One evening last week, John F. Nebel, a 37-year-old journalist in Berlin, sat at home, stewing. Berlin is one of many cities around the world vying for the right to host the 2024 Olympic Games, and in recent months, Nebel noticed the increasing prevalence of Olympic advertising in local and national media. Posters were plastered around the city. Famous Berliners like World Cup winner Jérôme Boateng came forward in support of the Games. Air Berlin began flying with a pro-games slogan on the nose of its aircraft. That same slogan—Wir wollen die Spiele (We want the games)—was projected onto the Brandenburg Gate, the city's most famous landmark.
Nebel's problem was this, "we" didn't include him. In fact, it didn't include nearly half of all Berliners, according to a recent poll. Like residents of Boston, another possible host city, many in Berlin are wary of the negative effects—particularly the high cost—associated with hosting mega events. The subject is particularly relevant in Berlin, due to the city's terrible record when it comes to recent public spending.
But the Olympic advertisements bothered Nebel for another reason, too. The Berlin Olympic organizers have yet to deal with a sticky issue surrounding the campaign to bring the Games to the German capital: the last Berlin Olympics.
"I was irritated that there were advertisements everywhere for Olympia 2024, but only a little bit was being said about the problematic history of the [last] Olympics in Berlin," Nebel explains by email.
"The 1936 Olympic Games were used by the Nazi Regime for massive propaganda," continues Nebel. "The Third Reich presented itself as open to the world and outwardly friendly with a mega-event, while inside the country political opponents and Jews were being persecuted. Just three years later, the regime began the Second World War. You must process these Olympics, if you want to host another Olympics in the same city."
But how does one start such a discussion?
Why not present the 1936 Olympic posters as a reminder of the Olympic movement's complicity with the Third Reich? In a flourish of what Nebel calls "satire," he added the Wir wollen die Spiele slogan to a bunch of 1936 advertisements "and other Nazi motifs" and uploaded them to his blog, Metronaut.de.
Image courtesy of Metronaut
Nebel and a team of 5-10 other writers have been blogging and podcasting on Metronaut in their spare time since 2005. Nebel describes Metronaut as a blog focused on political movements, social rights, internet culture, media, and advertising; "and sometimes also satire." Nebel had done other spoof advertising campaigns in the past, and he didn't expect much when he uploaded the posters on February 5. He hoped simply to spark a dialogue with the thousand or so people who might read the blog post.
The following Monday afternoon, Nebel got a surprise when he was served with two cease and desist orders—one at 4:16 and the other at 5:34 p.m.—from Berlin's official Olympic campaign office and the State of Berlin. Both ordered that the satirical advertisements be taken down by 6 p.m. Nebel spoke with a lawyer before making his next move. Instead of removing his doctored posters, he covered the 2024 Berlin Olympic slogan with a black "censored" label.
By the next day, Nebel's campaign had received more attention than he'd ever imagined. He had requests for interviews with just about every newspaper in Germany, and writeups about his satirical campaign appeared around the world. Rather than spark a local debate, Nebel had prompted an international discourse on the Olympic history in Berlin—and, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, added to an ongoing conversation about the role of satire in society.
Image courtesy of Metronaut
This is not the first time an attempt to censor something has completely backfired—known on the internet as the Streisand Effect—but rarely does it carry such deep irony as in the case of Metronaut and the Berlin Olympics. Olympic organizers are clearly uncomfortable with the comparison Nebel's advertisements draw between the 2024 Olympics and the 1936 Games. And not without cause. Nebel admits he's not trying to compare: "It was not about saying the Olympic Games in 2024 would be the same as those of 1936. We live in a different time. It was specifically to deal adequately with the past." But by attempting to sensor and repress Nebel, the State of Berlin has inadvertently made itself more readily comparable to the totalitarianism of the former regime. The effect wasn't just to bring Nebel's message to more people, it actually made his satire more poignant.
Will the State and the Olympic organizers back down? Nebel can't say. The parties aren't in dialogue with one another. So Nebel is preparing for the worst. Metronaut is now accepting donations in support of its legal defense and Nebel says the site has received money from around the world. For the time being, Nebel has retained "one of the best media lawyers in the city." And his satirical advertisements? They're still on Metronaut, and they're not going anywhere.