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How Hitler Used the Olympics as Propaganda, and Could Putin Do the Same?

Vladimir Putin at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Announcement
What are Putin's plans for the 2018 World Cup?

On 1 August 1936, 110,00 people filled the newly built Olympic Stadium in Berlin. Packed to the rafters, they were here to watch the opening ceremony of the Summer Games.

Standing centre stage was the German Chancellor Adolf Hitler who, like everyone else, was keenly anticipating the event. Joseph Goebbels, his Minister of Propaganda, had promised him something special.

Originally lukewarm about the idea of hosting the Games, Goebbels had convinced Hitler that this was an opportunity to showcase Nazism to the world; the script for a “festival of joy and peace” was to be written. The stadium was built, the ceremonies organised, flags rolled out and the world was invited.

Knowing the power of imagery, the Nazis made it the first televised games, available for all to see. Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was even commissioned to make a two-part film called Olympia, which was translated into English and French. Described by The Times as “visually ravishing”, today it is recognised merely as a powerful piece of Nazi propaganda.

The opening ceremony didn’t disappoint the Führer. The lights, the marching and the many salutes demonstrated Nazi control. Hitler himself declared the games officially open. As the Hindenburg flew slowly overhead thousands of pigeons were released.

There to cover the event was the American journalist Thomas Wolfe, who described the ceremony as, an “almost religious event, the crowd screaming, swaying in unison and begging for Hitler. There was something scary about it; his cult of personality.”

In hindsight, it’s clear the 1936 Berlin Olympics should never have taken place. To give the Nazis a global audience was a mistake, normalising them and fatally distracting the world’s attention from the persecution going on.

Fast-forward to 2018 and a comparison to the Nazi approach in 1936 has been made. “Your characterisation of what is going to happen in Moscow in the World Cup… I think the comparison with 1936 is certainly right,” the British Foreign Secretary told fellow MPs. “It is an emetic prospect to think of Putin glorifying in this sporting event.”

Adolf Hitler saluting at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games

The suggestion is that Putin will use the upcoming World Cup to promote a sanitised, clean-cut image of Russia for the world to adore. Could history be repeating itself?

While these are times of fraught Anglo-Russian relations – involving attempted murders, angry rhetoric and anti-democratic hacking – Moscow does have a reputation in this regard.

"It’s not difficult to conclude that Russia might indeed be a rogue state."

Just four months ago the UN approved a resolution that strongly condemned human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea, referring to Russia as an “occupying power” there. And what about this year’s Russian election? Putin is said to have won over 71% of the vote, but opposition activists have highlighted cases of voter rigging and statistical anomalies. It’s not difficult to conclude that Russia might indeed be a rogue state; it’s certainly not squeaky clean.

Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

The German fans adored him: “We cheered and cheered and cheered and then some when he won the broad jump. We just could not stop cheering when he and Ralph Metcalfe, also black, came in first in the 400-metre relay,” wrote journalist Wolf Von Eckardt. By competing, winning and making fans along the way Owens demonstrated that Hitler’s racist views were idiocy.

While we know that Putin – as he did with the Sochi Games in 2014 – will use the event to display the very best of Russia, what we don’t know is what will happen on the football pitch, a place free from political manipulation. And let’s face it, even England wouldn’t mind being drawn against Russia – a team that since the dissolution of the Soviet Union has never made it past the group stages.