A view of the shoes worn by Enes Kanter of the Boston Celtics during the first half of a game against the Atlanta Hawks at State Farm Arena on Nov. 17, 2021 in Atlanta. (Photo/Forward-Getty Images)
A view of the shoes worn by Enes Kanter of the Boston Celtics during the first half of a game against the Atlanta Hawks at State Farm Arena on Nov. 17, 2021 in Atlanta. (Photo/Forward-Getty Images)

The Beijing Olympics looks a lot like Nazi Germany’s 1936 Olympics

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This piece first appeared in the Forward.

The parade of Olympic athletes in their national colors, the international diplomatic corps looking on approvingly, the blaring of triumphal music, the children singing and dancing, the iconic torch-lighting ceremony — and the genocidal dictator presiding over it all: was it 2022 in Beijing, or 1936 in Berlin? Sometimes, it was hard to tell.

Countries that host the Olympic Games derive an array of financial benefits, from tourism dollars to corporate sponsorships. Regimes that are perpetrating human rights violations enjoy an even more important benefit: an opportunity to gain international legitimacy and whitewash their abuses.

For Adolf Hitler in 1936, The Games were a chance to make the Nazi regime seem reasonable and distract from his oppression of German Jews. For Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the Olympics represent an opportunity to turn the world’s attention away from what the United States government and human rights groups have said is his genocidal persecution of China’s largely-Muslim Uyghur minority.

Then and now, the international community has largely gone along with the deadly charade.

No American officials were present at the opening ceremony, in accordance with the Biden administration’s diplomatic boycott of what critics have dubbed “the genocide games.” Only 10 other countries joined the U.S. in that very limited protest, keeping their diplomats home but letting their athletes participate. No Muslim-majority countries joined the diplomatic boycott, despite the genocide of their fellow-Muslims. Nor, sadly, did Israel.

Hidden Genocide

The representatives of the 84 fully-participating countries will be carefully shielded from any evidence of Chinese human rights violations. In advance of The Games, according to the Washington Post, the Beijing government has even closed some of the notorious “re-education centers” where an estimated one million Ugyhurs have been interned.

Hitler employed a similar Potemkin strategy in the weeks preceding the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The antisemitic newspaper “Der Sturmer” was briefly removed from newsstands and “Jews Not Wanted” signs that had been posted along major thoroughfares were taken away.

The Brandenburg Gate decorated for the 1936 Olympics in Nazi-controlled Berlin.
The Brandenburg Gate decorated for the 1936 Olympics in Nazi-controlled Berlin.

Once the Games were over, the signs and the newspapers returned. The Chinese reeducation centers will no doubt reopen, too.

The similarities don’t end there: China invited skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang, an ethnic Uyghur who will be competing in the Games, to take part in the torch-lighting ceremony. NBC announcer Savannah Guthrie, who co-narrated the opening, called the choice of Yilamujiang “stunning.”

Rafael Medoff
Rafael Medoff

Rafael Medoff is a historian, author and member of the steering committee of the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership.

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