By Rowan Kane
American athletes are headed to a country that has legislated discrimination against a minority, has perpetuated violence against that minority, and has painted that minority as a cultural, moral and national threat. If this sounds familiar, it should. Nearly 80 years ago, there was a very similar context for an Olympic games.
The 1936 Games were called Hitler’s Olympics and were to showcase the renewed strength of Germany after its humiliation in the Treaty of Versailles and nearly two decades of political and economic turmoil. Alongside this supposed national renaissance came the economic and political persecution of Jews that would eventually lead to the Holocaust. As Hitler did in the mid-1930’s, Vladimir Putin, an elected authoritarian, and his government have used the mechanics of state to bring violence and persecution against a minority; homosexuals. The 2014 Winter Games are Putin’s Olympics and more money has been spent on them, $51 billion, than any in history. They are in simple terms an affirmation of his fourteen-year regime.
Hitler’s name is evoked far too often in today’s media. As Jon Stewart quipped, back in 2005, “That guy (Hitler) worked too many years, too hard, to be that evil, to have any Tom, Dick and Harry come along and say ‘Hey, you’re being Hitler.’ No! You know who was Hitler? Hitler!” I do not intend to paint Vladimir as a modern-day Adolf. Putin (like all others) has a long way to go before that comparison becomes even remotely similar and hopefully it never does. But, the persecution of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and the transgendered (LGBT) is rising dramatically in Russia (as it is elsewhere), and with that persecution being state-sanctioned, the Sochi Olympics, Putin’s Olympics, are an opportunity to send a message that one’s sexuality should never be grounds for discrimination of any kind.
Despite the wishes of the International Olympic Committee (pg 15, Section E, 1) and its current President for the Olympics to remain politically neutral, throughout their history the Games have regularly been a stage for political protest and rivalry. With Hitler’s election as Chancellor in 1933 and the subsequent Night of the Long Knives a year later, Germany and the Nazi Party became one and the same. With the struggles between the Communist-left and Fascist-right playing out across Europe, the 1936 games, which Berlin had won 1931 during the ill-fated Weimar Republic, were to become a further validation that the Fascism seen in Italy and Germany, and soon to arrive in Spain, was an acceptable alternative to democracy.
Leading up to the Olympics at the annual Nazi Party rally in 1935, the Nuremburg Laws had been announced, which “excluded German Jews from Reich citizenship and prohibited them from marrying or having sexual relations with persons of ‘German or related blood.’ Ancillary ordinances to the laws disenfranchised Jews and deprived them of most political rights” (via). There was open talk in the Nazi Party of banning Jews and blacks from the Games entirely and indeed there was only one athlete on the German team, a female fencer, who could claim Jewish heritage. In the month prior to the event, Gypsies living in Berlin were arrested and sent to one of the first concentration camps, Berlin-Marzhan.
While the Gypsies were being rounded up, the direct persecution Jews and other minorities who had more international support slackened but only slightly. Anti-Semitic signs were removed and a decree was issued that the laws against homosexuality, which had arisen alongside the disenfranchisement of Jews, would be suspended for foreign visitors. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum calls this “The Façade of Hospitality” for a visiting world that would remain ignorant, willfully or otherwise, of the deep-seated discrimination many in Germany were facing. However, in the international athletic community there was a debate over boycotting the 1936 Games and many Jewish athletes did, including the captain of the Harvard track team.
Berlin had beaten out Barcelona in 1931 to become the host city, two years prior to the rise of the Nazi Party. Once Hitler came to power however, the IOC did “collaborate with the Nazi government in allowing what was predictably a major Nazi propaganda exercise to be staged.”[i] This collaboration involved a resistance to boycotts from IOC members including from Avery Brundage, an American delegate and later IOC President who, after visiting Germany in 1934 claimed that anti-Semitism was not apparent in Germany and if did exist that “any such racism was an internal and political matter for Germany and was none of the IOC’s business.”[ii]
The largest form of protest was supposed to come in the form of the “People’s Olympiad” which was to beheld in Barcelona, the only other city to have received votes in 1931, and hosted by the Spanish Popular Front government. Franco’s coup against the Popular Front just weeks before these rival games were to begin sparked the Spanish Civil War which would rage for three years, and in the short term cancelled the largest planned anti-fascist protest.
From an historical perspective, the 1936 Games themselves are now thought to have served as a kind of protest. Jesse Owens is known as an American hero not just because he won four gold medals in Berlin, but because in popular mythology (mainly due to later American propaganda) he stood as a black man against Hitler and forced him to acknowledge the faults behind his übermensch. However this popular retroactive history has little basis in reality. Nazi philosophy held that blacks, while inferior, were naturally strong and athletic, so athletic success was not a huge surprise (as the Joseph Goebbels explains in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds). Not to mention the fact that Owens was allowed to stay at the same hotels and eat at the same restaurants as his white teammates, a privilege not accorded to him in many parts of his own country.
All told, the 1936 Berlin Olympics represented a microcosm of European politics. Fascism was recognized as potentially dangerous but its economic successes and stabilization efforts were lauded. Furthermore, the racism and discrimination seen in Germany prior to the outbreak of World War II was, quite simply, acceptable in many countries. With the advantage of historical hindsight, we can see just how foreboding 1936 was, but we cannot say that the Berlin Olympics were on the right side of history. We can say that the Berlin Olympics were a missed opportunity (one of many) to stand up to the anti-Semitism and militarism in Nazi Germany.
This year in Sochi, there will be no clash of broad socio-political ideologies nor will there be any true great power rivalries that play out in competition. That said, these games are rife with political meaning and will be an important gauge in how our society will face social injustice abroad in the years to come.
By setting his games in Sochi, President Putin, on one hand, is attempting to show that his regime has subdued the Caucuses, a feat which has escaped Moscow for centuries. The host city is located less than an hour drive from the Georgian/Abkhazian border. Abkhazia along with South Ossetia are two breakaway provinces recognized as independent by the Russian government and very few others. It was South Ossetia that, in 2008, was the venue a brief war between Georgia and Russia and both provinces were the site of wars that ‘ended’ in the 1990’s but which continue to simmer unresolved (hence the peacekeepers and conflicting recognition).
Sochi is further but not far (especially by Russian standards) from the Islamic breakaway Republics of Chechnya and Dagestan which have been the host for, and the source of some of the most violent episodes over the past twenty years. Grozny, the Chechen capital, means “terrible” in Russian and has been the source site of intermittent rebellion since the days of the Russian Empire. It was Chechen rebels who held a Moscow movie theater hostage in 2002 ending in over 170 deaths and it was Dagestani militants who, just last month, carried out two suicide bombings in Volgograd, killing a combined 32 people. In other words, the Caucuses are far from conquered, and the massive security curtain surrounding Sochi shows that Putin realizes this.
More immediately disturbing than the simmering inter- and sub-national conflicts is the boiling over of cultural homophobia into legal oppression and discrimination. As has been widely reported, in June of last year, the Russian Duma passed a law that prohibits “homosexual propaganda” towards minors. In reality, this law has been used to quash any type of movement for LGBT rights.
Homophobia in Russia is a genuine societal fear; not only is it thought of as a choice but it is also widely conflated with pedophilia, and thus painted as a threat to children (hence the wording of the law). Much like the West, Russia had laws banning homosexuality and sodomy as far back as the early 18th century. Until the Russian Revolution in 1917, the czars, alongside the Russian Orthodox Church, positioned themselves as the national moral authority, a mantle quickly taken up by the Bolsheviks themselves.
According to Dan Healey, a professor of modern history and an expert on homosexuality in Russia, “Modern Russia’s homophobia can trace its roots from the rise of Stalin and his henchmen” (via). From the law’s adoption in 1934 until its quiet repeal in 1993, homosexual acts were punishable by imprisonment and hard labor. Healey posits that ten of thousands were prosecuted under it.
While the current law does not outlaw the act itself, the popular sentiment against homosexuals in Russia is near-militant and its violence has been tolerated if not condoned by the authorities. Putin himself recently commented on the controversy, stating that homosexuals are welcome at the Olympics “as long as they leave the children in peace”. This kind of rhetoric only encourages popular violence that is becoming more apparent by the week.
Russia, much like Germany in 1936, will probably be on its best behavior for Putin’s Games, but that does not mean that the West should halt its pressure. Indeed there have been encouraging signs from the international community. The day before the Olympics are to start, Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki Moon, “condemns persecution of gay people in Russia”. Equally encouraging is the official delegation sent by President Obama, which includes three openly homosexual athletes. These messages are vital because, as Greg Louganis, a four time Olympic gold medalist and LGBT activist, recently posited in an op-ed for the LA Times, “I’m confident that the best response to the mounting repression in Russia is engagement.” We, as a society, must make these Olympics, unlike Berlin 78 years ago, a clear message to the Russian government and its people that the global community in 2014 will not tolerate the oppression and disenfranchisement of, or violence against people for their sexual orientation.