The world of the 2020s is not that of the 1930s. Xi Jinping’s China is not Hitler’s Germany. But they have certain things in common…
From 1st to 16th August 1936, the Berlin Summer Olympics became a tool of Nazi propaganda, glorifying the power of the totalitarian state and an ideology that boasted the superiority of the Aryan race. The Games had been allocated to Berlin under the Weimar Republic in 1931, to mark the reintegration of Germany into the community of nations, but they enabled Hitler to strengthen his legitimacy with Germans and with the rest of the world. The image they gave of the Third Reich was totally deceptive: that of a peaceful, tolerant and modern nation, and concealing state racism and fast-paced rearmament. The very day after the closing ceremony, the persecution of Jews – which had been suspended during the Games – intensified, culminating in the Kristallnacht of the 9th-10th November 1938. The run-up to war that had begun with the re-militarization of the Rhineland in March 1936, speeded up, bringing the Anschluss with Austria, the dismantling of Czechoslovakia, then the invasion of Poland.
The world of the 2020s is very different from that of the 1930s. And Xi’s China is not Hitler’s Germany. But they have certain things in common in terms of patterns and dynamics. In allocating the 2022 Winter Games to Beijing, after China had held the 2008 summer games, the IOC deliberately ignored Churchill’s warning that “those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it”. At a time of an escalation in international tensions, the Games provide Xi Jinping with a unique opportunity to celebrate his model of digital totalitarianism, and to show off the solidarity of authoritarian regimes that aim to liquidate democracy as well as universal values – of which the Olympic spirit is one of the fruits – so as to carve out spheres of influence in which any sort of freedom will be banned.
The Winter Olympics, which began on 4th February last in Beijing, will go down in history not for their sporting dimension but for being an aberration because of extreme profiteering and the absence of the IOC ethic.
They are an aberration from a sporting standpoint, with events taking place without any spectators and distorted by the safety bubble that has enabled only Chinese athletes to train on event locations and that makes foreign competitors more liable to exclusion if they test positive. They are an aberration from a publilc health standpoint because they flatter a country which gave birth to the worst epidemic since the Spanish flu in 1918, kept quiet about it, enabling it to spread like wildfire, and has used Covid to strengthen its control over its people’s daily lives. It is an aberration from an ecological standpoint: the Winter Games take place in an arid region and, for the first time in history, under snow that is 100% artificial, produced by 100 generators and 300 snow cannons that have consumed 185 million liters of water, in the Songshan nature reserve that has been deprived of a quarter of its surface area to make the pistes for ski and bobsleigh events. It is an aberration from a financial standpoint, for it is costing the massive amount of over 34 billion euros. It is an aberration from a political standpoint, for the Games are being used to nourish Xi Jinping’s personality cult in a year when he intends to go back to the Maoist principle of power for life. It is an aberration from an international standpoint, because Beijing was maintained as the location whilst there were mounting threats of armed conflicts from China and Russia towards Taiwan and Ukraine. Finally, it is an aberration from a moral standpoint with the celebration of a totalitarian regime using a digital Big Brother, interning the Uighur population of Xinjiang, annexing Tibet and Hong Kong, and placing every single person under permanent digital surveillance.
The Beijing Winter Games are a faithful representation of the world of the 2020s. A world in which we talk about ecological change but continue to make immoderate investments in operations that prey on the environment. A world in which the Olympic spirit has vanished into the mire of “sport business” and corruption. A world in which strong men and démocratures (= a combination of democracy and dictatorship) display their solidarity and their ambitions for power, just like the opening ceremony of the Beijing Games, which turned into a Dance of the Autocrats.
Only three years separated the Berlin Games from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, which sealed the alliance of totalitarian states and gave Hitler a blank check with which to conquer Europe. It is high time that people living in democracies, particularly in Europe, stopped behaving like onlookers contemplating their upcoming servitude, realized the extent of the dangers facing them, and mobilized to defend the cause of freedom.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 7th February 2022)