As my current research is into the public presentation of LGBT history, I read Stephen Fry’s heartfelt and eloquent open letter to David Cameron and members of the International Olympics Committee (IOC) yesterday with interest. Writing with the aim of banning the Winter Olympics 2014 from being held in Russia due to cruel and violent treatment of LGBT Russians, Fry evokes the 1936 Berlin Olympics, arguing that the current anti-LGBT movement in Russia is an echo of the treatment that the Jewish people received at the hands of Hitler and the Nazi Party.
My initial thoughts on reading this letter were how much of an excellent example it is of present uses of the past and the merging of historical and contemporary identities. The past is often tied up with media discussions of LGBT issues: from the defence of ‘tradition’ of marriage to the recent pardon of Alan Turing’s criminal record, but Fry uses another part of history to emphasise his points: the Holocaust and violent crimes against the Jewish.
As they were for the Jewish community in the early twentieth-century, violence, humiliation and murder are genuine and everyday fears for LGBT Russians today, and speaking out against persecution or defending homosexuality is illegal regardless of the protestor’s sexuality. Not only is this in itself a heinous political and social crime, but Fry also fears that history will repeat itself and the Olympic Committee will once again fall prey to doing nothing about it.
The historical significance of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games goes beyond the history of sport and is deeply embedded in historical arguments as a significant factor in the rise in status of Hitler. It was used as a platform by Hitler to promote his anti-Semitic views and Ayran ideal (despite of course, Jesse Owens proving him wrong), and as was the case for the London 2012 Olympics, the eyes of the world were on that stadium. It gave him confidence, and as both history and Fry tell us, “what he did with that confidence we all know.” The echoes of the past in contemporary society are clear, and should be used here to justify political action and protest.
Under the new Russian laws, openly gay international athletes could be arrested on arrival to compete at the Games in 2014, again echoing Hitler’s attempt to ban Jewish and black athletes from competing in 1936. Hitler had to back down on this due to threats of boycotting from other nations, an act which must be carried out again in 2013, but with the aim of getting Putin to relent his laws, not just the effective ban on LGBT athletes.
As History Matters shows, past events are often brought up in news reports, public statements and general discussions, but Fry’s letter highlights the huge importance that history and the past also have on the ability to see right from wrong and stand up for what is necessary. In the history of the Olympics the 1936 Games is a black mark against its name: it allowed the intentions of Hitler to be carried out and gave him the space in which to do so. Allowing the Winter Olympics 2014 to be held in Russia would have the same affect on Putin and his crimes, and as Fry asserts, cannot be allowed.
Fry’s personal connection to this is clear and runs deep: he is connected to both the Russian anti-LGBT movement and the Nazi persecution of Jews through his identity, both current and historical. He is both gay and Jewish, and with his mother lost many members of her family to Hitler’s anti-Semitism; the personal impact of the link between the Holocaust and the current anti-LGBT movement is clear to see. This is without even mentioning that of course, homosexuals were also persecuted under Hitler’s Nazi regime too.
Fry’s ownership of this historical identity and contemporary political view as a result is not unique: it makes his piece call out individually to many people inhabiting minority and historically oppressed group identities. Identities stretch across history, nationalities and politics, and Fry’s letter highlights how important they are in informing present identities too.
Fry, in calling for history not to be repeated highlights one of the most significant ways that the past is used in everyday conversations and the media. As Adrian Bingham’s recent History Matters post argues, there are many involved in policy-making and politics that want to hear historical perspectives. With Fry’s historical perspective reaching a huge amount of media coverage, I hope we will not have to “weep anew at seeing history repeat itself” in regards to the Olympics being hosted in Russia, but can instead work towards preventing further acts of evil that so echo events of the past.
Claire Hayward is a PhD student at Kingston University working on representations of same-sex sexuality in public history. You can find her on twitter @HaywardCL.