Mon, Aug 04, 2008 - Page 8 News List

The PRC’s ‘triumph of the will’

By Nina Khrushcheva

When the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games begins in a few days, viewers will be presented with a minutely choreographed spectacle swathed in nationalist kitsch. Of course, images that recall 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, 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’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 Adolf 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 Fuhrer 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, 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?

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