Friday, April 11, 2008

Lessons from the 1936 Olympics

ESPN published a large excerpt from a book called " "Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics" that gives details on the American decision to participate in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, even though Hitler made it clear that he was discriminating against Jewish athletes. Parts of the story are striking in seeing how willing people are to believe lies if those lies reinforce their own wishes:

Despite the assurances of American Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage to the contrary, anyone could see that the Third Reich had no real intention of allowing Jewish athletes to compete fully on its Olympic teams. Almost since the day the Nazis had come to power, it had been clear that they planned to discriminate against Jewish athletes, despite their assurances to the contrary. Those assurances had first been offered in Vienna in June 1933, at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee. The committee had convened in part to decide whether Germany would still be allowed to host the 1936 Olympics. If the Germans refused to promise to treat Jewish athletes fairly, the committee would move the games. Initially the Germans offered merely to abide by all the laws regulating the Olympic games. "The German Olympic Committee had arrived with this promise from their government in their pockets," John MacCormac reported for The New York Times from Vienna. But when several American members of the IOC demanded a specific assurance that Jews would not be excluded from the German Olympic team, the German legation had to cable superiors in Berlin for instructions. Finally the Germans agreed to the broader guidelines.

"What has happened is another proof of the spirit of fellowship that sport engenders," said His Excellency Dr. Theodor Lewald, the chairman of the German Olympic committee. MacCormac was duly impressed. "This development represents a complete backing down by the Hitler government," he wrote. "The straightforward character of the promise obtained from the German Government came as all the greater surprise, and the opinion was expressed that a real blow had been struck in the cause of racial freedom, at least in the realm of sport."

Of course, no such blow had been struck. The Nazis, typically, simply made a promise they had no intention of keeping. Still, the IOC went to the trouble of entrusting the task of enforcing the agreed-upon regulations to Lewald and the other members of the German Olympic committee: the duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Dr. Karl Ritter von Halt, Carl Diem, Dr. Heinrich Sahm, and Hans von Tschammer und Osten. The Viennese reporters covering the story were skeptical. They thought, quite rightly, that "nothing but formal and empty assurances on the question of Jewish participation in the Olympics could be expected from the committee, which, it was remarked, consisted of 'diplomats rather than sportsmen.'" The Austrian press already knew how much stock to put in Nazi promises.

Just a few days after the convention in Vienna, at a Nazi party meeting in Berlin, Hans Von Tschammer und Osten, the German minister of sport, made it clear that the Austrians were right. He told his fellow Nazis, on the record, that the pledges made in Vienna would not hinder the national agenda. "We shall see to it that both in our national life and in our relations and competitions with foreign nations only such Germans shall be allowed to represent the nation as those against whom no objection can be raised," he said. Everyone in the room knew which people were to be objected to.

Von Tschammer und Osten said virtually the same thing at another meeting, in Cologne. He wanted his fellow Nazis to know exactly where he and the German Olympic officials stood, despite Lewald's public statements. To clarify the German position for its readers, the Associated Press asked him to answer several questions. Responding to a question about a German decision to deny Jewish sports clubs "all special facilities," Von Tschammer und Osten wrote:

"It is hardly fair to expect that state support be given to purely Jewish organizations, which, being composed almost exclusively of Zionists, are even today in sharp political conflict with the government. Just as Nationalist sports organizations during the past years continued to enlist and engage in activities without any material assistance by relying purely upon themselves, so, too, no other treatment can now justly be meted out to Jewish organizations. That certainly won't create any difficulty for them, for in their circles substantial private means are available."

For three years the Germans engaged in similar rhetorical games with the international press and diplomatic corps. No, they said, we would never discriminate against the Jews. They have every right to take part in our Olympic trials. But of course, like everyone else, Jewish athletes must be sponsored by local clubs. And of course we cannot compel the local clubs to have them as members. These clubs have rights, too. And they must also abide by our laws. Which bar Jews from non-Jewish clubs. What about Jewish clubs? They are all either Zionist or Communist fronts. You cannot possibly expect them to be allowed to send athletes to our trials. And so on.

AOC president Avery Brundage saw no evil...Brundage said he would see for himself how the Third Reich was treating its Jewish citizens, including, of course, its Jewish athletes, several of whom were among Germany's best, such as the high jumper Gretel Bergmann and the ice hockey star Rudi Ball. But his tour of the country in August 1934 was merely a public relations stunt. Hitler wined and dined the prickly construction magnate. Over the course of six days, Brundage spoke to several Jews -- but only in the presence of Nazi chaperones such as Karl Ritter von Halt and Arno Breitmeyer. Not so shockingly, no one told him how bad the situation had become, and he failed to witness any overt displays of Nazi hostility to Jews. Dismissing Mahoney's concerns, Brundage declared that the Olympics "are an international event and must be kept free from outside interference or entanglements, racial, religious or political." He also said, "Certain Jews must understand that they cannot use these games as a weapon in their boycott against the Nazis." In other words, Brundage was saying, as he would famously say after the massacre in Munich in 1972, that the games must go on.

Despite the obvious -- and well chronicled -- games the Germans were playing, Brundage went out of his way both to praise their efforts to include Jews and to insult Jewish athletes. "The fact that no Jews have been named so far to compete for Germany doesn't necessarily mean that they have been discriminated against on that score," Brundage said on July 26, 1935.

Most famously, Brundage absolved himself of all moral responsibility when he said that organized amateur sport "cannot, with good grace or propriety, interfere in the internal political, religious or racial affairs of any country or group."

Seven weeks after Brundage's statements, Hitler made an important trip to Nuremberg, the quaint medieval city that the Nazis considered their spiritual home. It was there, on September 15, 1935, that he announced the new anti-Semitic decrees that came to be known as the Nuremberg Laws. In an instant Germany's Jews were stripped of their citizenship, deprived of protection by the laws of the land, and forbidden to marry Aryans or to employ Aryan women as servants.

Everyone with any sense knew that the Nazis were lying when they said they wouldn't discriminate against Jews. But Nazi attempts to paper over their hatred - by saying that they were only against Zionism, not Jews, for example - were eagerly accepted by people whose self-interest coincided with the obvious lies.

Today, much of the lukewarm reaction by Europe towards Iranian genocidal speech ("only against Zionists, not Jews"), obvious nuclear ambitions ("for peaceful nuclear power") and long-range ballistic missile development ("for an Iranian space program") is powered by the same desire to overlook clear lies for short-term self-interest.

In some ways, this is a useful way to look at the entire Israel/Arab conflict. The Arab case - the destruction of Israel - is fundamentally one of aligning Arab wishes with the self-interests of the other nations of the world. The incentives are both positive (the huge petrodollar economy) and negative (the threat of terror,) but they are clothed in the language of morality (Israel's treatment of "Palestinian refugees.") The lies are obvious but they get lost in the static generated by the buzz of other nations' self-interest.

Israel's case to the world audience - that Israel has the right to exist in security- is primarily a moral one, and from a purely moral perspective it is correct. But the moral argument alone does not contribute as much towards the audience's perceived self-interest as the incentives and disincentives of the Arab world.

This is why we see the world give more weight towards the moral arguments of the Arabs. By themselves, they are close to worthless, but combined with the implicit threats and economic rewards of their proponents their value becomes inflated to appear to be on a par with, or superior to, Israel's moral claims. Any perceived moral infraction by Israel gets exaggerated, yet much worse violations of morality by Arabs get downplayed. In this fashion, the audience - primarily the West - can use the convenient moral cover to justify their ultimately self-serving actions (and it is of course in their self-interest to appear to be acting out of moral considerations rather than naked selfishness.)

The ironic part is that Israel's interests really do conflate with Western self-interest more than those of the Arabs. The Islamist threat - powered by oil money and Western fears of terror - would not end with the destruction of Israel but with the Islamization of the world. Unfortunately, most nations usually sacrifice long-term interests in favor of the short term.

What this means for Israel is that it cannot rely on moral arguments alone to make their case. Israel's leaders and supporters need to show how Israel's case is in everyone's - Western and Eastern alike - self-interest.