I am a historian teaching undergraduates at New York University in Berlin and today I was asked, walking in the warm sunshine of better times in the German capital, whether we can make comparisons between the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia and the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany (which hosted both the Winter and Summer games that year).
It’s my professional impulse to get testy when commentators say things like ‘history is repeating itself’ (which it just can’t). But with the rash of anti-gay legislation in Russia, I do think that important parallels between the two cases can be made. Both states, engaged in campaigns of terror against their minorities, are hosts of an event of the greatest international significance: the Olympics. Hate laws threaten even those participating in the Games. Both then and today, a large boycott campaign has resulted. In 1936, the boycott was unsuccessful, and the international community participated in what is considered the most nefarious Games on record. The question is whether we have learned anything. Will the 2014 boycott also fail?
Let me first outline the rise and fall of the boycott in 1935, and then we can see if there are any useful comparisons that can be made to our present predicament.
The 1935 Boycott Campaign
In the 30s, as today, the impetus for a boycott of the Olympics came largely from the United States. The American Federation of Labor, major US newspapers, arts associations, church groups, all urged a boycott of the Games. The climax of the public outcry was a mass rally at Madison Square Garden on the eve of the Winter Games in December 1935. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) made the final decision. A third of its affiliated members (a half million) signed a petition against sending an American team–– but its executive voted narrowly in favor.
Why did this executive send athletes to Nazi Germany? Historian Richard D. Mandell argues that Avery Brundage, who had been the President of the American Olympic Committee, visited and was dazzled by Germany in 1934. He came back saying the reports of racial persecutions there were not to be believed. His influence was decisive in the final vote when, in the final hours, he assumed the mantle as both head of the AAU and the US Olympic Committee, and agitated for ‘anti-Olympic’ members of the committee to resign. In this way, American athletes came to participate in Hitler’s Olympics. (Mandell, pp. 79 ff.)
But would Jewish athletes be allowed to participate, and in particular on the German team? The answer to this question is a rather striking one: Jewish athletes were in fact actively recruited by the German team: a number of half-Jews were brought in from outside Germany, including Helene Mayer, a fencer, who had been exiled to California. She’d won gold in Amsterdam in 1928 for Germany, and won silver in Berlin, giving the Nazi salute with a swastika on her arm during the awards ceremony. Mayer’s participation was part of what we might call the ‘Jew-washing’ of the German Olympics: anti-Semitic propaganda was withheld from newspapers, ‘no Jews’ signs taken down, street violence was suppressed. In the end, many left Berlin in ’36 with the idea that things were getting better for Jews, not worse.
The President of the Olympic Committee at the time, Count Baillet-Latour was in fact astonished, despite all assurances, by anti-Semitic signs on German roads leading to Olympic events on his way to open the Winter Games. Hitler at first would not alter a ‘question of the highest importance in Germany… for a small point of Olympic protocol’ (Mandell, p. 93). Only when Baillet-Latour threatened to cancel the Games, were the offensive signs taken down… but just until the Games were over.
Comparisons for Sochi 2014
We might draw four main points from this history:
1. Again, there’s the risk of mobilization without results:
The boycott in 1935 failed despite mass mobilization in favor. Today too we have a large wave of support for a boycott: hundreds of thousands of signatures, a torrent of public letters from Dan Savage to Stephen Fry (who wrote Putin ‘is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did Jews’), words of warning by the President on Jay Leno (the host said, ‘this sounds like Germany with let’s round up the Jews’).
We should be wary if this rush of protest leads, as in so many cases, to nothing but plenty of rhetoric and the final cry, ‘The Games will go on’. The decision then was ultimately taken by an executive of sports officials, with no regard for its constituents. This could easily happen again, unless these officials are elbowed out by government policy. I don’t think it’s enough to protest on Facebook, we need to put pressure directly on corporate sponsors and on the decision makers: your national Olympic Committees and the IOC, because they, not you, will make the final decision. The consequence of inaction is, just like in 1936, that the ambitions of trainers, sports officials and athletes to win Olympic Gold will trump humanitarian considerations.
2. Our ignorance or denial of the facts:
The decisions makers in 1935 were not convinced that officially sanctioned persecutions were actually occurring in Germany. Today, I can’t imagine members of the decision-making bodies believing that anti-gay violence is not happening in Russia. Not unless they have never heard of the internet. You need only look at the pictures. In this sense, the comparison with 1936 is instructive because decision makers today in fact have fewer excuses not to support a boycott of the Sochi games.
3. The role of the IOC:
We should note that the Olympic Committee was actually willing to cancel the Games in protest in 1936. Today’s Olympic Committee is making none of the same threats, but rather stating that gay athletes who ‘politicize’ the Games with their sexuality could be sent home. The stance of the IOC has clearly deteriorated in comparison.
4. The risk of Jew-Washing/ Pink-Washing:
Germany used the Olympics as a propaganda set-piece to allay fears about the extent of its anti-Semitism by including half-Jewish athletes and by suppressing anti-Semitic demonstrations. Today, Obama says that anti-gay laws have no place at the Olympics. But will Russia, like Germany, simply ‘pink-wash’ the Olympics for those two weeks of spectacle if the games do ‘go on’? I don’t think so, it’s quite unimaginable that Russia would actively recruit gay athletes at this moment.
In fact, Russia seems less compliant than Germany in suspending its campaign of hatred for the Games. Vitaly Mutko, the Russian sports minister, told the press last week that athletes coming to the 2014 Winter Olympic games in Sochi could be subject to those same “homosexual propaganda laws” passed this summer: gays or those expressing support for gay athletes could be arrested, detained for weeks and deported. Wave a rainbow flag, hold hands with a member of the same sex, and you go to jail.
Some final thoughts…
Russia’s laws are not the same as the Nazi Nuremberg laws. The former outlaw the visibility of homosexuality in literature and public life, the latter deprived Jewish-Germans of citizenship. But they are similar in the way that they exclude a long-suffering minority socially and legally. You don’t need to be a historian to be suspicious of broad comparisons with the Nazis, used conveniently to counter your opponents, but in this case I think careful parallels are quite justified. We should all be wary of where hate legislation might lead.
Ultimately, this issue should be faced in the spirit of Olympism. You need only to look at the Olympic Charter to see that one of its fundamental principles is:
The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.
At present, we are poised to send athletes into an atmosphere of discrimination. It’s not a mistake we should make twice.
Dr. Joseph Pearson is currently a lecturer at the New York University center in Berlin, and the editor of The Needle.
*See Mandell, The Nazi Olympics (1971) for an overview of the 1936 Games.