Bolsonaro justified his answer by pointing to the Nazi’s full party name in 1930s and 1940s Germany: the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. While the party name included the word “socialist,” most of its political ideologies were not considered left-wing. Yad Vashem’s website states that Nazism in fact grew out of radical right-wing groups. Once the Nazis gained power in Germany, they arrested and in many cases murdered socialists, communists and others who opposed the party.
Bolsonaro sparked further controversy later in April when he said, “We can forgive. But we cannot forget,” speaking of the Holocaust at a meeting with evangelical pastors in Rio de Janeiro on April 11.
Yad Vashem’s president, Reuven Rivlin, appeared to respond to the comments on Twitter writing, “We will never forgive and never forget.” He went on to address political leaders’ responsibility in shaping public opinion, in what seemed to be a targeted response to Bolsonaro.
Historians widely rebuff the notion that Nazism is a leftist movement. Deborah E. Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory College, called it a “ludicrous idea that deserves to be discredited.”
“It’s a form of rewriting history for political purposes,” Lipstadt said.
Bolsonaro is not the first person to make this claim. Linking Nazism to a political side is a long-running trope. This iteration, where the Nazis are leftist, has spread widely online for almost a decade.
This isn’t just a tactic used by conservatives. Democrats have also called their rivals “Nazis,” distorting history in their own way.
“Everybody uses the slur fascism and socialism and Hitler as a method of tarring one’s opponents,” said Gavriel Rosenfeld, a professor of history at Fairfield University. “It’s not just that you’re discrediting your opponents, you’re also trying to separate your own movement from any kind of connection to Nazism.”
Misrepresenting history can set a dangerous precedent. Bolsonaro’s rewriting of Nazism’s past may have been meant as a nod to his base, but it has far-reaching consequences.
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