When the Olympic Games of 1936 was announced to be in Berlin, it was a major propaganda coup for the Nazi party and Hitler. So the Popular Olympics arose as a global movement to boycott the event in protest of the Fascists in Germany. This was the first boycott attempt in the history of the Olympics. Hitler’s reoccupation and the remilitarization of Rhineland violated the Treaty of Versailles without France or England declaring war again but it and other countries in Europe were not every happy about that, seeing inaction as giving Germany the chance to rebuilt its military again. Because of this, they did not want to be part of the Olympics if it were to be held in Germany. What the participants did not know was that Popular Olympics would be more brutal.

Popular Olympics: Strength of the Anti-fascists

The athletes of the Popular Olympics hoped that they could show the world the strength of their anti-fascist movement. They quickly discovered that the contest against fascism was going to be far more brutal than they’d expected. People all over the world were well-aware of the activities of the Nazis that violated the Versailles treaty that was signed and ended World War I. They were rounding up the Jews, leftists, Roma, even gays or those who were accused, as well as people with disabilities, and they were already sending them to concentration camps. In these early days, most were being imprisoned for political crimes an were run more as reeducation camps to convert German communists and Socialists in to National Socialist.

Olympic Stadium, Berlin. (US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Gerhard Vogel via  encyclopedia.ushmm.org)

The campaign to ditch the Olympics did not attract the worldwide support the protesters were hoping for, and many countries opted to still go to the Berlin Games. Thus the International Conference for the Respect of the Olympic Ideal came up with the idea of showcasing the alliance of the leftists, liberals, communists, and socialists in what was called the Popular Front. Although Spain was caught up in the conflict, the Catalan government volunteered to host the event in Barcelona. About 20,000 anti-fascist athletes and fans decided to become part of the Popular Games. It’s worth mentioning that National Socialism and Soviet Communism were not ideological opposites but competing strains of Socialism.  The Naze version was nationalist, “Germany Over All” while the USSR was internationalist, ‘Workers of the World Unite.” Despite their rivalry in attracting socialists to their own versions of this ideology, in 1933, Germany and the USSR enjoyed close diplomatic, trade, and military ties.  No small number of German pilots received their pilot training in Russia because the Treaty of Versailles forbid the Germans from training new pilots in powered aircraft.  Russian and German military cooperation by treaty began in 1922 and ran until 1933. This treaty included German arms makers taking over entire factories in Russia to build weapons and numerous secret military bases where Russian and German officers trained side by side.

Rushed in Three Months

The idea was to make Popular Olympics different from the Berlin Olympics— colonized North Africans and exiled Jews would enter the stadium with teams representing both nation-states and stateless nations. A song made by an exiled German Jew combined with the lyrics from a Catalan poet would be played. Women were to be part of the competition, too.

A notice announcing a meeting about boycotting the Olympics. (National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD via  encyclopedia.ushmm.org)

The committee assigned for the Popular Olympics had to basically dash around the city to find accommodations, unprepared for the surprising number of anti-fascists who wanted to take part in the games. Everything was crammed within three months. The games would also be extended from the original four days to a week, so the posters had to be manually and individually updated. Athletes from Belgium, Canada, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, the United States, and others took part and arrived in Barcelona. Some 6,000 athletes would attend, and rather than having the financial support of their home countries their expenses paid by trade unions, associations, communist and socialist parties and other left-wing groups.

The Beginning of the Spanish Civil War

The night before the games, the athletes and their coaches woke up to the sound of the rumbling of cannons and boots marching in the streets. They watched as men and women outside began to build barricades with sandbags, preparing for what was to come. Soon, the Spanish army came marching, ready to overthrow the semi-autonomous Catalan government.

The civilians were ready to fight back. Some women from the Feminist Sports Club led detachments of workers against the army. At one point, Catalan anarchists approached the soldiers with their hands in the air. They spoke to them and convinced them to leave. Charlie Burley, a national champion boxer from Pittsburgh and one of the athletes who traveled there, joined the Catalans in reinforcing the barricades as soon as the shooting stopped. The Jews and exiled Germans, and Italians joined, too. The whole city worked to repel the Spanish military, arming themselves with the weapons they got from the armories they raided. The coup was briefly defeated, at least at that moment, but the Popular Olympics would never be held as this marked the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.

Curiously enough, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union would find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict, with Moscow arming the Leftist Popular Front government and Nazi Germany supporting the Fascist Nationalists of Francisco Franco.