Category Archives: Religion

The Brighton Bombing: Trouble on the mainland.

‘An Irish sky looks down and weeps
Upon the narrow Belfast streets,
At children’s blood in gutters spilled,
In dreams of glory unfulfilled
As part of freedom’s price to pay.
My youngest son came home today.’

Eric Bogle, from ‘My youngest son came home today.’

A little before 3am on 12th October, 1984, a bomb exploded at the Grand Hotel, Brighton, targeting the Conservative Party conference which was being held in the seaside resort. In September of that year, a man called Patrick Magee, a member of the Irish Republican Army (the IRA), stayed in the hotel for three days as ‘Roy Walsh’, and had planted the bomb with a 24 day delay on the timer. This was a similar tactic to one developed in Spain by the Basque terrorist group, ETA, who often infiltrated building firms leading to bombs being set to detonate months or even years later in the houses of leading politicians, sometimes using radio detonation. Magee’s bomb killed five people and seriously injured many more including Norman Tebbitt, a senior MP in the Conservative Party, who was President of the Board of Trade, and his wife, Margaret, who was left paralysed. However, the main targets were the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and members of her Cabinet, all of whom survived, mainly out of sheer luck. The attack shocked the country and the world, but why did it happen?

http://s0.geograph.org.uk/geophotos/03/13/89/3138964_70445144.jpg

The Grand Hotel in 2012. © Copyright Peter Tarleton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Patrick Magee was born in Belfast in 1951, and was in his late teens when the ‘troubles’ started in Northern Ireland. But his actions were not simply the result of what had happened during his lifetime for they had roots deep in the troubled history of Ireland and its relationship with Britain, or more significantly, England. It is a history which is long and complicated, open to a wide range of interpretations and often baffling. Despite the relative ‘peace’ since the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ of 1998, there are many people who remain trapped or haunted by the history of Ireland, especially that of the six counties of Ulster which form Northern Ireland. In Britain, especially in England, it is largely misunderstood or ignored, a matter of no importance or one that is too complex to consider. In the province itself, as in the rest of Ireland and parts of Scotland, it is a story which lives today, a story of injustice and treachery, of power and bullying, of theft and murder, a story which cannot be ignored or excused. Those who try to ignore the troubled history of the British in Ireland and Northern Ireland cannot begin to understand the problems, heal the wounds nor begin to address the future.

The statement issued by the IRA after the bombing of the Grand Hotel said: “Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once; you will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no war.” The use of the word ‘give’ cut to the heart of the issue in the eyes of the Republican movement: it was focused on power and control. As with the Civil Rights Movement, abuse of power was the issue, as decisions about the people, resources and institutions of Northern Ireland were taken in London, by people who saw the province as being under their control. It was, therefore, an issue rooted in Empire, focusing on freedom and the right to self-determination; those who benefited from the situation wanted it to continue while, quite naturally, those who resented living in a ‘colony’ were keen to see the restoration of a united Ireland. 

Patrick Magee was, of course, not acting alone when he planted the bomb. He was part of a movement, a small but committed band of people who were willing to act with the greatest violence to achieve what they believed was the right, true or just situation, the reunification of Ireland, free from ‘English’ control. The IRA was the most well-known Republican group, although in the early 1970s it had split into two wings, the ‘Official IRA’ and the ‘Provisional IRA’, which was responsible for nearly all terrorist attacks carried out by the Republican movement after 1972. The Brighton Bombing of 1984 was carried out by the ‘Provos’, and was just one very high profile act in a terrible struggle which cost thousands of lives. It was another knot in the web of relationship between these two islands off north-west Europe, two islands where the people generally get on pretty well together. To people across the world, and many within the United Kingdom itself, the troubles hardly make sense; it can only make sense when you consider the power of the past, and, most of all, how you read, select and interpret that history.

Choosing a starting point for this history is difficult. It is not unreasonable to begin in 1800, when the island of Ireland officially lost its independence and was united with Great Britain, so creating ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’. Just a few years after the USA had declared its independence from Britain, and with Napoleon Bonaparte beginning to lead a rejuvenated French army across Europe, the government in London was deeply concerned about national security. In an age of empires, when slavery was still legal and the idea of rights was in its infancy, the status and welfare of Ireland and the Irish mattered little to London. Ireland’s location made it a potential back-door for attack, especially as it was a country which was predominantly Catholic. In these days before the Battle of Trafalgar meant that Britannia ‘ruled the waves’, ensuring that Ireland was under the control of the ‘United Kingdom’ made perfect sense in Westminster. So it was that the cross of St. Patrick was added to the ‘Union Flag’, creating what we know today as the red, white and blue of the ‘Union Jack’. Ireland was integrated into the British Empire, that vast area which many people would actually see as ‘England’s Empire’. The fact that today there is a country called the ‘Republic of Ireland’ and a province called ‘Northern Ireland’ is a particular legacy at the heart of the tensions.

File:Flags of the Union Jack.svg

The development of the ‘Union’ flag. The Scottish saltire was combined with the cross of St. George following the Act of Union in 1707, and in 1800, the cross of St. Patrick was added to create the ‘Union’ flag. This is still the flag of the country whose official name is ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’, which most people don’t know. They also tend to get upset when told that England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are not recognised as countries in their own right. They only really exist for sport, which annoys FIFA and UEFA, the world and European football organisations, as it means the UK gets to enter four teams for each competition. (Author: Paula Guilherme; source: here)

The division of the thirty two counties of Ireland into two sections, the Republic of  Ireland and Northern Ireland, is the most recent expression of an ancient struggle for power. Patrick Magee, the ‘Provos’ and the Brighton bomb wrote just one section of a dark chapter in the long and troubled relationship between England and Ireland. England has sought to dominate Ireland to a greater or lesser degree since the reign of Henry II in the 12th century and tension has existed ever since. There were many problems before the decades of suffering in the Twentieth Century but the lowest points came when Oliver Cromwell ruled Britain in the 1650s and with the horrors of the Irish Potato Famine, 1845-51. The power of these and many other events has to be appreciated if anyone wants to understand how we ended up in this place to begin with; as much as any country in the world, history is alive in Ireland.

The history taught and remembered by a nation reveals a great deal about it. The events it chooses to celebrate, the memorials it erects, the places it sanctifies and the people it honours, combine to both express and reinforce its sense of self, its identity. History is a powerful influence in justifying status and action in the modern world, as, say, the membership of the Security Council at the United Nations shows. Success, victory and power achieved in the past can play a huge part in creating a sense of status and expectation for the future. Those ‘victories’ have usually been achieved and maintained through violence in some form, bringing economic, political and social influence to certain countries, institutions and classes at the expense of others. The presumed right of the descendants of the victors to continue to act in the same or similar ways to those of the past can breed a not unexpected resentment over the years. The language of resistance used by Winston Churchill during World War II, for example, shows how much the British people feared being taken over by  a foreign power; there can be no surprise that other countries should have had a similar feeling towards British control, even though they were not able to resist so effectively.

The uncomfortable truth for some people in a modern, liberal democracy, is that history is riddled with examples of ‘Might is right’. This cannot be avoided and much of the wealth and status of today’s dominant forces rests on the gains of war, empire and exploitation. In our pasts, people fought, explored, competed, dominated, controlled and exploited others; through such methods did England become Britain and then an empire. This tiny nation, what is basically the eighth largest island and the eightieth largest country in the world today, sandwiched between Guinea and Uganda, became the dominant force in the world for a century and remains a significant player on the world stage today. Despite the many skills and attributes of its people, the influence of force in English and British history cannot be ignored. Whether it was victory over Wales and Scotland, the Netherlands, France or India, war has been integral to the growth and maintenance of British power. This is not a criticism but an observation, of course; wars happen, but that should not mean they are simply dismissed or ignored. As Churchill suggested, the British people would do all they could resist the Nazi threat and it should be no surprise that other nations should feel the same way when Britain invaded.

The history of the English/British in Ireland does not read well for the majority of ordinary people in that country, who did not partake of the benefits that came to those who allied themselves with London. Over the centuries, most people saw England as a cruel and oppressive force led by people who were indifferent to plight of the Irish who were largely dismissed by as Catholic, backward and, almost deservedly, poor. Differences in language, industry, culture and especially religion were all issues which divided the two countries, leading England to be seen as the oppressor and Ireland as the threat. The power and wealth clearly lay in London rather than Dublin but that did not mean that there was compliance and acceptance across Ireland. Oliver Cromwell was a particular sign of division and hatred. As a ‘Puritan’, that most extreme brand of Protestantism, Cromwell ruled Britain for nearly a decade following the execution of King Charles I in 1649. His strong Protestant views meant that he saw the mainly Catholic Irish as a source of great danger and he willingly used his army on a people who had supported the recently executed King Charles. Cromwell’s attempts to bring the Irish to heel unleashed a wave of violence and the destruction of the town of Drogheda, in particular, has entered folk lore as the most potent symbol of England’s capacity for evil and calculated indifference towards the people of Ireland.

Two hundred years after Cromwell, disaster once again struck Ireland and English influence was once again blamed. The Irish ‘Potato Famine’ was the last famine to hit Western Europe and one of the most disastrous events in Irish history. The failure of the potato crop over several years devastated large swathes of the country, leading to the death of over one million and the emigration of millions to countries across the globe. This movement of people out of Ireland continued after the famine with emigration to many parts of Britain, Australia, and especially the USA, fostering massive resentment towards England which is still seen today in, for example, sport and the use of English accents to suggest sinister evil in Hollywood films. In 1840, the population of Ireland had been around 8 million; by 1900 it was below 4 million. This was at a time when populations everywhere else in Europe were increasing dramatically ,even ,  population of Ireland is still well below the figure for the early 19th century, the only European country for which this is true. English Protestant landowners, as well as the Westminster Government, were held responsible for the failure to deal with the blight which decimated the potato crop on which so many millions of peasants depended. It was the only crop which failed in those years yet food could not be found for the poor, some of whom resorted to eating leaves and even grass. The ‘Potato Famine’ touched every family in the country and it cemented the image of ‘perfidious Albion’, as the natural disaster of the ‘potato blight’ was made so much worse by the indifference and cruelty of Government officials who did too little too late to help the peasants who starved across the country. The frustration grew over the years amongst the survivors, especially the emigrants, festering into the deepest hostility in some areas, an anger expressed in many of the songs and stories of that period. The IRA would eventually grow from that anger and the desire for freedom, justice and, it must be said, revenge.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1a/An_gorta_Mor.jpg

A reminder of the power of history: a mural on a house in Ballymurphy, Belfast, commemorating the ‘Great Famine’. (Author: unknown; source: here)

In the wake of the ‘Potato Famine’, resentment amongst Irish Republicans, who wanted independence from Britain, became increasingly aggressive from the 1860s. At the heart of this development was a group called ‘The Fenians’ who launched attacks against the British Government both in Ireland and in England. Much of their support came from Irish emigrants to the USA who had settled in the major cities of the north-east, such as New York and Boston. Some had made money since settling in the USA but they never forgot the reason why they had been forced to leave their homes, memories often fired by stories told by parents and grandparents. This fostered the development of various groups keen to fight back against Britain, trying to lead the struggle for freedom from English control. Ideology, anger and fund raising worked together, supporting groups like the Fenians and fostering a natural tendency to undermine the country which ruled a quarter of the globe. There was a deep sense of the injustice that fed the resentment against an elite and privileged group in England which seemed to have grown fat and rich on the ‘blood of the poor’. The last man to be publicly hanged in Britain was actually a Fenian, a man called Michael Barrett, who was found guilty for the deaths of 12 people in the ‘Clerkenwell Bombings’ in 1868. Such a public show of punishment would not stop the fund-raising or the volunteers, though, and Irish-American support for resistance to British rule would continue throughout the Twentieth Century.

The ‘Fenians’ themselves took their inspiration from Irish history as they looked back to the men and women who had rebelled against the English over the years. Two of these were Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) and Robert Emmett (1778-1803), both of whom had seen their efforts end in glorious failure. These two men became iconic figures for the Republican movement, their lives honoured in songs and music, and, indeed, ‘The Wolfe Tones’ is the name of a hugely popular band famous for playing rebel songs since 1963. However, despite the numerous attempts to resist British rule through force, some people tried to bring change through politics, most notably one inspirational and controversial figure,namely, Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891). Immortalised in song as Avondale’s ‘proud eagle, Parnell who was one of the most important politicians of the late Victorian era. In an age when Ireland returned nearly one hundred MPs to Westminster, he focused his campaigning on the issue of the land and his cooperation with the great Liberal Prime Minister, WE Gladstone, saw the introduction of the First Home Rule Bill in the 1880s, a law which would have given some independence to Ireland. The Bill failed and Parnell fell from power thanks to the scandal that surrounded his affair with a married woman, Mrs. Kitty O’Shea. It is remarkable that a Cambridge educated Protestant landowner had united the country behind him, but the ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’ failed to deliver real change and the political process was weakened in the process; Home Rule would never satisfy a hard core of people,  for whom the full independence of the Irish state was demanded. Charles Stewart Parnell died in Hove at the age of just 45. It is never possible to know what might have been but, if he had lived for another twenty years or so, it is likely that there is much that might have been different and, maybe, better. As it was, Home Rule failed three times before the ‘Great War, each defeat exacerbating the anger and resentment of Irish Republicans.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c9/Charles_Stewart_Parnell_photograph.jpg

Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891): ‘The Uncrowned King of Ireland’. (Author: unknown; source: here)

The most significant of the Home Rule Bills was, in many ways, the third which was introduced by the Herbert Asquith’s government just before the war. Following on Gladstone’s footsteps, this was another attempt by the Liberals to grant some independence to the people of Ireland while keeping the country as a whole under the control of Westminster. Not all people were keen on such a prospect, though, with the Conservatives in Britain and the Unionists in Ireland, being fiercely against the Bill. The Third Home Rule Bill was a divisive piece of legislation, creating great hopes amongst its supporters but triggering massive anxiety amongst those who favoured the old order. The Conservatives, under the leadership of Andrew Bonar Law, gave their total support to the Unionists of Ireland, committing all Tory MPs to stopping the Bill becoming law. The Unionists feared a take-over by Republicans and, in 1913, they established militia groups or armed gangs, to protect the Protestant community; this was the UVF, the Ulster Volunteer Force. The Unionist leader, Edward Carson was the first of many thousands who signed the ‘Ulster Covenant’, a commitment to defend the Union which kept Ulster, the predominantly Protestant province of Ireland, within the United Kingdom. In response to the founding of the UVF and the signing of the Covenant, the most ardent supporters of Home Rule (and of full independence for Ireland) set up their own militia group, ‘The Irish Volunteers’, a body which grew out of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which had worked for many decades alongside supporters in the USA to force the British out of the country. But then the Great War started and everything seemed to be put on hold.

Edward Carson (1854-1935): he was the hard-line leader of the Ulster Unionists who was also famous as the barrister who destroyed his ‘old friend’ and fellow student, Oscar Wilde. He joined the War Cabinet under David Lloyd-George in 1917 and was knighted and later became Baron Carson, all signs of his place within the British establishment. (Author: unknown; source: here)

The Great War put an end to immediate prospect of Home Rule for Ireland, and many thousands of Irishmen volunteered to fight in the British Army. This did not signify an acceptance of British rule, though, and there was a well-known saying amongst Irish Republicans that, ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’. The most famous example of this came during the war itself with the ‘Easter Rising’ of 1916. On Easter Monday, 24th April, a group of ‘Irish Volunteers’ under the leadership of Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, Eamonn De Valera and others, launched an attack in Dublin. Although there had been months of planning, things were chaotic – and known by the authorities. The confusion was summed up by the capture of Sir Roger Casement, an Anglo-Irish diplomat, who was bringing weapons from Germany to support the rebellion. Despite the problems, things went ahead with the aim of taking over key public buildings in the capital in the hope that this would lead to an uprising of the ordinary people. The ‘Easter Rising’ turned out to be a disaster as the British Army suppressed the rebellion, destroyed the General Post Office, where the core of the rebel forces were fighting, and killed many of the rebels. More importantly, the Government put the surviving leaders on trial and found them all guilty of treason, imprisoning some but executing 13. These men became martyrs for the Republican cause, heroes of Ireland whose lives are still celebrated today. The most powerful moment came when James Connolly, one of the leaders who had been badly wounded in the fighting, had to be propped up in a chair in order to be killed by firing squad. The rebels might not have succeeded in life, but in dying at the hands of the British in such a way, they came to inspire many followers down the years, their deaths perceived as yet another sign of English cruelty and oppression.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e9/Irish_Easter_Rising.JPG

A memorial to the leaders of the Easter Rising who were executed at Kilmainham Jail, Dublin, in  1916. Gerald Seymour’s quote from ‘Harry’s Game’, that, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” has rarely been more clearly seen. (Author: Unknown, source: here)

As the Great War entered what was to be its final year, tensions were growing in the Republican camp as victory for Britain and its allies became more likely. The dilemma over what to do next was a cause of much debate. The arguments were long and complex, and they saw the rise of ‘Sinn Féin’ as the main political party to represent the Republican cause under the leadership of a key figure in Irish history, Eamonn de Valera. (‘Sinn Fein’ is Gaelic for ‘We ourselves’ or ‘Ourselves alone’, a popular phrase amongst Republicans in the 19th century.) The party would retain close links with the IRA which was formed in 1919 as the Irish Volunteers were re-established. The following years saw great tension and conflict in Ireland as the British responded to a new ‘guerilla’ war fought by the IRA by sending in one of the most notorious forces ever: the Black and Tans. Wearing black jackets and khaki trousers, this force was a mixture of experienced soldiers from the war with numerous criminals who became the most hated symbol of English oppression. Their most notorious action was the killing of 14 people during a Gaelic football match at Croke Park, Dublin, on 21st November, 1920, which was done in retaliation for the killing of the same number of British by the IRA earlier in the day; it was a day which summarised the  atrocities committed by each side.

During 1921, in an attempt to find peace of some kind, negotiations took place in London as the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, tried to broker a deal. Eamonn de Valera and Michael Collins, both key figures in the Republican movement, had important roles in this, with Collins effectively signing his own death warrant when he was sent to London for the talks and accepted a deal that angered many of the Republicans. The Agreement split the Republican movement in two and caused the Irish Civil War of 1921-22. Collins himself was just one of many victims of that war, killed by the IRA during an ambush in Cork. Eventually a deal was reached which saw the establishment of a semi-independent ‘Irish Free State’ in the south of Ireland (Eire) while six of the nine counties of Ulster became what we now know as ‘Northern Ireland’. Peace of a kind broke out but not a peace that would last. The Irish Fee State’s status changed in 1936 and again in 1949, when it became the Republic of Ireland, but peace in the North was always a fragile thing. In the late 1960s, after simmering for many years, ‘The Troubles’ began in earnest and the IRA launched its campaign of terror. Other Republican organisations, such as the INLA, the Irish National Liberation Army, were formed and played their part in the fighting against the British Army and Unionist paramilitary groups, such as the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) and the UDA (Ulster Defence Association). The fighting would come to devastate the community and be a feature of the daily news for thirty years or more; nearly 3500 died in ‘the Troubles’, the vast majority of them being aged under 40.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e4/Divis_Street_Murals,_Belfast,_May_2011_(07).JPG

British troops were sent to Northern Ireland in 196. This mural honours the women and children who challenged a military on the Falls Road, a heavily Catholic part of Belfast. (Author: unknown; source: here)

Tensions had never completely disappeared from Northern Ireland in the fifty years that separated the end of the Great war and the start of ‘the Troubles’. In the 1960s, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, many Catholics and Republicans began to campaign for equality in the Province. They opposed what they saw as a form of segregation in the Province based on religious belief, claiming that certain jobs, better housing and access to education, for example, favoured the protestant community. Special significance focused on the role of the courts, the legal system and the police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which were almost completely Protestant and, consequently, offered little by way of justice or protection to the Catholic community. In August, 1969, with tension and violence on the rise, the British Prime Minister, Labour’s Harold Wilson, made the decision to send troops onto the streets of Northern Ireland to keep the peace; it would be nearly 30 years before they could leave. The ‘Good Friday Agreement’ of 1998 may be an imperfect document in the eyes of many but it was a key moment in bringing peace to the province. Tensions remain, though, often surfacing in the ‘Marching Season’, that period of June and July when the Unionists march in memory of events like the Battle of the Boyne, when ‘King Billy’, William of Orange, defeated the last Catholic king of England, James II. The past comes painfully to life at such times, when the wearing of a bowler hat and a sash by members of the Protestant Lodge, the ‘Orangemen’, can trigger a wave of hatred and anger, which has its roots in an event from over 300 years ago.

As mentioned, it was the issue of Civil Rights which brought many Republicans onto the streets in protest during the 1960s. Inspired by events in the USA, where improved conditions for Black Americans had been achieved through protest, both peaceful and violent, many Catholics saw similarities with their own situation. One protest in particular triggered a massive reaction around the world, the ‘Bloody Sunday’ march in Derry or Londonderry on 30th January, 1972, when British troops shot 13 civilians, an action that many believe swelled the ranks of the IRA enormously. The anger and deep-seated sense of injustice felt in the wake of ‘Bloody Sunday’ was to tear Ulster apart over thirty years. It was those feelings which led Patrick Magee to try to blow up Margaret Thatcher and the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1984. The actions were taken by a group which refused to follow the democratic process or peaceful negotiation as they believed they would not achieve what they wanted in that way. They tried to force change behind the barrel of the gun as they believed there was no other way to do it. The roots of their actions have to be found deep in history, and the interpretation of history going back to 1972, 1916, 1845, 1803, 1798, 1688, 1651 and even 1169. Things which most British people have neither heard of nor care for, were at the heart of hundreds of murders, injuries and violence across many traumatic decades. The bombs were the horrid, frightening cry of Republican anger which meant that the IRA saw themselves not as terrorists or criminals but as self-defenders and protectors. Thus it was that in the 1970s the IRA prisoners in the Maze Prison started the ‘dirty protests’ where they refused to wear prison uniforms or use the toilets provided, protests which ultimately led to the famous ‘Hunger Strikes’ of 1981.

File:Bobby sands mural in belfast320.jpg

A mural honouring Bobby Sands (1954-81). (Author: kwekubo; source: here)

Those IRA hunger strikers included many leading prisoners of the movement, most famously, Bobby Sands. Sands was the first of a number of IRA prisoners to refuse to eat any food, starting his protest on 1st March, 1981, claiming the right to be treated as a ‘political prisoner’. He died after 66 days on hunger strike. He was 27 years old at the time and had actually been elected as an MP just before the ‘Hunger Strike’ began. In all, ten IRA prisoners would die on Hunger Strike, deaths which would harden attitudes on both sides. Francis Hughes, Patsy O’Hara, Thomas McElwee, Bobby Sands and the others who died would enter into legend with songs written, and memorials built, in their honour; in the rest of the UK, they would generally be seen as crazed terrorists, evil and destructive individuals who sort only to destroy ‘the country’. Extreme situations tend to breed extreme actions and, pushed to the margins, neither the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and the main political parties, nor the IRA and its supporters, would negotiate or compromise at the time, and so the Troubles were nourished.

Patrick Magee was released from prison in 1999 as part of the prisoner release programme which was part of the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. He had served fourteen years for his crime, a term which many saw as inadequate punishment, his release being a travesty of justice. Magee had been born in a small nationalist ghetto of Belfast, growing up surrounded by the stories of his grandfather who had been in the IRA in the 1920s. The fear  and frustration of his community matched the fear and anxiety of the Protestant majority, a situation his parents tried toe scape by moving to England, but Magee returned to play his part in the struggle, joining the IRA in the mid-1970s.  His actions destroyed many lives at Brighton, his own dreadful page in a terrible history anger, injustice, fear and violence.

Patrick Magee emerged from prison with a first class degree from the Open University and a PhD based on the way the Troubles were presented in novels. After his release he said: ”Every generation of republicans has had to turn to violence. I would hope that now at last we can stand on our own two feet and fight our corner politically. The potential is now there at last.” His life, like the Troubles, was  rooted in the ‘tragedy of history’, those powerful memories which have a long ‘half-life’, taking more than just a few hundred years to die away and become harmless.

 

One note for sports fans. Croke Park is the home of the GAA (the Gaelic Athletic Association) and it banned the playing of ‘British’ sports: rugby, cricket, football. So it was that when the Irish Football Association and the Rugby Union needed to play their internationals at a new venue due to the rebuilding of Lansdowne Road, it became a hugely important moment. The GAA faced opposition within its ranks but finally agreed and allowed Croke Park to be used. The first rugby match played against England in 2007 became a particularly powerful event, especially as the British National Anthem had never been played there. It passed off peacefully, marking a significant development in relations between the two nations and within Ireland itself. That’s the power of history, sport and reconciliation at work. Maybe it helped that the Irish won, 43-13.

 

 

 Find out more:

Films: ‘Hunger’ (2008), ‘Michael Collins’ (1996), ‘In the name of the Father’ (1993), ‘Bloody Sunday’ (2002) and ‘The wind that shakes the barley’ (2006)

Books: ‘Making sense of the troubles: A history of the Northern Ireland Conflict’ by David McKittrick and David McVea; ‘Northern Ireland: A Very Short Introduction’ by Marc Mulholland; ‘The Northern Ireland Troubles’ by Aaron Edwards; ‘A Place Apart: Northern Ireland in the 1970s’ by Dervla Murphy; ‘Harry’s Game’ by Gerald Seymour; ‘Mad Dog: The Rise and Fall of Johnny Adair and ‘C’ Company’ by David Lister;

Books/TV: ‘A History of Ireland’ by Robert Kee and ‘The Story of Ireland’ by Fergal Keane and Neil Hegarty

Songs: Music and song are powerful sources for the way history has been passed on in Ireland. There are many examples to choose from, especially from the Republican perspective, including: ’60 Greatest Irish Rebel Songs’, albums by the Wolfe Tones, ‘Spirit of Freedom’ by Christy Moore; ‘Ulster’s Orange Anthems’ offers a Unionist view and a clear contrast.  These are very one-sided interpretations and should, therefore, be used with great care and thought. Other songs, such as, ‘Soldier’ by Harvey Andrews. ‘To find their Ulster peace’ by Vin Garbutt and ‘My youngest son came home today’ and ‘It’s only Tuesday’ by Eric Bogle, offer reflections from a different perspective, as does ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ by U2.

 

 

 

Removing your enemies 1: The end of Georgi Markov and others

Removing your enemies 1: The end of Georgi Markov and others.

In 1978, a news item captured the public imagination for its cruel simplicity. Ask anyone born in Great Britain much before 1970 and they’ll probably be able to tell you who Georgi Markov (1929-1978) was or, at least, how he died. His death, or, rather, his assassination, was like something straight out of James Bond film or a John le Carré book, and it both fascinated and frightened the country, a sign of Cold War tensions brought into the heart of London. Although Markov’s death was a particularly remarkable story, there have, of course, been many other such assassinations and attempts to take out significant figures in the long and bloody history of the Twentieth Century.

It is worth noting that not every high-profile murder is an assassination. To be an assassination, the death has to be a politically, ideologically, religiously or, in some cases, economically, motivated killing of a significant person. The main targets of assassination attempts are usually monarchs and royalty, senior politicians, religious leaders, business leaders or high-profile people who represent a set of values at odds with those of another country, group, religion, individual or party. The deaths of, say, Princess Diana or John Lennon, for example, were not assassinations.

The assassinations and attempted assassinations covered here are not in any way an exhaustive list but they are hopefully interesting and they might introduce some new names or remind you of things you had forgotten. There are only five in this section although others will be covered in later posts.

By the way, there will be no exploration of any conspiracy theories, predictions by Nostradamus, nor anything to do with celebrities in this section; you can find that stuff out for yourself. And I’m not going into the old thing about the word ‘assassin’ coming from the idea that it came from a group of specially trained warriors of the 11th century who got ready for their ‘commando-style’ tasks by smoking hashish. You can check all those things out for yourself in your own time.

 

Georgi Markov – 1978.

Georgi Markov was born in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria in 1929. He trained as a chemical engineer in the years immediately after World War II and was also a teacher. Bulgaria was part of the Eastern Bloc of states which came under the control of the USSR after 1945. In the 1950s, and following a time of illness, Markov took to writing and produced a number of novels and short stories which were well received. His popularity grew and he was made a member of the Union of Bulgarian Writers, which gave him the official status needed to make a living as a writer. In the 1960s, his work developed to include plays for the theatre and shows for TV, although he found that some of his work was banned, especially the plays. The intensity of the Cold War made creative writing an awkward profession under the regime of Todor Zhivkov, the leader of Bulgaria.

In 1969, Markov left Bulgaria to stay with his brother in Italy, partly because of the pressure placed on him and his work by the Communist system. In 1971, he decided against returning to Bulgaria and instead he moved to London where, amongst other things, he worked for the BBC World Service and Radio Free Europe, an organisation which had broadcast to the Communist states of Eastern Europe since the Cold War started. Naturally, these actions did not go down well with the authorities in Bulgaria, where his passport was revoked, his work was removed from libraries and shops, his membership of the writers’ union was withdrawn and he was sentenced to six years in prison in absentia. Markov became an non-person at home and an enemy of the state.

On 7th September, 1978, Georgi Markov was stabbed in the leg, almost certainly with an umbrella which was tipped with a pellet containing the deadly toxin, ricin. He had walked across Waterloo Bridge in London, and was waiting for his bus to get to work at the BBC. Markov described feeling a slight pain in his thigh, rather like an insect sting, but there were no clear problems until he developed a fever in the evening and was taken to hospital where he died on 11th September. The ‘Umbrella Murder’ as it became known was a remarkable way to kill someone in broad daylight and on a busy street.

The use of an umbrella was suspected but not proven based on Markov’s statement. After he felt the pain in his leg, he turned and saw a man picking up an umbrella that he seemed to have dropped. The man concerned walked calmly away, crossed the street and got into a taxi; he was almost certainly a Bulgarian agent called Franceso Gullino. The sophisticated nature of the pellet which killed him suggested that this had to be the work of a government agency of some kind, and suspicion immediately fell on the Bulgarian secret police. The pellet was designed with a sugar coating which would melt at 37° centigrade, the temperature of the human body, and so release the deadly ricin into the body. There was almost no evidence of the attack left on Markov’s body except for a small puncture hole in the leg.

Although there was an extensive investigation into Markov’s murder, no one was ever convicted of the crime. In the years after the collapse of Communism in Bulgaria and across Eastern Europe, various former Soviet agents spoke of the KGB’s role in planning the attack but they never revealed the killer’s name. Subsequent investigations have led to Gullino being named as the probable killer, acting, of course, on the orders of the Communist regime, and of Zhivkov in particular.

Georgi Markov was 49 years old when he died. He was little known in the West but, as a creative writer, he became a voice who threatened the established lies and cover-ups in his home state. He had the vision, skills and courage to challenge the absolutist regime of Bulgaria, a system that he believed denied essential freedoms to the people. As with most of the people we will look at below, his assassination was a choice made by people in power who sort to suppress any voice of criticism or challenge.

For an image of Georgi Markov, click the link below:

http://www.sammyboy.com/showthread.php?73142-Spy-death-mystery

 

Lenin – 1918.

Lenin (Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov, 1870-1924) was leader of Russia and the USSR, 1917-1924. He survived two very close calls by assassins in January and then August, 1918. In both attempts, Lenin was shot at by political opponents following the Russian Revolution. The second attempt was the more serious as two of the three bullets hit him, one in the arm and the other in the jaw and neck. Doctors were worried about the damage they might do in removing the bullet in his head and left it in. Although he survived, the attacks certainly weakened Lenin, and worsened the impact of the strokes he later suffered, so hastening his death in 1924 at the age of just 53. The long-term impact on the USSR, on the fate of Stalin and, therefore, on World War II and the Cold War can hardly be underestimated.

Had Lenin been successfully assassinated in 1918, the world would have been very different, probably seeing the rise of Leon Trotsky as leader of the USSR. Then again, if Lenin had lived just a few years longer, maybe even to the age of 65, without suffering the strokes, of course, then so much would have been changed. For one thing, Joseph Stalin would almost certainly have been removed from the Politburo in 1923 or 1924, becoming just a footnote in history. Lenin would have been in absolute power and able to shape Communism and the USSR in a completely different way.

We will, of course, never know what might have been but how history turns on such near-misses as the attempted assassinations of Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-71043-0003,_Wladimir_Iljitsch_Lenin

Lenin in 1920. If there had been no assassination attempts on Lenin, there would probably have been no Stalin, no Ukrainian famine, no Nazi-Soviet Pact, no Stalingrad, no assassination of Trotsky, no ‘No more heroes’ by ‘The Stranglers’ and, maybe, no one to stop Hitler. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Mohandas Gandhi – 1948.

One of the most inspirational figures of the Twentieth Century, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) was a Hindu who went a long way towards transcending class and religious divisions in India and around the world. His nicknames were ‘Mahatma’ meaning ‘Great Soul’ and ‘Bopa’, which stands for ‘Father of the Nation’. Gandhi was a remarkable character who had a leading role in the overthrow of British control in India, which led to Indian independence in 1947. His tactics of peaceful resistance, and his use of image, debate, humour and simple courage in the face of violence, became hugely influential on Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. In his role as ‘Father of the Nation’, Gandhi takes his place in a line that includes the likes of George Washington for the USA, Simon Bolivar for much of Central and South America, as well as Nelson Mandela in South Africa. At Gandhi’s birth, India was the greatest colony in the British Empire, a huge territory of over 500 kingdoms; at his death, India was independent, a single country on its way to becoming the largest democracy in the world.

Gandhi lived nearly all of his life under the control and influence of the British Empire. Married at the age of just 13, he chose to complete his education at the University of London. He studied law and was called to the bar in 1891 although he only practiced as a lawyer for a year before heading for South Africa. His stay there extended for twenty years and it was there that he saw and experienced racism aimed at the native population and the many Indians who lived and worked in the cape colony, and were known by the insulting term ‘coolies’. Gandhi became a leader of the Indian community in South Africa and developed his theory of peaceful resistance or ‘satyagraha’.

In 1915, Gandhi returned to India and travelled extensively. He became a supporter of many groups who were suffering and oppressed, such as those of workers in the indigo and textile trades. His profile and attitude led to him being called ‘Mahatma’. Controversies and tensions developed over the following years, which will be covered in more detail in another section, the result of which was that Gandhi was put on trial and imprisoned for six years. Released in 1925 on the grounds of ill health, Gandhi was soon immersed in the growing tensions between Hindus and Muslims, as well as the developing movement for Indian independence.

Gandhi’s strategy of non-violent protest was summed up in his public fasts, the first of which he did from his prison cell in 1924, and the challenge to the salt laws in 1930, a protest which was used to highlight the campaign for independence. He also proposed major changes to the Indian class or caste system, a campaign which drew him into tensions over the status of the ‘untouchables’. By the 1930s, Gandhi was the spiritual leader of India, a figure who held the moral high-ground against the controls of the British colonial powers. In 1931, he went to London for inconclusive discussions about independence. This was the last time he left India.

The remaining years of his life were dominated by the campaigns and arguments over independence. These were complicated by the tensions within Indian society, tensions around the caste system, as well as the religious differences between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. The outbreak of World War II brought further controversy as Gandhi and other leaders in the Indian National Congress chose neutrality as they could not bring themselves to fully support the British in their struggle, even though it was against fascist forces. Between 1942 and 1945, Gandhi once again found himself behind bars, this time with most of the National Congress leadership.

The end of the war saw a change of Government in Britain, with Clement Attlee’s Labour Party coming to power. They were already committed to granting independence to India, so victory looked assured. However, the issues around what a newly independent India would look like were still to be resolved, with the Muslim call for its own state within the country being a particular focus of tension. As a part of this, many Hindu and Sikh refugees from what is modern Pakistan, poured into the city of Delhi, and violent conflict developed. It is estimated that a million people died and 11 million were displaced by the troubles. Gandhi began his final fast in a bid to end the tensions and, as various leaders made a promise to work together in peace, the fast seemed to have worked.

Despite the apparent success of this fast, some people were clearly not satisfied and a bomb was detonated in the house where Gandhi was living. He was unharmed but clearly a target for extremists. He refused the offer of bodyguards and continued his routines as normal. A key part of this was his daily ritual of prayer. On 30th January, 1948, Gandhi was running a little late for prayers at 5 p.m., according to his favourite watch. He was approached by Nathuram Godsea, a member of the Brahmin faith, who bowed to Gandhi before shooting him three times with a revolver. Godsea was just one of many extremists who were opposed to Gandhi’s goal of greater tolerance and cooperation with others at a time of inter-racial, religious and cultural tension.

Gandhi’s final words were a blessing to the man who shot him.

 

MKGandhi

Gandhi: a man who understood the power of images as well as words. His influence on Martin Luther King’s peaceful protests was one example of his influence. (Author – Unknown; Source: here)

 

 

Huey Long – 1935.

A much ignored US politician these days, Huey Long (1893-1935) was a very high-profile figure in the 1930s. At that time he was the Governor of Louisiana, a hero of the common people and a serious opponent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Long’s nickname was ‘The Kingfish’ and he had a reputation for fixing things in a practical way. He presented ideas which were rather socialist in their goals and strategy as he believed Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ did not go far enough towards helping the poor. His biggest idea was the ‘Share Our Wealth’ scheme, which called for a redistribution of money through a limit on the total wealth, savings and income of each American family, higher taxes on the rich and a limit on high earnings. Long also wanted to attack powerful companies, especially trusts or monopolies, for trying to make high profits. His ideas have strong echoes in the ideas put forward by protesters against the G8 and G20 summits in the wake of the economic and financial crisis of 2007.

Across the USA, especially in political and financial circles, there were many people opposed to Huey Long’s ideas and there were various rumours of assassination plots during the summer of 1935. However, one dispute with a judge turned particularly nasty. On 8th September of that year, Long was in Baton Rouge, the state capital of Louisiana, attempting to force Judge Benjamin Pavy out of office when he was approached by Dr. Carl Weiss, the judge’s son-in-law. Weiss shot Long in the stomach from close range. In the chaos and confusion, shots from Long’s own bodyguards also hit the Senator after they ricocheted into him. Long died in hospital two days later after doctors were unable to stop the internal bleeding. His final words were:’ God don’t let me die. I have so much to do.’

Huey Long was just 42 years old when he died and, with a groundswell of support, he might well have challenged Roosevelt for the Presidency in 1936. And who can say what effect that might have had on the USA and World War II?

 

543px-HueyPLongGesture

Huey Long: ‘The Kingfish’ was an unusual American, a politician with some genuinely socialist ideas. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Lord Mountbatten – 1979.

The assassination of Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, KG, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCIE, GCVO, DSO, PC, FRS, better known as Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900-1979) was one of the most shocking actions of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. He was a cousin of the Queen Elizabeth and uncle to Prince Philip, a grandson of Queen Victoria; he was obviously a leading figure in the Royal Family. Lord Mountbatten had a special role in the bringing up of the Prince of Wales, a relationship which was close although not always peaceful and happy. He took on the role of ‘Honorary grandfather’ to the heir to the throne and gave him much advice, not least with regards to who the prince should marry.

Lord Mountbatten was killed by the IRA while on holiday at his home in Sligo on the west coast of Ireland. A bomb was placed on his boat, Shadow V, and this was detonated by radio control as Mountbatten and various members of his family and other friends went on a fishing trip on 27th August, 1979. Two boys died as well, one being Mountbatten’s grandson, Nicholas Knatchbull, aged 14, and a 15-year old boy, Paul Maxwell, who was one of the crew. The Dowager lady Brabourne, his daughter’s mother-in-law, was also killed in the explosion, while Nicholas’ mother, father and twin brother were all seriously injured. It is fair to say that the news came as a huge shock to many people that day.

The focus of the tragedy was, of course, Mountbatten himself. He was such a well-known member of the Royal Family and someone who had been a war hero and a public figure for much of his life. He had fought in World War II, playing a significant role in the raids on St. Nazaire and Dieppe, the latter of which was a disaster which had a positive influence on the planning for D-Day. Churchill appointed him Supreme Allied Commander of the South East Asia Command in which role he accepted the surrender of the Japanese forces at Singapore. And Mountbatten also had the distinction of being the last Viceroy of India, playing a central role in independence in 1947, before taking over as the first Governor General. In these various roles, Mountbatten had been at war and in conflict situations; the IRA position was that, regardless of his age, he was a legitimate target as a member of the ruling elite of a foreign country which imposed its own controls on Ireland. Needless to say, most people in Britain did not see it that way, especially with the deaths and injuries to so many others.

Later on the same day of the bombing of Lord Mountbatten’s boat, two booby trap bombs exploded near the Northern Irish border, killing 18 British troops. This attack at Warrenpoint was one of the worst in the thirty years of ‘The Troubles’. As with Mountbatten’s assassination, Warrenpoint was aimed at drawing attention to the situation in Northern Ireland and aimed to intimidate the British Government led by Margaret Thatcher. The goal of the IRA was to force concessions from the government, to force the army to leave and to bring about a united Ireland, but instead it just served to harden resolve against the IRA and the Republican cause.

 

766px-Lord_Mountbatten_21_Allan_Warren

Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900-1979). (Author: Allan Warren; Source: here)

 

Victor Jara – 1973.

In January 2013, it was reported that four former officers in the Chilean Army were facing arrest for their part in one of the most controversial events of the country’s recent history. The charges centred on the death of a singer, Victor Jara (1932-1973) who was a Chilean folk singer. Jara was just one of many thousands who died in the military coup of that year which saw a right-wing military junta come to power with the help of the CIA amongst others, ousting Salvador Allende, the Socialist President from power. Victor Jara became, in some ways, the voice and the face of that struggle and his memory remains a strong influence to this day throughout Central and South America.

Victor Jara was a member of the Chilean Communist Party and also belonged to a popular movement in Latin America called ‘New Songs’. It was a powerful organisation in the early 1970s, promoting songs which spoke of justice and liberty, criticising the rising tide of Fascism in the region and supporting the policies of Salvador Allende, the left-wing politician who became leader of Chile when he was appointed President after a close election in 1970. Allende himself died in the military uprising which saw Augusto Pinochet, a general in the Chilean Army and later on a close friend of Mrs. Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, come to power. The military dictatorship remained in place between 1973 and 1990, allowing no free elections but enjoying significant support from the likes of the USA and the UK; many saw this support for a dictatorship against democracy as an especially hypocritical act.

Anyway, going back to Victor Jara’s story. Jara was a star in Chile, giving voice to the hopes and fears of many ordinary people in the face of increasing threats to liberty. For him this meant a commitment to broadly left-wing, Socialist ideals, a vision which he saw Salvador Allende’s party trying to put into action. But he was aware of the threat to Allende from a powerful coalition: the army, big business and many right-wing politicians. In doing this, the opposition forces had significant help from the US government who authorised the CIA to work against Allende. Allende was a democratically elected leader but this was not acceptable to Washington as he supported left-wing policies and Nixon followed the traditional Washington approach, fearing any signs of Communist influence in Central and South America.

Backed by the army and the police, Allende’s opponents rebelled. A coup took place and many thousands of people, including Victor Jara, were taken prisoner, being held in the national stadium in Santiago, the capital. The army and the police combined to intimidate and torture many of their prisoners, one of their main targets being Jara. He had his fingers and hands broken so that he could not play guitar, although some reports say his hands were actually cut off. Later he was executed by machine gun and buried in a mass grave. Until 2013, no one was ever charged with his murder.

Despite having blood on its hands, the military remained in power in Chile. It maintained a close watch on any signs of rebellion and ensured that the country followed policies which were very sympathetic to right wing, ‘Western’ ideals. The US Government ensured that aid and military assistance was given to the Chilean Government; c lose ties were maintained with the UK Government, a relationship which was rewarded at the time of the Falkland’s war when the Chilean Government was one of the few countries in South America to offer Britain support in the conflict.

Attempts were made to bring Pinochet to trial for his role in the coup of 1973 and in the military dictatorship that followed but they never came to anything. It is interesting to note that the attempts to arrest him came in London where he was receiving medical treatment while staying as a friend of Margaret Thatcher. It is doubtful that they ever discussed Victor Jara or, indeed, played any of his music.

 

453628999_6b62424a17_b

Victor Jara: what can happen when your songs say too much. (Author: Blog Ruso; Source: here)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Olympics: Politics and sport don’t mix apparently.

Berlin, Olympia-Stadion (Luftaufnahme)

The Olimpiastadion, Berlin, 1936 – a place where important things happened. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

The Olympics: Politics and sport don’t mix apparently.

“Friendships born on the field of athletic strife are the real gold of competition. Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust.” Jesse Owens

The Olympics in the modern era were the result of the vision and hard work of a French noble called Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937). He was at least partly inspired by the popular games which had been taking place in the small English village of Much Wenlock in Shropshire since 1850. This gathering, which is still held each year, aimed, “to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock”, an ideal which the Baron wanted to share on a far grander scale.

Baron de Coubertin was a regular visitor to Much Wenlock and he was much inspired by what he saw. After several years of planning, athletes gathered in Athens in 1896 for the first modern Olympic Games, the city being chosen, of course, because of the ancient games which had been held at Olympia from 776 BC to 393 BC. At those original games, winners received nothing more than a wreath of olive leaves, women were banned from competing and glory was all. There is no space here for a full history of the Olympics but some brief observations on a few key moments in recent history will hopefully show how fascinating and important the games have been in political as well as sporting terms.

The Baron himself: Pierre de Coubertin. He actually won a gold medal at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912 – for poetry. They really did have a range of competitions in those days and he would probably have had a chance if they had held a bushy moustache competition.

(Author: Photograph from Bain News Service; Source: From the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division digital ID cph.3c22269)

1936 – BERLIN OLYMPICS

An obvious starting point for a discussion of politics in the Olympics is Berlin, 1936. For anyone visiting the city, the stadium there should be on the agenda: a Nazi building of beauty and importance, and the venue for one of the greatest athletic achievements of all time. The hero who dominated the Berlin Olympics of 1936 was an all-time great, namely the Black American star, Jesse Owens (1913-80). Owens’ life is a story which is truly worth knowing, not just for the fact that he won four gold medals in 1936, setting a record for athletics at one Olympics which was not matched until Carl Lewis at Los Angeles in 1984. (Some of you will mention Mark Spitz, who won seven golds in swimming at Munich in 1972 and Michael Phelps who went even further to win eight golds at Beijing in 2008, again in the pool. But four athletics golds is still a record for one Olympic Games). Owens’ achievements were remarkable in themselves but they have always had an extra dimension because of the context in which they happened. The place, the times, the opponents and the spectators all contributed to the glory of what he did.

Owens was a black athlete at a time when segregation was rife in the USA. Racism was the norm during much of his life at home but, by competing in Germany when the Nazis were in control, he faced one of the most racist systems in history. When he went to Berlin, Owens was already a legend of track and field having broken three world records and equalled a fourth, all within 45 minutes at a meeting in the state of Michigan, one afternoon in 1935. He was outstanding at the long jump and at sprinting, where he competed at 100m, 200m and in relays. However, at the time when his world records were set, he could not even get a scholarship because of his skin colour, having to work in part-time jobs to fund his athletics; many lesser athletes found such scholarships easy to come by.

Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics.

(Author: Unknown; Source: derivative work by Durova of Image:Jesse_Owens.jpg – reproduction of photograph in “Die Olympischen Spiele, 1936″ p.27, 1936.)

In 1936, Adolf Hitler was looking for a major propaganda victory at the Berlin Olympics. For the Nazis, the Olympics were a wonderful opportunity to show the world the glories of their system. Berlin had been awarded the games before Hitler came to power and he wanted to take every advantage he could from this opportunity. With the world in economic depression following the Great Crash of 1929, Germany would put on a show that would show it was stronger and more dynamic than any country in the world. It was to be not only a glorious event, but it would also show the superiority of the Aryan race as blond-haired, blue-eyed athletes from Germany were expected to dominate the Games. Indeed, Germany did finish top of the medals table, but they had far more athletes than anyone else and they had been supported in training to an extent no other team could match.

The Berlin Olympics saw several innovations, such as electronic timing, the Olympic Torch and the filming of the games. The film was made by one of the most important, famous and controversial film makers of all time, Leni Riefenstahl (pictured above during filming). She produced ‘Olympia’ using some dramatic new techniques of filming, creating a record of the games which is well worth watching today – as is her most famous film, the horrible and extraordinary ‘Triumph of the Will’.

(Author: Unknown, August, 1936; Source: German Federal Archives)

Hitler thoroughly expected success in the high-profile events, such as the 100 metres sprint, and this is where Jesse Owens achieved his greatest fame, winning gold in 103 seconds, an Olympic record – and remember there were no starting blocks and the track was ash. Hitler is alleged to have refused to meet Owens after he won the 100 metres and his other events but this is pretty much a myth. What is true is that Hitler had upset Olympic officials early on in the games by greeting only the German gold medallists. They told him to meet all or none in future and he settled for not meeting any, which included Owens. But there is no doubt that Hitler was appalled by Owens’ victories, at least according to his famous architect and confidante, Albert Speer.

Jesse Owens won gold medals in the 100m, 200m and the 100m relay, but it was in the long jump that sportsmanship really stood out. Owens was warming up before the heats and took a practise jump. Without warning, the officials classed this as his first jump. Furious and distracted, Owens fouled on his second jump and faced the prospect of elimination if he failed with his third jump. At this point, one of his German opponents, Carl ‘Luz’ Long, spoke to him and gave him some advice, telling him how good he was and that he could easily jump from well behind the board and still qualify. Owens took the advice, qualified and went on to win gold – leaving Long with the silver medal. Long was delighted and apparently very proud that he had helped Owens win through.

The photo below shows Luz Long and Jesse Owens at the Olympics. Long had actually approached Owens on their first day in the Berlin stadium. With Hitler and 100 000 spectators watching, Long shook Owens’ hand and chatted with him, a public display that went against the Nazi propaganda as they looked down on Owens as an ‘inferior’ person. Owens treasured their friendship, as the letter below shows.

Jesse Owens and Luz Long during the long-jump medal ceremony, 1936.

(Author: Unknown; Source: The original can be viewed here)

He wrote it to Owens in 1942, just after the United States declared war on Germany:

My heart is telling me that this is perhaps the last letter of my life. If that is so, I beg one thing from you. When the war is over, please go to Germany, find my son and tell him about his father. Tell him about the times when war did not separate us and tell him that things can be different between men in this world.

“Your brother, Luz.”

Luz Long died on July 13, 1943. He had been wounded in action, fighting for the German Army, and was treated at a British field hospital. He was only 30 and was buried in a war cemetery in Sicily. In 1951, Jesse Owens kept his promise and found Long’s son in Germany. He said that the thing he valued most from his Olympic experience was his friendship with Luz Long, more so even than the medals and fame he won.

Remarkably, rather than being able to return to the USA as a great hero, Owens suffered at the hands of the American establishment. He received no recognition from President Roosevelt, a major negative point against one of America’s most famous Presidents. Nor did his successor, Harry Truman, acknowledge Owens’ achievements in any way. On his way home from the Games, Owens took some paid employment as a way of funding his expenses for the Olympics. Avery Brundage, the head of the US delegation, made sure Owens was stripped of his amateur status for doing some advertising, and so his career was brought to an end just as he faced a period of greatness. Brundage was a seriously important, and most unpleasant, man in Olympic history and he comes up again later in this section. Ruined by his loss of amateur status, Owens was reduced to racing against horses as a gimmick to make a living, a tragic development in the life of a truly great athlete.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the story was that, straight after being greeted as a hero on the streets of Nazi Berlin after the Olympics, Jesse Owens returned to the USA to suffer continued racism. In New York, a reception was held in honour of the Olympic athletes at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Jesse Owens, the greatest champion of the Berlin Olympic Games, had to go upstairs in the lift used by the waiters because the lifts were segregated and the public lifts were for ‘whites only’. Nazi Germany was evil but the American system was hardly a beacon of justice and integrity.

Since Owens died in 1980, there has been some evidence to suggest that the above story is not entirely true. One American commentator, Grantland Rice, said he watched Owens through binoculars during the entire qualifying for the long jump competition. At no point did Owens have any contact with Long, according to Rice, making it impossible for Long to have given the famous advice. And in an article published in his local newspaper, a week after the long jump final, Long spoke of his joy and excitement at seeing Hitler applauding his fifth round jump which tied Owens at 7.67 metres. This is presented as evidence that Long was a loyal Nazi who was positive about Hitler, although one has to ask what else he was supposed to say in an age when devotion to Hitler was so widespread and so ‘expected’. In 1965, it was said that Owens admitted to ‘enhancing’ the story of his friendship with Long because it was what the people wanted to hear. In history, as in life, these difficulties over interpretation and truth often exist. Maybe the friendship and duel between Jesse Owens and Luz Long was not quite like the story that has been passed down over the decades. But so powerful is that story, that it is hard to see its power ever being diluted. The photos of them lying on the grass in the Olympic Stadium the evidence of Long running to hug and congratulate Owens after his final jump and the last letter Long wrote before his death in 1943 – they all stand as testimony to a remarkable friendship.

1956 – MELBOURNE OLYMPICS

The Melbourne Games were the first Olympics to be held after the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, made his ‘Secret Speech’ in 1956. This speech, which is covered in more detail in the section on Khrushchev himself, had criticised Joseph Stalin, the hard-line Communist ruler of the USSR who had died in 1953. Khrushchev’s speech had sent shock waves around the world as it seemed to promise greater freedom and opportunity for those who lived in the Communist world behind the ‘Iron Curtain’. The Melbourne Olympics were, of course, in Australia and were, therefore, the first Games to be held in the southern hemisphere. They were not held in July-August but were moved to November-December, which meant they came just after the Hungarian Uprising (see Chapter 22) had been put down by troops of the Red Army and the Warsaw Pact. There had been huge loss of life and many people in Hungary had been deeply shaken by what had happened. The surprising scene for a symbolic Hungarian revenge would be the swimming pool in Melbourne, and, more specifically, the Olympic water polo tournament.

Hungary has a great tradition in swimming, having many outdoor pools and producing some fine swimmers over the years. The country has always been very strong in water polo, too, and. Hungary’s team made it to the semi-finals in Melbourne where there they had to face the team from the Soviet Union. Although the Hungarians actually had a stronger team, the Soviets considered themselves favourites, being from a much bigger country, and almost expected the Hungarians to collapse, respecting their superiority and power in the political world. Nothing could have been further from the truth and the match became the stuff of legend. The Hungarians won 4-0 but it is remembered not so much for its outcome as for the violence of the game and the blood that stained the pool by the end. One of the Hungarians, Ervin Zádor (1935-2012), left the pool with blood streaming from a cut eye after being punched by one of the USSR team. It became known as the ‘Blood in the water’ match and it was an iconic moment in sport, a great example of ‘David against Goliath’.

Ervin Zádor: Photo link

The Hungarians went on to beat the Yugoslav team 2-1 in the final and so win their fourth Water Polo Gold Medal. But the glory of victory could never make up for the horrors of the suffering in the Hungarian Uprising.

THE MEDALS TABLES AND DRUGS: 1948-1988

The Cold War officially saw no direct fighting between US and Soviet forces but tension and conflict was everywhere as each side aimed for superiority. In a dramatic move in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev had promised a change in Communism’s approach to the West. Under ‘peaceful coexistence’, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev promised that the USSR would crush the USA by non-violent competition rather than by force. One example of this was to be the rise of athletics under Communism. By defeating Western athletes, the Communist system in the USSR and Eastern Europe would show itself to be a better way of life. ‘Better’ meant superior in attitude, tactics, diet and the like. In reality, it’s fair to say that a lot of it would also be down to professionalism and drugs. In the days before serious drug testing, almost anything could be used by athletes and, in this period, almost anything was. The most dramatic examples were seen in the power events for women where records set in the 1970s are well beyond anything achieved today. It was mainly down to huge injections of testosterone. It reached such levels in some women that they developed stubble and some have since had sex changes to become men. These athletes often suffered enormous horrors in the name of ‘peaceful coexistence’.

The Olympics became the focus of much attention and competition for the Superpowers from the 1950s onwards,. Whereas the Games had been dominated by the older Western powers and the host nations before World War II, the Superpowers came to prominence in the post-war period. The Medals tables shows this quite clearly:

Date and host city First (Gold medals) Second (Gold medals) Third (Gold medals)
1948 – London USA – 38 Sweden – 16 France – 10
1952 – Helsinki USA  – 40 USSR – 22 Hungary- 16
1956 – Melbourne USSR – 37 USA – 32 Australia – 13
1960 – Rome USSR – 43 USA – 34 Italy – 13
1964 – Tokyo USA – 36 USSR – 30 Japan – 16
1968 – Mexico USA – 45 USSR – 29 Japan – 11
1972 – Munich USSR – 50 USA – 33 East Germany – 20
1976 – Montreal USSR – 49 East Germany – 40 USA – 34
1980 – Moscow USSR – 80 East Germany – 47 Bulgaria – 8
1984 – Los Angeles USA – 83 Romania – 20 West Germany – 17
1988 – Seoul USSR – 55 East Germany – 37 USA – 36

 

There is so much to understand about the Olympics that they are a series of books on their own. But here it is worth noting just a few things.

Firstly, the medals table was won by either the USA or the USSR every time between 1948 and 2004. China broke that domination in 2008 and 2012. This is partly due to the fact that the USA and the USSR were large countries in terms of population and wealth but it really bears testimony to the fact that the Olympics became an event of great significance for both countries as the Cold War developed. For the USSR, under Khrushchev and Brezhnev in particular, sporting success was a way of showing the power of the nation and the Communist way of life. They could not really compete with the West in areas which demanded high levels of technology or established skills, such as motor racing, horse racing or golf, but they could develop in athletics, gymnastics and swimming. And, of course, the USA had to respond as leader of the ‘free world’ and the richest nation on earth.

Secondly, look at the rise of East Germany. With a population of only 18-20 million, just a third of the size of West Germany and with far less economic power, it came third in the world in 1972 and then second in 1976, 1980 and 1988. This represents extraordinary progress – with some serious drug abuse and an aggressive selection and training policy behind it.

Thirdly, there were a number of bans and boycotts which affected most of the Olympics between 1948 and 1984. Most of these were to do with the broader political situations of the time. Germany and Japan were banned from London in 1948 while the USSR refused to send a team. In 1956, the Melbourne Games saw seven teams absent because of the Suez Crisis (Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq), the Hungarian Revolution (Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands) and the situation in Taiwan/Formosa (the People’s Republic of China). In 1964, South Africa was banned because of its laws on apartheid, a ban which would last until 1992, while North Korea and Indonesia withdrew because of a dispute with the IOC. Munich in 1972 saw the absence of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the face of a threatened ban by African countries, as the country was led by a white-minority after it had declared independence from the UK. At Montreal in 1976, twenty-two African countries refused to compete, in protest at New Zealand playing South Africa at Rugby Union, while the People’s Republic of China continued its boycott over Taiwan. In 1980, the US team and many other Western countries abstained in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Next, the USSR and fourteen of its allies amongst the Communist countries boycotted the 1984 games in protest at the USA’s boycott of 1980 – and that led to Romania coming second as it was far stronger than most Western countries despite being relatively small. And, finally, North Korea surprised no one when they boycotted the Seoul Games of 1988 in a general protest against South Korea. In 1992, there was no formal boycott of the Olympic Games for the first time since Rome in 1960.

Lastly, a point about world records, especially in the women’s power events, as referred to above. Here is a list of a few records still on the books after quite a few years. Major progress has been made in so many other events while these have not been bettered. And so many are from those really successful countries: the USA, USSR and Communist Eastern Europe. Note that drug tests were stepped up after 1988. By any measure, this all looks rather fishy.

Events for women Athlete/country Date
High jump Stefka Kostadinova – Bulgaria 1987
Long Jump Galina Christyakova – USSR 1988
Shot Put Natalya Lisovskaya – USSR 1987
Discus Gabriele Reinsch – East Germany 1988
Heptathlon Jackie Joyner-Kersee – USA 1988
100m Florence Griffith-Joyner – USA 1988
100m hurdles Yordanka Donkova – Bulgaria 1988
200m Florence Griffith-Joyner – USA 1988
400m Marita Koch – East Germany 1985
800m Jarmila Kratochvilova – Czechoslovakia 1983

 

1968 – MEXICO OLYMPICS 

The Mexico Olympics took place at a time of great upheaval in the world and especially in the USA. It was during the Vietnam War and while the Civil Rights Movement was becoming increasingly violent. The year had already seen the assassinations of both the civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, and the Democrat presidential candidate, Bobby Kennedy. A new figure had appeared in the Civil rights Movement: Stokeley Carmichael had become Chairman of SNCC (‘snick’ or the ‘Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’, a civil rights organisation which had moved towards supporting aggression) and was also ‘Honorary Prime Minister’ of the violent ‘Black Panther’ movement which advocated an aggressive approach to Civil Rights for Black Americans. In 1968, Carmichael was proclaiming ‘Black Power’ and ‘Black is beautiful’, while the Black Panthers, led in their actions by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, were challenging the police on the streets of the USA. In addition to these events, Muhammad Ali, the world heavyweight boxing champion, had been imprisoned for three years in 1967 for refusing to join the army and fight in Vietnam. There were huge racial tensions around that filtered through to the US Olympic team that travelled south for the Mexico games.

The 1968 Olympics had already seen traumatic events with the deaths of many people in riots before the games even began. However, despite this huge tragedy, the incident which came to make the Mexico Olympics famous actually happened after the 200 metres final. It was won by a black athlete, Tommie Smith (b. 1944) of the USA, in a world record time of 19.83 seconds, while a second black American sprinter, John Carlos (b. 1945), won the bronze. In silver medal position was an Australian, Peter Norman (1942-2006). At the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos decided to make a protest about Civil Rights in the USA. They each put on a single black glove. They wore no shoes and rolled their trousers up, a symbol of the poverty of slaves who had gone without shoes in the past. And rather than putting their hands on their hearts and singing the national anthem, as was normal for US athletes, they bowed their heads, refused to sing and raised their fists in the salute of the Black Power movement. To put it mildly, all hell broke loose, with condemnation coming from many different people in the USA and in the IOC (the International Olympic Committee).

The President of the IOC at this time was none other than our old friend Avery Brundage, the man who had blocked Jewish athletes from competing in the 1936 relay team. Based on his previous record, it came as no surprise when Brundage ordered that both Smith and Carlos be expelled from the US team and from the Olympic village. When the US officials refused, Brundage threatened to expel the whole US team, so they then complied. The hypocrisy of this was extraordinary: Brundage had been present in Berlin for the 1936 Games as president of the US Committee and had done nothing in response to competitors’ use of Nazi salutes, one of the most blatant political gestures ever at the Games. And he had done nothing to help Jesse Owens either, being the man who had stripped him of his amateur status after the Olympics. The whiff of racism hung heavily around the proceedings.

The Silent Gesture: photo link

Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked out of the Olympics. They faced an outcry when they returned to the USA and never competed for the USA, again although both went on to play American Football professionally. Tommie Smith later to become an athletics coach, teacher and civil rights activist while John Carlos faced major financial problems after his brief career in American Football ended, often having to burn chopped up furniture when the nights were cold; he later found employment as a school athletics coach in California.

Peter Norman, the Australian silver medallist, was a 26-year-old PE teacher and a Salvation Army officer, at the time. It was Norman who had suggested the Smith and Carlos should share their one pair of gloves after Carlos forgot his. In his desire to help in the protest, Norman had worn an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, like the two American sprinters. Norman came under huge pressure from the Australian media for joining in the protest but he simply said, “I believe that every man is born equal and should be treated that way.” When he died in 2006, John Carlos said, “Peter Norman was my brother.” Peter Norman remains a sports hero in Australia to this day.

In 2008, John Carlos and Tommie Smith received the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage for their raised fist salute. In 2010, Smith tried to distance himself from the ‘Black Power’ salute which had, he said, ‘Ruined my life’, by putting his gold medal and running spikes up for auction although it seems no one has yet reached the starting bid of $250 000.

Over forty years later and the gesture still carried meaning in terms of rewards and pain.

1972 – MUNICH OLYMPICS

Munich 1972 was remembered for wholly different reasons to those of the previous games. It was the darkest hour of the Olympics, as a terrorist group called ‘Black September’ stormed the Olympic Village, holding numerous members of the Israel team hostage. After days of tension, eleven Israeli athletes and coaches, one West German policeman and five of the eight terrorists lost their lives.

The 1970s were an age of terrorist violence which focused in part on hostage taking and the hijacking of planes. The attack on Israeli athletes in Munich was tied in to the bigger picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a situation has dominated affairs in the Middle East for decades. The organisation that carried out the attack, ‘Black September’, made demands for the release of 234 Palestinians and other prisoners held by the Israelis. The Israeli Government, led by Prime Minister Golda Meir, refused to negotiate and the tragedy developed. Having broken into the Olympic Village, the terrorists were able to take a group of Israeli athletes hostage in their accommodation at Block G 31, Connollystrasse in the Olympic Village.  Two members of the team were killed immediately with another nine being held hostage.

The incident ran from about 5am on 5th September in the Olympic Village to 4am the following day at Munich airport. In an apparent attempt to ensure a peaceful conclusion to the siege, the authorities agreed to fly the terrorists and their hostages out of the country, even though the deaths of some hostages had already occurred. But at the airport, the police and special services launched a desperate rescue attempt to free the hostages. It was chaotic and mismanaged. The attempt failed, leading to the deaths of the remainder of the hostages, a police officer and the five hostage takers.

Black September: photo link

The tragedy of this happening to Israeli athletes at the first Olympics held in Germany after World War II was clear. In the country which had seen the events of the Holocaust and the Nazis’ attempt to wipe the Jewish people from the face of the earth, these Israeli athletes suffered the worst terrorist attack in Olympic history.