Gold or Freedom

First published by New Left Project on 4th October 2012.

What is more precious, Olympic gold or freedom from tyranny? In 1936, many athletes opted for freedom and attended the Popular Olympiad in Barcelona rather than Hitler’s Berlin games.

The phrase “El bien más preciado es la libertad” (the most precious thing is freedom), is a lyric from an anarchist song sung during the Spanish civil war called A Las Barricadas! London has now finished hosting the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, so is as good a place and time as any to ask the question; what is more precious, gold or freedom? Such questions have always been wrapped up in the modern Olympics, whether it be Saudi Arabia waiting until 2012 to allow a woman to represent the country, or Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their clenched fists in 1968. The struggle for equality and human rights has been played out against the Olympic backdrop on numerous occasions, perhaps never more so than during the fight against fascism in 1936.

The ideological struggle for and against Fascism was forced to the forefront of the global stage when in 1936 Hitler used the hosting of the Olympics to promote the Nazi doctrine to a worldwide audience. Hitler’s government exerted “such a stranglehold over the German Olympic committee that its list of members [read] like a ‘who’s who’ of the Third Reich.”[1] In public relations terms the Olympic ideal and the Nazi ideal were one and the same, a 1934 German Propaganda Ministry memorandum states, “the Olympic idea is a cultural requirement of National Socialism”[ii]. In recent years it has been further argued in relation to the 1936 games, that “for the Nazis there was no differentiation between sport and militarism – the former was just the later without rifles”[iii].

People’s Olympics

Whilst a large portion of the world’s governments and athletes did collude with the Berlin pantomime by sending teams and dignitaries, not all did. Libertarian Socialists, Communists and Marxists the world over rose up to boycott the Nazi games, culminating in Spain hosting a “People’s Olympics” in Barcelona[iv]. This was at a time in Spain when the struggle between the workers and the ruling class had already evolved into a drawn out and bloody conflict in the Churches and workplaces, factories and fields, and at the ballot boxes[v]. The ideologically fuelled civil war developing in Spain quickly became the preamble to World War II as Germany, Italy and Russia engaged in a proxy war on Spanish soil[vi], and Britain, France and the USA technically embargoed the elected socialist government in Spain under the guise of “non-intervention.”[vii]

For decades a Spanish ruling class, largely supported by an authoritarian church and a post-colonial military, had consigned a desperately poor rural peasantry to near feudal oppression whilst struggling to suppress, often in armed conflict, a highly-unionised, industrial, urban working class[viii]. By early 1936 an impasse was reached as the Popular Front, a largely representative and unified coalition of the left, was voted into power and almost immediately started pursuing an agenda of equalising the country in social and economic terms. In response, various far right factions alongside large sections of the clergy and the officer class found common cause in bringing down this government, and so began laying the foundations for an uprising on the 18th of July, which coincidentally was the day before the planned opening of the Popular Olympiad in Barcelona[ix].

Internationally, the conflict over whether to participate in the Berlin or Barcelona Olympics was as informed, wide-ranging and impassioned as the struggle for democracy was in Spain. In an interview with The Toronto Globe[x] Sammy Luftspring, the Canadian Jewish Welterweight boxing champion and medal hope, issued an open letter outlining why he would not go to Berlin: “We are sure that we would have been very low … by going to a land that would exterminate [our fellow Jews] if it could.”[xi] Whilst in the USA, Avery Brundage, Head of the American Olympic Committee (AOC), was lecturing businessmen on a fundraising tour to take a stand against “what truly lay behind the boycott movement – communism”[xii]. It wouldn’t take long before Brundage and Luftspring would know where their democratic leaders stood on the questions being raised. “When a fascist rebellion took place in Spain in 1936 … the Roosevelt administration sponsored a neutrality act … [effectively] shutting off help to the Spanish government”. It has been further argued that by the 1930s’, the ruling elite recognised that America’s imperial interests would be met in an anti-soviet rather than an anti-fascist foreign policy[xiii]. Which only helps to explain why the work of the AOC was so highly effective and the boycott movement losing so much ground by the beginning of 1936[xiv]. 

UK boycott movement

However, just as the Boycott Berlin movement weakened in the US, it was fast gaining support amongst Trade Unionists and Socialists in the UK. One of the key figures of the UK boycott movement was George Elvin, General Secretary of the National Workers’ Sports Association (NWSA) and son of the prominent trade unionist H.H. Elvin. By the 21st of March, the movement had gained enough ground for Elvin to put forward a resolution to the Amateur Athletics Association (AAA) annual general meeting for a UK boycott of the Berlin games.  Speaking against Elvin was Harold Abrahams, winner of the 100m in the 1924 ‘Chariots of Fire’ Olympics. At the meeting Abrahams insisted that the way to influence the behaviour of the Nazi regime was not to boycott the games, but rather to demonstrate ‘real sport’ to the German people at the games. The foresight of Luftspring would be repeated in a speech Elvin made a week later saying, “if the British government desires peace and wants to save the minorities from persecution, it should hit hard at the prestige which Hitler is trying to build up in Germany.” The ruling class in the UK was at the time firmly in favour of appeasement as it was in the US and Elvin’s call fell on deaf ears[xv].

To counter the Berlin Olympics, the Popular Front government of Spain had planned to open the People’s Olympics, or Popular Olympiad on the 19th of July in Barcelona. Their reasoning was clear, as set out in the invitation sent to the USA amateur athletics union: “in the struggle against fascism, the broad masses of all countries must stand shoulder to shoulder.” Amongst the thousands heeding the call and intending to travel to Barcelona, George Elvin, unperturbed, planned with the BWSA to send a team of 40 athletes to Spain rather than Germany.[xvi]

On Friday 17 and Saturday 18 July the fascist rebels, under the leadership of General Franco in North Africa, General Mola in Northern Spain[xvii] and aided by the Carlists in Navarre, marched large swathes of the army out of their barracks and assaulted villages, towns and cities across mainland Spain, the Balearic Islands and North Africa[xviii]. In response the largely unionised working classes organised local militias and took up arms to defend their republic alongside soldiers still loyal to the republic[xix].

Armed struggle in Barcelona

The Barcelona that awaited Elvin and his team was already a city divided, both politically and economically. It was estimated that 30,000 people lived on the streets or in slums, 50% of all accommodation “infringed the most elemental norms of safety” and 70% of all children born in the city displayed signs of tuberculosis[xx]. This was further compounded by armed struggles frequently raging between the workers and the wealthy since 1931. With the Anarcho-Syndicalist trade union alone (the CNT) enjoying a membership of 8.8% of the total metropolitan population, the city was a powder keg waiting to be lit[xxi]. With many CNT informants within the locally stationed military and police forces, the Anarcho-Syndicalists had advanced warning of the fascist uprising. In addition to this intelligence, the CNT had the numbers and the revoultionary motivation to not only draw up a plan for defending the city against rebellion, but the goal to go on to expropriate Barcelona in an anarchist revolution[xxii]. 

On the evening of Saturday 18 July, the British team led by Elvin arrived in Barcelona, taking up residence in a hotel just off Las Ramblas[xxiii]. Between 4 and 5 am on the morning of Sunday the 19th, the rebels left the barracks to take control of strategic points and buildings around the city. Armed and waiting CNT groups around the city activated the factory sirens in response, a prearranged signal to the workers to take up arms and defensive positions. As the morning wore on the far right rebels increasingly found themselves facing highly motivated and heavily armed workers setting up barricades around their working class communities[xxiv].  Elvin’s team would later report hearing gun battles on Las Ramblas from their hotel. Knowledge of the slums and shantytowns gave the workers the advantage of being able to fight a guerrilla-style conflict. By late Sunday evening the hotel where the British team were staying had run out of food and two members of the team volunteered to fetch food from another hotel[xxv].

At midnight on Sunday the 19th, the CNT retook the Sant Andreu barracks, and the 90,000 rifles housed there. As the sun rose on Monday the 20th, Barcelona was within hours of being reclaimed by the working people of the city, and the last major stronghold of the uprising, the Atarazanas barracks, was quickly retaken[xxvi]. R.G.W. Hopkins, a member of the British team, would later recollect witnessing an event close to their hotel. A rebel sniper who had been using a local church was finally killed on that Monday, and whilst the British team took position in the human chain passing buckets to stop a fire spreading from the Church to neighbouring buildings, Hopkins described how he was there when they found the charred corpse of the Sniper who was dressed as a Priest[xxvii].

With the main street fighting over, the Republican Left President of Catalonia, Lluís Companys was facing a very real threat to the republican dream; a well armed Anarchist organisation who vastly outnumbered the other factions within the unified left locally was controlling large areas of Catalonia. President Companys brought the situation to a head on Monday 20 July by inviting the now unified Anarchist leadership to either take total control of Catalonia or to join forces with the rest of the Popular Front. The Anarchists quickly convened an assembly, where it was decided that there would be “democratic collaboration with the republicans for the sake of unity in the war against fascism” and a power-sharing model was set-up[xxviii].

For the British team the rest of the week took on a slightly surreal nature after what they had seen that long weekend. On Tuesday 21 July, the organisers of the People’s Olympics decided to go ahead with the event but on a vastly cut down scale. So alongside the other athletes, the British team took part in a march to the Olympic stadium, led by bagpipers through streets lined with cheering crowds. However the celebrations were to be short lived for Elvin’s team. After being advised by the British consulate to leave on HMS London, the team began the preparations to leave the following evening.[xxix]

On the Thursday a column of 2,000 of Barcelona’s Anarchist youth, led by Buenaventura Durruti, would set out from Barcelona at midday to retake the cities of Zaragoza and Pamplona “to delirious cheers, raised fists, and refrains from revolutionary songs. … A Las Barricadas! rang out most strongly”[xxx]. Hopkins would later recollect, “for a short while the British team marched with the column … the departure of the militia was a wonderful sight.” That evening the British team, led by Elvin, started their long journey back to London. On arriving at Victoria Station on Monday 27th, Elvin was quoted as saying, “we are proud to have been there to see our comrades in the struggle against the murderers employed by Spanish fascism and reaction … Every worker, every organisation, every lover of freedom and progress should side with the Spanish workers”[xxxi].

Luftspring, Elvin, Hopkins and Follett were just some of the thousands of athletes from trade unions and workers organisations who travelled to Barcelona from around the world, joining exiled German and Italian communists and socialists to represent international workers’ solidarity against the rise of fascism[xxxii]. Not all left immediately; it has been estimated that some 200 foreign athletes stayed in Barcelona to defend and, if necessary, die for their brothers and sisters[xxxiii]. One could argue that these athletes paved the way for the soon to be constituted International Brigade, the thousands of foreign nationals that fought and died alongside millions of Spaniards, heeding the call to arms of “No Pasaran”.

The day after Elvin gave his speech at Victoria station, Mussolini and Hitler agreed to support Franco’s uprising, flying Spanish North African battalions on to mainland Spain[xxxiv].  On 1 August 1936 the Berlin Olympics opened.  Over the course of the two weeks that they ran, the governments of Britain and France, who had both sent teams to Berlin, refused their international obligations to trade with the elected Spanish government, further strengthening Franco’s uprising[xxxv]. As some struggled for gold in Germany, so others fought and died for liberty in Spain. The final figures are disputed but it has been estimated that somewhere in the order of between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people died during the war itself[xxxvi]. Within three years the initial defence against fascism had failed, and millions would eventually pay the ultimate price across the world. The partisan support from some and equally partisan refusal of support from others would go on to condemn the people of Spain to suffer for one third of the twentieth century.

The Olympics acts as a reminder of the historic struggle between the masses and the powerful. It is worth remembering in all the pomp and ceremony of the modern games the call to arms of those who fought and died for our liberty as they held their clenched fists to the sky and in one voice sang ¡A Las Barricadas! in 1936.

[1] Guy Walters, Berlin Games (William Morrow, 2006) p142
[ii] Walters, Berlin Games, p117
[iii] Walters, Berlin Games, p116
[iv] Christopher Hilton, Hitler’s Olympics (The History Press, 2006) p72
[v] Paul Preston, A Concise history of the Spanish Civil War (Fontana Press, 1996) p24-73
[vi] Preston, A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War, p84-87,110-112
[vii] Preston, A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War, p99-104
[viii] Chris Ealham, Anarchism in the City (AK Press,2010) p149-169       
[ix] Helen Graham, The Spanish Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2005) p17-18
[x] Walters, Berlin Games, p139
[xi] Hilton, Hitler’s Olympics, p55
[xii] Walters, Berlin Games, p23
[xiii] Howard Zinn, A Peoples History of the United States (Longman, 1996) p400-401
[xiv] Walters, Berlin Games, p122
[xv] Walters, Berlin Games, p122-127
[xvi] Walters, Berlin Games, p129                                     
[xvii] Paul Preston, Comrades (Harper Perennial, 2006) p11-74  
[xviii] Preston, A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War, p74-76
[xix] Ealham, Anarchism in the City, p 170-171
[xx] Ealham, Anarchism in the City, p159-160
[xxi] Total population in 1930-40 = 1.005m (, total CNT membership = 88,000 as outlined in  Chris Ealham, Anarchism in the City (AK Press,2010) p168-169
[xxii] Ealham, Anarchism in the City, p170-173
[xxiii] Walters, Berlin Games, p147-148
[xxiv] Ealham, Anarchism in the City, p 170-172
[xxv] Walters, Berlin Games, p148                          
[xxvi] Ealham, Anarchism in the City, p 171-172
[xxvii] Walters, Berlin Games, p148-149  
[xxviii] Ealham, Anarchism in the City, p 173
[xxix] Walters, Berlin Games, p149-150
[xxx] Abel Paz, Durruti in the Spanish Revolution (AK Press. 2007) p476-479
[xxxi] Walters, Berlin Games, p151
[xxxii] Hilton, Hitler’s Olympics, p72
[xxxiii] David Clay Large, Nazi Games (W.W.Norton & Company Ltd., 2007) p286 and
[xxxiv] Helen Graham, The Spanish Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2005) p33-35
[xxxv] Graham, The Spanish Civil War, p37
[xxxvi] Walters, Berlin Games, p181