11 August 2008

Learning the Right Lessons from 1936

(From RealClearWorld)

Jesse Owens was the star of the Berlin Games in 1936. True.

Adolf Hitler used the Olympics as a propaganda opportunity to sell Nazi Germany. Also true.

Owens’ runaway success debunked Hitler’s Aryan superiority theme, rendered the Berlin Olympics a colossal failure and brought personal humiliation to the Fuhrer himself.

False, false, false. A thousand times false.

History has a funny way of repeating itself. What’s not funny is this kind of revisionist history -- wrong and sending the wrong message.

It’s become de rigueur to draw comparisons between the Games in Berlin and this year’s Beijing Olympics. It’s easy to see the parallels: Totalitarian regimes. Human rights abuses. State-sponsored planning and “cleansing.” And a bubbling nationalism that’s difficult to miss.

But in order for those comparisons to make sense it’s paramount to understand what actually had happened in 1936 and what long-term consequences came of the Berlin Olympics. Thinking that they were a setback for the Nazis would be the wrong place to start.

The 1936 Games were a spectacular success for the Nazis, one that made Hitler’s future genocidal pogroms and aggressive wars possible. Germany was the undisputed winner on the competition fields and in the arena of public opinion.

To assuage the fears of foreign visitors, “Jews not welcome” signs were quietly removed from all over Berlin. The omnipresent Gestapo were made conspicuous by their absence. Even Julius Streicher’s notoriously anti-Semitic Der Sturmer disappeared from the newsstands. Athletes, media and tourists were treated to lavish receptions.

For those visiting Nazi Germany for the first time, they saw a first-rate world power with magnificent infrastructure, clean streets, friendly people and a benevolent government.

For Owens, in particular, it was an unforgettable experience – and a positive one. He was adored by the German public, with crowds chanting his name when he entered the stadium and mobbing him on the street for autographs. And unlike in his segregated homeland, he was free to use whichever public facilities he pleased.

Much has been made of the “Hitler Snub,” a reference to the German leader’s refusal to shake his hand after victories. That was utter nonsense, too. Warned by the IOC to be impartial to competitors, Hitler greeted no one after the first day of the Games. (Who knew Avery Brundage had that much pull?) Owens himself said that Hitler did in fact stand up and acknowledge him during competition. It was Franklin Roosevelt who declined to take his hand upon his triumphant return to America.

The Nazi Games owed part of their success to Olympia, superbly cinematographed by Leni Riefenstahl. The Olympic torch relay, now considered an ancient ritual, was in fact a Riefenstahl invention for the film. For the Berlin Games, the torch run was the first of many glorious moments.

The torch relay for the Beijing Games, in contrast, was marred by international protests of the Chinese regime’s behavior in Darfur, Tibet and in China itself. On that point alone, it’s clear that the Beijing Games will bear little resemblance to its 1936 predecessor.

The Nazis were simply and vastly better at sinister manipulation.

The Beijing Games, three days old, would already have to be considered a mild PR disaster. Showing few abilities to grasp the subtleties the Chinese are purportedly famous for, the communist regime has failed several important tests.

The torch relay was the first opportunity. It would have been better to allow the protesters to run amok instead of strong-arming them with track-suited secret police – on foreign soil. Then came the reneging on a pledge to allow the visiting media unfettered internet access, for which the Chinese government earned universal scorn before somewhat relenting.

With tantrums resembling a neighborhood gangster instead of a global power, the regime caught few breaks from the international press descending on Beijing. Everything it does is viewed with cynicism. Every decision it makes is scrutinized, mostly unfavorably.

For all that, we should all breath a sigh of relief. The Chinese authorities just aren’t as shrewd and devious as Hitler. The Nazis were willing to do anything and everything – even demurring to the toothless IOC – to advance their ultimate agenda. The communist authorities simply can’t help but be their bullying selves.

So for history lessons, there's limited value in comparing these Games 72 years apart - except hopefully this: Olympics do not lead to happy endings for totalitarian regimes.

Nine years after the Berlin Games, Hitler’s Germany lay in rubble and swastikas were wiped off the face of Europe. Nine years after the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Empire soon dissolved. Nine years after the 1984 Games in Sarajevo, Tito’s Yugoslavia was no more.

Can’t wait to see what will happen in 2017.

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