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Triumph of the totalitarian will in Beijing

by Nina L. Khrushcheva

MOSCOW — When the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games begins this week, viewers will be presented with a minutely choreographed spectacle swathed in nationalist kitsch. Of course, images that recall German leader Adolf Hitler’s goose-stepping storm troopers are the last thing that China’s leaders have in mind for their Olympics; after all, official Chinese nationalism proclaims the country’s “peaceful rise” within an idyll of “harmonious development.” But, both aesthetically and politically, the parallel is hardly far-fetched.

Indeed, by choosing Albert Speer Jr., the son of Hitler’s favorite architect and the designer of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, to design the master plan for the Beijing Games, China’s government has itself alluded to the radical politicization of aesthetics that was a hallmark of 20th century totalitarianism. Like those regimes, whether fascist or communist, China’s leaders have sought to transform public space and sporting events into visible proof of their fitness and mandate to rule.

Speer Jr.’s commission was to lay out a master plan for the access to the Olympic complex in Beijing. His design centered on the construction of an imposing avenue to connect the Forbidden City and the National Stadium in which the opening ceremony will take place. His father’s plan for “Germania,” the name Hitler selected for the Berlin that he planned to construct after World War II, also relied on such a mighty central axis.

China’s rulers see the Olympics as a stage for demonstrating to the world the exceptional vitality of the country they have built over the past three decades. And that demonstration serves an even more important domestic political objective: further legitimizing the regime’s continuing rule in the eyes of ordinary Chinese. Given this imperative, an architectural language of bombast and gigantism was almost inevitable.

So it is no surprise that the Beijing Games may resemble the hubristic Games that beguiled the Fuehrer and enthralled the German masses in 1936. Like the Beijing Games, the Berlin Olympics were conceived as a coming-out party. Josef Goebbels’ Nazi propaganda machine was fully deployed. Athletic imagery — used to brilliant effect in Leni Riefenstahl’s acclaimed documentary — appeared to create a link between the Nazis and the ancient Greeks, and to confirm the Nazi myth that Germans and German civilization were the true heirs to the “Aryan” culture of classical antiquity.

While designing the master plan for the Beijing Games, Speer Jr., an acclaimed architect and town planner, also sought, like his father, to create a futuristic global metropolis. Of course, the language that he used to sell his scheme to the Chinese was very different from the words his father used to present his plans to Hitler. Instead of emphasizing his design’s pomposity, the younger Speer insisted on its environmental friendliness. The 2,000-year-old city of Beijing should be transported into hyper-modernity, whereas his father’s 1936 Berlin design was, in his words, “simply megalomania.”

Of course, the sins of the father should never be visited on the son. But, in this case, when the son borrows essential elements of his father’s architectural principles and serves a regime that seeks to use the Games for some of the same reasons that animated Hitler, is he not willingly reflecting those sins?

Totalitarian regimes — the Nazis, the Soviets in 1980, and now the Chinese — desire to host the Olympics as a way to signal to the world their superiority. China believes that it has found its own model to develop and modernize, and its rulers regard the Games in the same way as the Nazis and Leonid Brezhnev did, as a means of “selling” their model to a global audience.

Obviously, the Chinese were politically tone-deaf in choosing an architect whose name carried such dark historical connotations. The name of Speer itself probably did not matter to the officials who chose him. They sought to stage an Olympics that made manifest their image of themselves, and Speer Jr., looking back to his father’s mastery of the architecture of power, delivered the goods.

The realization of Speer Jr.’s Olympic vision, and that of his patrons, marks the end of a welcome interlude. For years following the end of the Cold War, politics had been removed from the Games. A gold medal signified the sporting abilities and dedication of individual athletes, not the supposed merits of the political system that produced them.

But now we have returned to an aesthetic of political mesmerization, reflected in the host government’s declared aim that China should win more gold medals than any country before. As the Olympic torch relay — itself a creation of the Nazis, first employed in the Berlin Games — makes its way down Speer Jr.’s avenue of power, the world will once again be made to witness a triumph of the totalitarian will.

Nina Khrushcheva teaches international affairs at The New School University in New York and is the author of “Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics.” © 2008 Project Syndicate.