Anarchists, Nazis and the People’s Olympics

In 2012 several things came together in my life at the same time, the essay Gold or Freedom is the first manifestation of that direction. I had been toying with the idea of writing a novel set during the Spanish civil war for several years. During the research stage I came across several historians that were writing in a way that went beyond the standard history texts. Professor Helen Graham‘s short introduction and Chris Ealham‘s anarchism in the city, pointed me towards the lives of the people in the fields and streets of 1930s Spain. From there my research immersed me in the voices of Jose Peirats, Augustin Souchy and Emma Goldman. It was around the same time, while visiting family, that I took a morning off to go on a civil war walking tour around central Barcelona with Nick Lloyd. The day to day lives of the Spanish people was fast becoming my focus.

At some point during this research, while focussed on the events in Barcelona in the week of 18th July 1936, something jumped out at me. In response to the fascist Olympics being held in Germany under the Nazis, the Spanish Republic staged a counter-games called the People’s Olympics. While national Olympic committees from a great many of the ‘democracies’ jumped in line to wave their flags and march behind the Nazis, workers organisations and anti-fascists from around the world committed to support the people’s games instead. The stories of the normal working men and women who travelled to Barcelona in what is arguably one of the first large scale international demonstrations of workers’ anti-fascist solidarity was more than just inspirational for me. It was while writing this essay that A Most Uncivil War began to take shape in my mind. But that wasn’t enough, I also knew that I had to start writing about what I was learning immediately. This essay, Gold or Freedom, is my first published writing focussed on the Spanish revolution.

One of the things that brought the poignancy of the People’s Olympics in to stark focus for me, was that while I was doing the research, London was preparing for the 2012 games. Over the last forty years I have spent a lot of time in Barcelona and Catalonia. I not only went to the 1992 games, but I have also seen the longer term impact of the games on the city. I recognised that a similar process could well take place in east London. A large amount of tax payers money was going to be used to subsidise the development costs of unused land and some of the most deprived communities. As part of this process, a lot of ‘well-connected’ people would start buying up residential property and gentrifying the area alongside the multinationals who were picking up the subsidised government contracts and new builds at knock-down prices. The Olympics, amongst other things is the rationale for imposing a regressive taxation in order to subsidise the future profits of multinationals and property speculators.

What I didn’t know at the time was how even sporting achievement isn’t quite the meritocracy it is being claimed to be. Well in the UK at least. According to the Guardian, quoting the Sutton Trust, in 2012 7% of the UK general population went to fee-paying schools, while 37% of the medal winners in Team GB were privately educated. In hindsight, this is not entirely surprising. In England 35% of MPs, 54% of leading journalists and 70% of Judges are all privately educated. Like almost any interesting of entertaining form of employment, to get to the top of sport, it helps if you are born with a leg-up. Just as it was in 1936, so it is in 2012, the Olympic Games is used to perpetuate a culture of disparity and inequality, behind an illusion of meritocracy.

Living in London in the lead up to the games, I witnessed first hand how the mass media jumped in line to march triumphantly in lock-step with the rest of the establishment, waving their flags vigorously. I watched on nervously, assured in the knowledge that totalitarianism, more often than not, is so easily hidden beneath the thin veneer of patriotic fervour in just such times of jingoistic hysteria.

In October 2012 I wrote a 2,400 word essay about the anarchist revolution in 1936 and how it played out against the backdrop of the People’s Olympics, and the Ruling Classes’ Olympics. It was called Gold or Freedom and the New Left Project published it. To read it here or to download a .txt version please click through to the page.