelical).
Bolsonaro, somewhat ironically in light of the current controversy, has also made unyielding devotion to Israel critical to his political and religious identity (he has traveled to Israel repeatedly, offered unstinting support for the Netanyahu government against Palestinians, and was baptized in 2016 in the Jordan River while the Brazilian Senate voted to impeach the center-left President Dilma Rousseff).
While all of this has caused many of Brazil’s small Jewish communities in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to support him, it has little to do with affection for Jews. Like many evangelicals, Bolsonaro appears to believe in some form of the Rapture (which, in its crudest form, holds that Israel must be united in order for Jesus to return and send all nonbelievers — including Jews — to hell), and like many authoritarians, adores Israel’s capacity of military and intelligence superiority and its animus toward Muslims, and wants as much of its surveillance technology as he can get for domestic purposes. As is true of many far-right leaders, Bolsonaro worships Israel but not necessarily Jews.
Aggressive and harsh public morality is a central prong of Bolsonaro’s political appeal. He featured as part of his 2018 campaign cultural themes similar to Alvim’s speech — including a false but highly effective warning that elementary school teachers were using something he calls “gay kits” to convert young children in order to allow homosexuals to recruit them as sex partners — and generally has waged a war on any art or artists who diverge from Bolsonaro’s vision of what pure nationalist art is. One of Alvim’s predecessors as culture minister resigned after the Bolsonaro government cut funding specifically to LGBT-themed art.
Earlier this week, Academy Award nominations were unveiled and one of the five contenders for Best Documentary was a Netflix film by the Brazilian director Petra Costa called “Edge of Democracy,” which warns of the dangers faced by Brazilian democracy. Though the film principally focuses not on Bolsonaro but on the impeachment of Dilma and imprisonment and election-barring of Lula, it has become a target of contempt by the Brazilian Right. After it received its Oscar nod, both Alvim and Bolsonaro publicly denounced the film as leftist agitprop “fiction” (though Bolsonaro, when asked, acknowledged he never saw it).
A far graver assault on artistic expression occurred on Christmas Eve when a member of the right-wing party to which Bolsonaro belonged until recently threw a Molotov cocktail at the building that houses Porta das Fundos, the production company responsible for a Netflix film that features a gay Jesus with a boyfriend. Bolsonaro’s Congressman-son had inveighed against the film as “trash.” Last week, a Bolsonaro-linked right-wing judge stunned the country, and Netflix, by issuing a censorship order forcing Netflix to remove the film from its streaming platform, a ruling overturned by a Justice of the Supreme Court.
Nazi-style nationalism and crude public assaults have been repeatedly featured by Bolsonaro in his remarks to journalists. On Thursady, addressing a new book critical of his government by a Brazilian reporter of Japanese descent, Thaís Oyama, Bolsonaro said he does not know what she is doing in Brazil, adding: “This journalist … In Japan she was going to starve to death.”
Last month, in response to a reporter’s question about the still-unfolding scandal involving his Senator-son’s corruption and the family’s links to violent paramilitary militias, the president said “you have a terribly gay face,” and told another reporter to “ask your mother about your father.” When questioned earlier this week about a scandal involving his Communications Minister who has private contracts with the same television outlets whose public budget he is responsible for determining, the president responded: “are you talking about your mother?”
A report issued earlier this week by a press freedom group documented that Bolsonaro is directly responsible for the majority of the attacks on journalists and media outlets. It cited, among other things, Bolsonaro’s repeated public incitements against journalists as well as his public threats that I might be imprisoned for the series of exposés published this year by the Intercept about his Justice Minister and his accusations that my marriage to a Brazilian Congressman and adoption of Brazilian children was a fraud.
Earlier this month, Bolsonaro pronounced that books in schools have too much content and need to be made “softer” and warned that “beginning in 2021, all the books will be ours,” proclaiming that they will have the Brazilian flag and national anthem on their cover. He added that “they will be made for us. The country will vibrate…. There will be the Brazilian flag on the cover, there will be the national anthem there.” He claimed that the “idiots” who have been in charge of Brazilian education have been propagandizing children with the “gender of ideology” that “encourages boys to wear skirts” and “other things that I don’t want to talk about here.” On Thursday, he said leftists “do not deserve to be treated like normal people.”
In sum, Bolsonaro has spent years spouting classically fascist ideology. The manifestation of undisguised Nazism by his Culture Minister was just a slightly more crass and naked expression of his ideology and mentality. Many Brazilian elites who supported Bolsonaro largely because of their admiration for his Chicago-trained, austerity-loving Economics Minister Paulo Gedes and his corrupt law-and-order Justice Minister Sergio Moro (the subject of the 2019 Intercept’s exposés) are now feigning shock and outrage. But Alvim’s speech simply shined a light on the true face of the Bolsonaro movement — one which all to many political and media elites decided to ignore, or pretend was just a game, because they were eager for the parts of Bolsonaro’s ideology that served their interests.