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Topics In the News
The Real Lesson of the Nazi Olympics
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 08/06/13
Last updated on: 08/06/13
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Since Harvey Fierstein's courageous call for a boycott of the Winter Games scheduled for Sochi in 2014, a bizarre meme has emerged that the 1936 Olympics in Berlin was somehow a triumph for human rights that was achieved because nations like the United States and Great Britain rather than boycotting the Games made a brave decision to attend. Actually, however, the real lesson of the Nazi Olympics is that the United States and Great Britain were too timid to stand up to a fascist dictator and that timidity had consequences. By attending the Olympics, they gave Hitler a major propaganda victory and a stamp of respectability even as his persecution of Jews and other minorities was well underway. The question now facing us in light of the dire situation in Russia for glbtq people is whether by NOT boycotting the Sochi Olympics we will again give a greenlight to persecution.

The argument, which has been echoed in many discussions of the proposed boycott of the Sochi Games, was expressed most bluntly by Cyd Zeigler at OutSports. He wrote that "Instead of walking away, LGBT athletes and their nations should march into Sochi holding their heads high. It's a lesson we learned in 1936 when the United States faced a similar decision: Attend the Berlin Games as the Third Reich was rising to power, or stay home due to mounting human rights concerns. The Americans attended those Games and gave rise to Jesse Owens, a black athlete who beat Hitler's 'master race' at his own game on his own track."

Well, yes, Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe scored wonderful victories in the 1936 Olympics, Owens winning an unprecedented four gold medals. And under international pressure, the Nazis even relaxed their discriminatory laws for a couple of weeks and allowed some African and Jewish athletes to compete, including two on the German team (one of whom was removed at the last minute).

But Germany actually won by far the most medals at the Games--89 as compared to 56 for the United States, which finished second in the medal count. So notwithstanding the great achievements of African-American athletes, Hitler could (and did) plausibly cite the Games as proof of the racial supremacy he promoted.

Most significantly, however, Hitler seized upon the Games as a means to proclaim his regime's international respectability at the very time that the concentration camps were filling with Jews and other minorities. Because nations like the United States were conned into believing that the Olympics were simply about sports, our participation actually helped enable the persecutions. By attending the Berlin Olympics, the American sports establishment signaled its indifference to the plight of Hitler's victims.

The decision of the United States to attend the Berlin Olympics is not one to be celebrated. The decision should be derided as a shameful one that reflected misplaced priorities and that had horrendous consequences.

In an interesting analysis in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Joel Connolly finds a number of analogies between the Nazi Olympics and the Sochi Games. He describes the Berlin Olympics as a "distant mirror on the upcoming Sochi Olympics in Russia."

The question of whether to boycott the Russian Olympics is a complex one. I understand the difficulties boycotts pose for athletes. There may be some way to use the Sochi Games in order to bring the world's attention to the rise of fascism and the suffering of gay people in Russia, as Frank Bruni suggests in his New York Times column. Boycotts of Russian vodka and other products may also be effective in making clear that a price should be paid for Russia's contempt for human rights.

My own preference would be to pressure the International Olympic Committee to move the Winter Games from Sochi to a city such as Vancouver that actually embodies the Olympic spirit of inclusion.

But what should not be done is to cite the 1936 Berlin Olympics as an argument in favor of participating in the Sochi Games. In fact, the Berlin Olympics stands as the best reason to boycott Sochi.

History teaches us what happens when governments like the United States, with full knowledge of the persecution that was occurring in Nazi Germany, nevertheless buys the idea that the Olympics are "above politics." They aren't.

To pretend that the pogrom underway against Russian gays is simply an internal problem that does not concern the United States and Western Europe is to betray the principles that the Olympic Games are supposed to exemplify.

The video below, from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, explains how the 1936 Olympics was a great propaganda victory for Hitler.

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