This is the second in History Matters’ series of blogs for LGBT History Month. All of the blogs will appear here as they are posted.
As a historian of early 20th-century lesbian identity in Germany, I have watched with interest the controversies surrounding the LGBT Winter Olympics.
Denounced as the ‘genocide Olympics’ by Circassian protestors, the Sochi Games have been at the heart of a myriad of financial and political controversies, and have already surpassed the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics as the most expensive Games in history. Yet, despite accruing its share of polemical headlines, it has been the safety of LGBT athletes and spectators in Sochi that has received the most sustained media coverage in the run up to the Olympics.
The introduction of Article 6.21 in Russia last year, which bans ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships’, prompted widespread criticism of Russian human rights policies by some of the world’s most prominent LGBT activists. In an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, Stephen Fry insisted on a boycott of the Winter Olympics, equating Russia’s treatment of the LGBT community with Hitler’s scapegoating of the Jews. More recently, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov claimed during an interview that the Sochi Olympics are to Putin what the Berlin Summer Olympics were to Hitler.
Yet, can we ever compare the atrocities committed against Jewish people under the Nazi dictatorship with what has been termed the ‘Winter of Hate’ in Russia? While critics of Fry and Kasparov have dismissed their references as devices for rhetorical effect, a cursory overview of the 1936 Berlin Olympics illustrates some of the more insidious parallels that could be drawn between the ‘Hitler Olympics’ and the Sochi Games.
In 1936, much like today, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was put under increasing pressure in the run up to the Berlin Olympics to find an alternative location for the Summer Games. After Hitler’s introduction of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Race Laws in 1935, Europe and America raised concerns about the safety of their non-Aryan athletes and questioned the morality of supporting an event hosted by the Nazi nation.
In order to allay fears, Hitler ensured the safety of all athletes and spectators, tempering Germany’s oppressive rhetoric for the period of the Olympics. Anti-Semitic placards were removed from the streets and the Nuremberg Laws were suspended for a two-week period, enabling Hitler to perpetuate an image of Berlin as the racially tolerant epicentre of Germany. While the Olympics did not facilitate the continued oppression of Jews, homosexuals and political radicals in the Third Reich, it acted instead as a smoke screen, disguising the true extent of the racial vitriol propagated by the Nazi regime.
Today, the IOC has once again overlooked violations of its Olympic Charter and Putin claims LGBT athletes and spectators are welcomed in Sochi. Yet, unlike the press coverage of 1936, both mass and social media outlets have already highlighted the fissures in Putin’s Potemkin ski village.
On the eve of the opening ceremony, Channel 4’s documentary Hunted revealed the relative impunity with which groups such as Occupy Paedophilia subject homosexuals to beatings and humiliation in Russia. While so far 14 LGBT activists have been arrested since the Games commenced, the IOC continue to strongly advise competitors not to use the Olympics as a platform for political protest.
Yet, despite such intolerance, LGBT protests have been held in at least 19 countries, including Russia, and political leaders have openly criticised Russia’s anti-homosexual policies. Advertising campaigns continue to run in Canada, America, Norway and the UK speaking out against Russia’s repressive laws and athletes themselves have begun to show signs of silent protest.
Although the position of the IOC seems to have changed little since the Berlin Olympics of 1936 and Putin is likely, for the duration of the Games at least, to pedal disingenuous representations of sexual equality, we should not be so quick to equate Sochi with the Berlin Summer Olympics.
In making such comparisons we undermine the efforts of LGBT activists around the world. While the Sochi Olympics has indeed provided a platform, I would argue it is one for the LGBT rights movement. The influence of social and mass media means we cannot remain ignorant of the human rights violations that are occurring in Russia. Once the Sochi Games are over, we must remain vigilant and critical of Russia’s attacks on its homosexual citizens. Only by doing this can we ensure that there remains an important distinction between Sochi 2014 and the Hitler Olympics.
Cyd Sturgess is a PhD student in the Department of Germanic Studies in Sheffield. She recently won the ALCS Postgraduate Essay Prize and is currently researching constructions of lesbian identity in interwar German and Dutch media. Cyd also co-runs monthly queer event Q12 and works with women’s charities, feminist groups and LGBT+ organisations in Sheffield. You can find her on Twitter @CJSturgess.