The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Viewers will decide whether the Olympics soften China’s international image

Understanding and combating the propaganda surrounding the Games.

Children perform during the Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics on Feb. 4 in Beijing. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

The Winter Olympics have provided striking images from China. The Games have showcased athletes shattering records with thrilling, historic performances. The beautifully choreographed Opening Ceremonies, and the lighting of the Olympic flame, were dazzling.

Such propaganda is the goal of the Chinese dictatorship, which under President Xi Jinping is resorting to extraordinary and unprecedented media controls to ensure viewers around the world enjoy sporting competitions while celebrating his nation’s new global prominence. Xi is counting on global gratitude for the show being carefully staged and broadcast across the planet.

Will it work in changing China’s international image from an expansionist authoritarian regime to a peaceful and collaborative nation?

Only we will decide. The Games have long provided opportunities for dictators to cleanse stains and soften international images. And for Nazi Germany it worked, for a short time.

The lesson? Audiences need to carefully process images and audio from Beijing, understanding that this media is designed to alter — or even reverse — world opinion about China.

The 1936 Berlin Games briefly altered global attitudes toward Nazi Germany. In the summer of 1941, when wars in Europe and the Pacific threatened to engulf the United States, NBC introduced a public service radio program examining how liberty — as defined by those in the United States — had become threatened around the world. NBC’s Ben Grauer invited John R. Tunis, a best-selling novelist and sportswriter, to discuss the situation. Asked his opinion about why Americans might have missed alarming signals in the immediate prewar years, Tunis zeroed in on a specific event: the 1936 Berlin Games.

Coverage of the Berlin Games, Tunis argued, represented one of the most important missed opportunities for journalists to tell Americans the truth about Nazi Germany. Tunis excoriated the journalists he thought were complicit with propagating German propaganda during the 1936 Olympic festival. Only one — columnist Westbrook Pegler — had the nerve to speak up. As he told NBC’s listeners, “Hey! Wait a minute! This thing’s a racket!”

And it was a racket. But Tunis was wrong in crediting only Pegler. Some U.S. journalists relayed German realities. Reporters like Ralph Barnes, of the New York Herald-Tribune, and William L. Shirer, of the Universal wire service, described the ways Nazis “purged” Berlin “of sights unpleasant to Olympic visitors” during the Games. When Berlin’s tabloids published grisly details of a convicted kidnapper’s execution by beheading by the law-and-order Nazi regime — making clear its use of violence to rule — New York World-Telegram sports editor Joe Williams was horrified. In his column, Williams wondered why American newspapers spent more space on a “rather pointless” exhibition of baseball in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium than on the story of the “ghoulish” execution of Hans Giese. Such editorial decisions, he wrote, made it “impossible for Americans to understand the modern Germany.”

Interestingly, some of these critical stories emerged as a product of shrewd Nazi propaganda. The Nazis were eager to engage the Western press. They sought to contrast the “open” dictatorship ruling the “New Germany” with the “closed” dictatorship in the Soviet Union.

Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, held a news conference immediately before the Games to discuss propaganda and journalism. “In the past few months, Germany has been accused of the intention to operate the Olympic Games as propaganda for the state,” Goebbels explained. “I can assure you, gentlemen, that this is not the case, because if it were the case, I would probably know,” he said. The assembled reporters laughed. Goebbels then praised Germany’s media censorship, explaining to foreign journalists how the Nazis tamed what he termed the “spiritual anarchy” of the German people by offering only unifying media messages.

Such openness worked. In fact, the Associated Press called Goebbels’s exchange with Western journalists “remarkably frank.” The Germans appeared willing to abide criticism and engage in free exchange. The Nazis implemented no strict censorship controlling the journalistic output being relayed by foreign reporters worldwide — although the sports editor of the New York Daily News, Paul Gallico, later mused about how his criticism of the regime occasionally and mysteriously ended “up in the wastebasket.”

The world’s attention was misdirected from violent and oppressive German realities, focusing instead on a “New Germany,” which, with its full employment, happy and productive citizenry and efficient modern administration, seemed to be beating the world economic depression. France’s ambassador to Germany later looked back at the 1936 Games and called them “a climax of sorts, if not the apotheosis of Hitler and his Third Reich.”

Looking back at how the German authoritarian regime exploited the Olympic Games allows us to think critically about the spectacle we’re experiencing right now. For it was ultimately the world’s newspaper readers and radio listeners who empowered the Nazi regime by allowing an entertaining sports festival to influence their perception of a murderous regime.

We can choose to use this current spotlight on China to discuss how the authoritarian regime threatens its neighbors, represses human rights in Tibet and Hong Kong, censors the Internet, and persecutes its citizens. Or we can ignore the violence of these brutal policies and just enjoy the ice skating, skiing and hockey. Should each of us choose to “stick to sports” our gratitude toward China may heighten, and the aura of goodwill spun off by the Games will validate Xi’s enormous efforts. But if we remain mindful that we’re experiencing our own exploitation, and a brazen attempt to influence our perceptions, we can blunt the political opportunity gifted to the Chinese regime by the International Olympic Committee.

Ultimately, whether the Games fulfill the propaganda aspirations of the Chinese government won’t be decided in Beijing. It will be decided in our living rooms — and in our minds.