Has Boris Johnson done it again? Following his comparison of Vladimir Putin’s hosting of the World Cup in Russia to the political capital made by Hitler out of Berlin’s hosting of the 1936 Olympics debate has raged as to whether he is right or whether this is another characteristic gaffe by the foreign secretary – another entry into the already crowded political field of Godwin’s Law, which states that sooner or later in an argument someone will always bring up Hitler.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics has developed a powerful mythology. Although it was the preceding democratic Weimar Republic that had won the Games for Berlin, it was the Nazis who would actually host them and they quickly saw their potential for propaganda. They banned Jewish athletes from representing Germany and tried to discourage other countries from sending Jewish or black athletes. They also instituted the famous Olympic torch relay, as a celebration of their claim to have inherited the tradition of European culture and civilisation from the days of the Greeks.
The theme of Aryan masculinity was picked up in the opening section of Olympia – the long, two-part film commissioned by the Nazis from Leni Riefenstahl, the German director who had made her name with the brilliantly innovative Triumph of the Will, showing the 1934 Nazi Party rally.
However, not everything went to Hitler’s plan. As is well known, the games were dominated by the black American athlete, Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals. Contrary to widespread belief, Hitler didn’t storm out in disgust rather than congratulate Owens – he had been told off by the Olympic committee for congratulating only German medallists and so had decided not to congratulate anyone.
Perhaps more corrosive to Nazi racial theory than Owens’s success was the friendship Owens struck up with Lutz Long, his blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan German rival. Even Riefenstahl’s film is more even-handed than one might expect and pays appropriate attention to competitors of all countries, including black athletes. Sport does not always conform to the political wishes of those who make use of it.
Football and fascism
The Nazis were far from alone in using sport for political purposes. Franco understood the political importance of football and saw Real Madrid’s period of dominance as a reflection of his regime. Dynamo Moscow’s controversial post-war tour of Britain nearly caused a diplomatic incident, and Italian football is still closely tied up with politics. Major international sporting events are an irresistible temptation to regimes to trumpet their own culture and achievements – witness the ever-more elaborate extravaganza with which Olympic Games are opened. There is a particular pleasure to be had in putting visiting teams on the spot and obliging them to pay more effusive tribute to their hosts than they might feel happy with.
In 1938, when England played Germany in Berlin, on instructions from the Foreign Office, the England players lined up and gave the Nazi salute. England won the game 6-3 but from Hitler’s point of view, photographic evidence of the England team embracing his party symbol was of far greater propaganda importance.
What might be a 21st-century equivalent of that notorious moment? Russia was awarded the 2018 World Cup by Sepp Blatter’s discredited regime at FIFA, so the very fact it is going ahead is a feather in Putin’s cap. The tournament offers the Russians a chance to erase some of the shame that Russia has been carrying since the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi after which Russia was banned from the PyeongChang Winter Olympics for drugs cheating.
The Russians have been quick to condemn the comparison as a gaffe from a man “poisoned with hate and boorishness”. But, with Putin having just won an election that is widely regarded as rigged, any acknowledgement of his authority – even a handshake from a winning team captain – can be regarded as a propaganda coup. In the febrile international atmosphere which is quickly developing after the Salisbury poisoning, even footage of players sightseeing in Moscow or St Petersburg can take on a political significance.
As the extent of Russian manipulation of social media for propaganda purposes is becoming clearer, Johnson’s suggestion that Putin will use the World Cup for political capital becomes a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t he? But as the 1936 comparison also suggests, he should be careful – sporting competitions can develop their own narrative, and it won’t necessarily be to Putin’s liking.