Jan 18, 2020
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Brazil’s Top Culture Official Fired Over Speech Evoking Nazi Propaganda

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RIO DE JANEIRO — President Jair Bolsonaro’s top culture official was dismissed on Friday over an address in which he used phrases and ideas from an infamous Nazi propaganda speech while playing an opera that Adolf Hitler regarded as a favorite.

The address by Roberto Alvim, the culture secretary, set off an outcry across the political spectrum as Brazilians reacted with exasperation and incredulity.

It was the latest flash point in a broader debate over freedom of speech and culture in the Bolsonaro era. The president campaigned on a promised course correction after an era of rule by leftist leaders, whom he accused of trying to impose “cultural Marxism.”

Critics say that he and his allies are taking a dogmatic approach to the arts, the public education system and to sexuality and reproductive rights.

Mr. Alvim’s speech, which was posted on the culture secretariat’s Twitter account Thursday evening, shows Mr. Alvim speaking sternly sitting at a desk. Behind him is a framed photograph of Mr. Bolsonaro. A large wooden cross on his desk is featured prominently.

Careful observers were aghast after noticing that a few minutes into the address, Mr. Alvim uttered a few phrases that are remarkably similar to an infamous speech by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Germany propaganda minister.

Goebbels’s speech, delivered in 1933, was one of several in which he called on artists to back the Nazi vision. Art, he said, needed to be a “tool” free of sentimentalism that served the state’s aims, according to a biography of Goebbels written by the German historian Peter Longerich.

Mr. Alvim’s address included verbatim some phrases from Goebbels’s, including an exhortation to make art “in the next decade heroic.” It also includes the warning that Goebbels gave that if art doesn’t rise to the national moment, “it will cease to exist.”

In the background, Richard Wagner’s opera “Lohengrin” is playing, a work Hitler described in his autobiography as one that had been decisive in his life, according to the newspaper Folha de São Paulo.

Announcing a $4.8 million investment in the country’s national arts grant program, Mr. Alvim, a veteran theater director, made clear the government would fund works that hew to Mr. Bolsonaro’s worldview, works that pay homage to historical figures and emphasize conservative values.

The arts grants would support operas, theater productions, painting and sculpture exhibitions, works of literature and music compositions.

Mr. Alvim said Brazil needed “a culture that doesn’t destroy, but one that will save our youth.”

“When culture is sickened, people become sick as well,” he said in a video recorded alongside the president, which was broadcast before the one that drew controversy.

By Friday morning, Goebbels and Nazi were trending topics on Twitter in Brazil as users shared news stories and memes expressing horror.

Mr. Alvim initially dismissed the criticism, accusing leftists of reading too much into his words, and saying in a radio interview that his aides chose the passages from Goebbels’s speech when he asked them to search on Google for speeches about “nationalism and art.”

But later he apologized to the Jewish community for what he called “an involuntary mistake.”

Mr. Bolsonaro said on Friday afternoon in a statement that despite Mr. Alvin’s apology, he decided that keeping him in the job was “unsustainable.” He added that the government “repudiates totalitarian and genocidal ideologies.”

Several politicians, including the speaker of the House, had called for Mr. Alvim’s immediate ouster while some prominent figures close to Mr. Bolsonaro questioned his sanity.

José Antonio Dias Toffoli, the president of the Supreme Court, said in a statement that Mr. Alvim’s remarks deserved to be “repudiated with vehemence,” adding that they were “offensive to Brazilian people, especially the Jewish community.”

Olavo de Carvalho, a Virginia-based writer and YouTuber from Brazil who is known for peddling conspiracy theories and informing Mr. Bolsonaro’s thinking on societal and intellectual matters, was also critical of Mr. Alvim.

“It may be early to judge,” he wrote on Facebook. “But Roberto Alvim may not be of sound mind. We’ll see.”

Germany’s embassy in Brazil condemned the speech in a post on Twitter, saying that it opposed “any attempt to banalize or glorify” an era that “brought infinite suffering for humanity.”

Letícia Casado contributed reporting from Brasília.

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