I am a lover of history and have the propensity to feel events that happened far in the past with the emotional immediacy of today. So, with all the discussion of the upcoming Olympics in China and the various controversies surrounding it, I felt drawn back to the 1936 games in Berlin, Nazi Germany to get some understanding of the situation today.
The 1936 Games were one of those events in history that makes you think that history is not a random sequence of events, but a novel written by a brilliant celestial author. Because if there was ever a perfect prologue to the tragedies that ensued over the next decade, the Games of the 11th Olympiad was it. There we saw the seemingly normal and even triumphant Olympics overshadowed by strong hints of the darkness to come.
There was the obvious ominous foreshadowing there for anyone to see. First was the restrictions placed on Jews, gypsies and other minorities that barred them from competing in the Olympics for Germany. For some reason, whenever I read a retelling of the history of the Third Reich, it is these restrictions in those Olympics that stick out at me over all of the other pre-Holocaust actions of Germany against various minority groups. I suppose it is because, more than employment restrictions and legal segregation, it hints at Germany's ultimate intent with regards to these people. Sure, in the United States we denied a lot of rights to African Americans, we placed a ton of obstacles in their way, but I don't believe, by that point in our history, there was a campaign to erase African Americans from our national story. The government held a racist view of them, but sill recognized them as Americans. What Nazi Germany was saying was “it is not possible to view you as Germans.” When it becomes clear to a government that a group doesn't have a place in society, there is only one way to deal with that group: to get rid of them.
This chilling realization of the path on which Germany was headed coupled with the realization of where the world was headed. The German acts barring Jews and others from competing were clear violations of the spirit of the Olympics, but despite this, the world did nothing. Only one country (Ireland) boycotted the Olympics, and even worse, it seemed that the world wasn't willing to stand up for those being oppressed in any way at all. This same pattern would, of course, be repeated in the coming years. Perhaps it was in those Olympics that Hitler learned that despite the wailing his actions could cause, the western world was far too weak willed to actually do anything about it.
He was able to get what he wanted, a dramatic public relations coup, without giving up his essential principles of anti-Semitism and fascism. Few realize that it was here that the Nazis got their reputation as being efficient administrators, which is a myth (they were actually terrible at running the government) that hangs around to this day. Hitler himself gained the equally false reputation of being an intimidating, intelligent, and effective statesman, so that while he was threatening the world, people remembered this image of Hitler rather than the ridiculous thug that he was.
So what lessons can we learn from this? Well, first, I think its useful to consider Mark Twain's words: “History doesn't repeat itself; at best it sometimes rhymes.” Yes China and Nazi Germany are both oppressive governments, but I think it's a bit of a stretch to say that the two are exactly analogous. Those who are saying so forget how bad Nazi Germany was in the 1930s, not only absolutely, but relative to where it had been. Germany in the 1920s had been an extremely open and free society, Berlin in particular was considered one of the great centers of culture in the world. Its transfer from the open 1920s to the repressive 30s was breathtaking, and it was rapidly stepping deeper into darkness at the time of the Olympics. Contrast that with China, which, while certainly oppressive, has been relatively stable in its level of oppressiveness over the past 20 years, and has even improved over the Mao Cultural Revolution years. The danger of Nazi Germany going over the edge was much greater than the danger of China somehow going over the edge now.
Another difference (not really relevant to how we should react, but perhaps relevant to how much you should worry) is the image of the country coming out of these games. As I said before, Germany's 1936 games were an unqualified success for Germany. The grandness with which Germany put on the games was unparalleled in the history of the Olympics. There was even a propaganda documentary called Olympia (from the same people who brought you Triumph of the Will) which spectacularly portrayed the Olympics to the rest of the world, and was so groundbreaking that it is said that those who film athletics continue to use techniques invented in that documentary. China, on the other hand, appears at this point to be making a fool of itself on many levels with its pollution and hastily constructed venues. With any luck, we'll get to hear a ton of embarrassing stories about China between now and the summer.
So how should we respond? I do agree with Jon that some form of protest at the games would be the most effective way to get the right message across. I'm not in agreement with those who say we should boycott for many reasons, but the snarkiest one I can think of is that I can't stand people who call on others (athletes) to sacrifice tremendously for this cause when most of us have bought at least one product this week that started its journey to our shelves in China.