11 March 2011
The long road from Berlin 1936 to London 2012
Simone Bacchini arites:
I’ve been reading a fascinating, albeit disturbing, little book: ‘Hitler’s Forgotten Victims: The Holocaust and the Disabled’, by Suzanne E. Evans.
Bridget Lockyer, who wrote an informative article on race and the Olympics for this website (http://bit.ly/eSWqAM), commented on the defiance inherent in Jesse Owens’ triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The superior performance of a black athlete in front of the champions of “racial purity” and believers in the “master race”, the Nazis, was a simple yet powerful act of resistance to a murderous ideology. It simultaneously reaffirmed the Olympic ideal of brotherhood through sport whilst challenging racial prejudice.
In her study, Evans informs us that only three years after the Berlin Olympics, in 1939, Hitler’s physician, Theo Morel, compiled a document which advocated the need for a law “authorising the ‘Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life [my emphasis]” (p. 24). By this he meant the killing of people with congenital mental and physical “malformations”. Why? Because such “‘creatures’ required costly long-term care, aroused ‘horror’ in other people, and represented ‘the lowest animal level’”. They were, in other words, an unproductive burden, an aesthetic offence, and ultimately sub-human. As a result, between 1939 and 1945 it is estimated that between 5,000 and 25,000 people with disabilities were exterminated. It is chilling.
One wonders what the Nazi ideologues would have made of the paralympic movement; of pieces of legislation such as the UK Equality Act of 2010 and of similar statutes across Europe and the wider world.
Today, itt is easy to be dismissive of efforts to bring about equality for people with a disability, to ridicule measures that the media often labels as “political correctness gone mad”. However, one ought to remember that Nazi euthanasia programmes and milder forms of discrimination against people with a disability that still persist today ultimately originate in forms of prejudice, in ideas of “normality” and “deviance”. As the feminist and disability activist Jenny Morris (1991: 15) writes, ‘[i]n our society, prejudice is associated with the recognition of difference and an integral part of this is the concept of normality’. As Morris acknowledges (p. 15), “in theory [normality] could be a value-free word”; yet language, as Luce Irigaray (2002) reminds us, is never neutral: who defines normality? According to what criteria?
Not every person with a disability is or even dreams of being a paralympian, this is certain. However, the symbolic power of the Paralympic Games is undeniable, if anything because of the visibility it offers to those with a disability. Without wanting to sound triumphalistic, society has certainly come a long way from the days when the “cripple and idiots” were thought to “arouse horror” in those around them.
Yet, the battle against prejudice, discrimination and inequality – this most unholy trinity – goes on, for most people, away from stunning, new Olympic venues and the glare of the media. It continues every day in the schools, workplaces, the courts. As pointed out in a previous post, language is central to this struggle. Emancipation is also achieved through awareness of the limits and dangers of particular discourses. One has to strive to find the right balance between discourses that frame people with disabilities as ‘the lowest animal level’, as Nazi Germany did, and “hyper-positive” discourses, which sanction and give visibility only to the “super cripple” (a definition used by American disability activists), the overachieving disabled. Although this kind of talk may appear, on the surface, liberating it can also be, disability activists argue, disempowering.
So, how are we to evaluate events such as the Paralympics, then? I would say positively. As long as it doesn’t stop there.
Corker, M. and French, S. (eds.) Disability discourse. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1999.
London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2003.a.12954.
Evans, S.E Hitler’s forgotten victims: the Holocaust and the disabled. Stroud: Tempus, 2007.
London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2007.a.14644.
Irigaray, L. To speak is never neutral. London: Continuum, 2002.
Lending collections shelfmark: m05/.37044DSC.
Morris, J.Pride against prejudice: transforming attitudes to disability. London: The Women’s Press, 1991.
London reference collections shelfmark: YC.1991.a.5486.