History vs. Propaganda: A Brazilian Example by Thomas E. Skidmore



[00:00:00] The question of propaganda versus history is a fascinating one. As a historian I have had occasion to try and find my way through very tendentious sources about something that has happened in the past. In my case it was the military coup of 1964 in Brazil, and indeed the whole build-up to the coup was a matter of being able to decipher the messages that were coming from the press, pamphlets, news broadcasts, TV programs, threats, marches. All of these were designed to reinforce a position in preparation for what everybody thought was going to be a big confrontation, and, of course, there was a big confrontation which occurred March 31, 1964.

Now what is interesting about this is that, although those of us who were there at the time (and that includes myself) thought that there was going to be some kind of combat, some kind of confrontation, in the end there was not. There was a kind of collapse of the left-leaning government of President Goulart. And the military came in in the manner described by a marvelous Portuguese metaphor as “pushing on an open door.” They found that there was very little resistance and they were ready to take over the government very rapidly. Then of course the process began again—the process, that is, of trying to sort out how the coup had occurred and what roles everyone had played.

What’s interesting is that the military government, which came in in 1964, began to suppress evidence, which meant that as a historian I had to try and find information that was not in the public domain or that was censored from newspapers and magazines, and the way I did that primarily was to turn to interviews. And so my great source to get past the problem of propaganda or distorted printed sources was interviews, especially with journalists, whom I found to be an extraordinarily good source of information. They led me to sources I would never have thought of, and they also had a kind of sophistication in interpreting what had happened.

My Book on the Coup

[02:27:00] Now, my book, which came out in 1967 Politics in Brazil, 1930-1964: An Experiment in Democracy was an interpretation of this coup. The question immediately asked of me in Brazil is: “Okay, Skidmore, pro or against?” And I was very proud of the fact that people on both the left and the right thought I had done an honest job, even though they didn’t agree with my interpretation.

So I felt that I had been able to secure the middle ground, and I can remember this very vividly because there were two people—two representatives of what you might call “the propaganda position”—who said this to me. One was an army colonel who was a very close aid to the general who had been in charge of the coup of 1964, and this colonel said to me, “Well Skidmore, I know your book, I’ve read your book, and I don’t agree with all of it, but I think you gave a pretty good account.” So that was one from the right wing.

From the left wing was a Brazilian journalist who had been imprisoned for a year, had been tortured, got out of prison, and he came to see me in a hotel in Rio. And he said, “You know, I don’t agree with your book, but I think it was very helpful for Brazilians who wanted to understand what happened.” So I was very pleased to have advocates from the two extreme ends telling me that they thought my presentation had been fair.

A German Example, Part I

[03:54:00] Now, the question of propaganda and sources has come up at other points in Latin American history, but I suppose I am most fascinated by their relevance in German history. I did a Ph.D. in German history, and I think one of the reasons that I went into German history was the fascination with the war-guilt question, and the whole rise of the Nazis and how they tried to base their appeal to the German public on the argument that Germany had been dealt with unjustly.

Now, how did this turn out? Well, first of all, at the end of the First World War, the winning allies, that is, France and England and the United States, decided that they would decide who won the war and who had been responsible for the war. So they developed what was called “the war guilt question.” And they said: “The power that was responsible for starting this terrible war was Germany, and so we are going to fine the Germans. We are going to have reparations and make them pay us for all the expense of the war. Furthermore, we are going to demonstrate through objective historical documents how the Germans began the First World War.” That triggered a tremendous debate in Europe and in the United States over the origins of the First World War and, in fact, became the overwhelming, historical question among Westerners between 1918 and 1939.

Now, how did it develop? Well the way it developed was historians in the West who thought they were completely objective began assembling documents to prove that the Germans began the war and that the allies—the English, the French, the Americans—were simply reacting. And so there was documentary evidence to support the charge that the Germans were responsible for it all.

Now this stimulated a huge debate, not least in Germany. And in Germany there was actually a scholarly journal founded, devoted completely to the question of war guilt, called the “Kriegsschuldfrage”—the war guilt question. They sincerely believed that their documentation wiped out the entire claim about German responsibility for the war. Now, this of course had practical implications because if the Germans were not responsible for the war, then they should not have to pay the reparations. Now, the allies are not convinced by all of these many erudite articles, but what is interesting is that the debate then spread into the ranks of historians in the West.

A German Example, Part II

[06:42:00] So in the United States and England there began a great debate over whether we were right in blaming the Germans from the beginning of the First World War. And we had several historians—Harry Elmer Barnes was one of the most famous in the United States—who devoted their entire career to trying to disprove the war-guilt cause. These historians argued that the problem with the allied indictment of Germany was that it wasn’t objective. It was based upon the vengeance of the victors and on people who did not like Germans. They, therefore, were in a way giving the Germans a blank slate to begin again in the 1920s and the 1930s.

Now, the revisionists, like Harry Elmer Barnes, argued that this was a national character explanation—which had no basis in fact—that the war had broken out as the result of a very intricate chain of events in Europe and that it was totally impossible by any objective analysis to point to the Germans as being exclusively responsible. Well, these historians were welcomed with open arms by the Germans, who said, “You see, we told you it wasn’t our exclusive fault. Here is this American historian who is very eminent who is even agreeing with us.”

All of this controversy of course was closely linked to the rise of Nazism, because the claim of Germany’s sole guilt in starting the First World War was one of the main charges that the Nazis wanted to refute. And so Hitler’s nationalist appeal had in it a large element of the desire to refute the thesis of German war guilt. And, of course, he had a very receptive public in Germany.

A German Example, Part III

[08:41:00] So what is the end of this story? It has several endings for a historian. First of all, we had the Second World War. Now this time it was pretty difficult to say that the Germans didn’t start it because Hitler, the Nazis, the Wehrmacht, the blitzkriegs—all of this business seemed to be so obvious. Therefore, once again, the Allies after the war said, “Well, the Germans are responsible.” Now, what’s interesting about this is that it has produced its own reaction and the reaction is seen in the current controversy over the German responsibility for atrocities in the Second World War.

We had a book published here recently called Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Now, the whole point of this book is to show that Germans by nature were anti-Semitic and were prepared to kill Jews wherever they found them—ordinary Germans, people that had no political background. So we’re now getting, once again, the argument over whether the Germans, because of something in their nature, are to be condemned. All of that is linked to this same question of war guilt, which goes back to the origins of war in 1914 and the way in which the victorious powers wanted to interpret their victory in order to extract material advantages from the Germans.

Now, from the standpoint of our subject here, which is propaganda and history, all sides in these arguments produced their documents, and all sides say, “Our documents prove our thesis.” And so, how do they go about dealing with the documents of their opponents? They either minimize them or ignore them. The most frequent device that historians use in trying to reply to some document that looks embarrassing is to ignore it and to produce other documents and to get your attention onto those documents.

History versus Propaganda: A Cuban Example

[10:51:00] The Cuban case is a very interesting case in which there was again a great argument over why Cuba turned communist. In 1959, when Fidel Castro came to the United States and did not ask for aid and wasn’t offered any aid, the big question was whether the U.S. government could have kept him on our [the U.S.] side if we had been more receptive. And that argument goes on in the absence of very much documentation. One of the reasons, I believe, is because Fidel was extremely clever in not leaving documents that might have identified his ideological position in 1959.

But the current embargo that still is applied to Cuba is a result of the American belief that there was a betrayal by Castro of the Americans and [of Cuba’s] relationship with the Americans. And so we have a whole documentation built up, which uses only documents to prove that Fidel [Castro] was and is the aggressor.

Those collections of documents never include the counter set of documents, which are put out by the Cubans, which give evidence of American aggression. So once again, the question is: Who’s looking at the documents and what is their interest in trying to interpret them?