The 1936 Olympics have become a mere footnote in history, remembered mostly for the heroics of Jesse Owens. The events that followed in Germany, namely the Holocaust and World War II overshadowed the Berlin games. However, it is very important to note that a world gathering like the Olympics could take place in a country that was in the process of eliminating an entire race of people. These games were used by the Nazis as a huge propaganda effort for Germany to show to the rest of the world that they had again become a powerful nation under the leader of the Adolf Hitler. The games were a huge success in this regard, the Nazi regime was able to fool and world and prove to Germany that they were everything the Nazi had said. But did the Olympic Games have any effect on the chain of events that led up the Holocaust and World War II?
Germans became quite obsessed with sport in the 1870’s following the end of the Napoleonic wars in Europe. Friedrich Ludwig Jahn popularized gymnastics which became a staple of the German education system. At this time gymnastics was not the sport we think of today, but instead more of a show of mass strength and to promote national unity in the newly formed Germany at the end of the nineteenth century.These ideas were very popular and every German youth was required to participate in them as part of their education.
Along with promoting sporting programs in school, the Germans played a major role in the reinstatement of the Olympics. Men like Jahn and Ernest Curtius went around the country giving speeches on the subject. The goal was to create a powerful state like the old Greeks, and the holding of annual athletic Olympics was a big part of this idea. With the help of the Germans as well as many other European nations the Olympics were reinstated in 1896, with the first Olympics being held in Athens Greece.
The Germans waited patiently and were extremely happy when they were awarded the With Olympiad, scheduled to take place in Berlin in 1916. By the time 1916 arrived most of Europe was involved in the “Great War” which was entirely blamed on Germany and these games were canceled to the great disappointed of the German sports officials. During the next three Olympics: Paris in Belgium in 1920, Paris in 1924, and Amsterdam in 1928 the Germans were not even invited to compete. During this time Germany’s sports program was almost non existent, the only countries they competed with were there World War One allies and this was only sparingly.
During this time the Weimar Republic was beginning to rebuild itself in the eyes of the world and the International Olympic Committee met in 1933 to decide who would be granted the 1936 games they only had two proposals one from Spain and one from Germany. At this time most of the world was mired in a deep depression and Germany was more confident about their economic situation that the rest of the world because many of the National Socialists plans were working. The main reason the Germans were awarded the games was because they already had most of the buildings and equipment built from their preparations for the 1916 Olympics. The IOC was confident that the Germans would be able to put on the games financially.
Just months after the games were awarded to Berlin Hitler and the Nazi party began there astonishing political ascent in Germany. In July, just two months after the IOC met the Nazi party becomes the largest party in the Reichstag. In January of the following year Hitler is named Chancellor of Germany denoting him as the leader of the largest party in the Reichstag. On February 27th, 1933 just a month after he becomes Chancellor the Reichstag burns down. In March he gets congress to pass the enabling acts which suspends the Weimar Constitution and the personal liberties it guaranteed for four years. This set the table for his dictatorship, which he gained on August 3rd 1936 when President Hindenburg dies.
Anti-Semitism was rising in Germany even before the death of Hindenburg. Jewish people were already having there houses, apartments and Cenogouges ransacked. Anti-Jewish publication like “Der Sturmer” were very popular throughout Germany and Nazi propaganda from Joseph Goebbels calling for the mistreatment of Jews was prevalent. When Hitler became dictator the anti-Semitism was escalated by the Nazi’s, Jews had their citizenship taken away from them when the Nuremberg laws were passed on November, 1935. These laws said that”a Reich citizen is only that subject of German or kindred blood who proves by his conduct that he is willing and suited loyally to serve the German People and the Reich.” This law took the civil liberties away from many Jews in German, including athletes.
After the enacting of the Nuremberg the Reichsportfuhrer, Captain Hans von Tschammer und Osten gave this order to all German athletic clubs and associations. “Anyone who sets himself up as a defender of Jewry no longer has any place in our associations. Every personal contact with Jews is to be avoided. There is absolutely nothing for any Jew in German men’s associations. Let us take as our example the heroic struggle that Julius Streicher, the Gauleiter of Franconia, has been waging for many years against the Jews. We too, with our societies, must help him on to final victory. It is the obvious duty of our associations to give the defense movement against Jewry our energetic support.”
As a result of this statement no Jewish people or Mischlings were allowed to compete on German sports teams. This led to the dumping of some very good talent. Alex Natan, Germany’s fastest sprinter defected to Great Britain. Dr. Daniel Prenn, Germany’s best tennis player was kicked off of their Davis Cup team by the German Lawn Tennis Association when they announced that no “non Aryans” would be allowed to compete. The most celebrated example of Jewish discrimination was against Helene Mayer who was born to a Christian Mother and a Jewish father, making her a Mischling under the Nuremberg. Mrs. Mayer was the most famous female fencer in the world, when she was expelled from her fencing club and told she would not be allowed to compete in the upcoming Olympics.
Even though there was a lot of racial violence going on in Germany, there was no serious moral outcry for a boycott from most of the nations. Tentative movements for boycotting the Berlin games occurred in Sweden, The Netherlands, and Czechoslovakia. In the end though the only country to boycott the games was Ireland. In Great Britain Walter Maclennon wrote a pamphlet called “Under the heel of Hitler: The Dictatorship over sport in Nazi German”, in which he called for protests against the nazification of German Sport. Maclennon was right sports were under the regulations of the Nazi party, but his outcry gained very little support in Great Britain and there was never a real outcry for them to boycott the games. For the most part Britain took the view stated by Lord Aberdeen, who said”Britain should have no problem attending the Berlin Olympics, since it had so few Jewish Citizens.
Maclennon was absolutely right though, sports in the Reich had been taken over completely by the Nazi Party with Reichsportsfuhrer Tschammer und Osten in control would pay women to have the children of great German athletes. The foreward of the proficiency Book for German Youths’ outlined the role athletics would take in Nazi Germany. “Physical training is not the private concern of the individual. The National Socialist movement orders every German to place his whole self at its service. Your body belongs to your country, since it is to your country that you owe your existence. You are responsible to your country for your body. Fulfil the demands of this manual, and you will fulfil your duty to the German people.”In Germany this meant that if you showed talent in a specific sport you would shipped off to its training location where you would live and train, much like what the Soviet Union did in the second half of the twentieth century. Sports was clearly a part of the Nazi’s plans of creating a strong nation and promoting Aryan domination. The Berlin games would be the pinnacle of this plan. But only in the whole world was there, which at times was a huge question mark.
America saw the biggest movement for a boycott of the games. Both and Amateur Athletic Union and the American Olympic Committee were upset at the fact that Jews were not allowed to compete for a spot on the Olympic squad. No mention is ever made of the treatment of common Jews by the Nazi party. This is because many of their Nuremberg laws copied the old Jim Crowe laws of the South which were still in effect at that time. However, blacks were allowed to compete for a spot on the American Olympic so we were able to speak about this. Germany who knew their Olympics could not be a success without America quickly gave in to our wishes and invited 21 Jewish athletes to their Olympic training facilities. Of these only one made the team, the previously mentioned fencer Helene Mayer. It is interesting to note that the Nazi’s took the Mischling tag off of her saying in German papers that they had made a mistake earlier and that in fact she was a full Aryan. What they said was that her Christian mother had an affair while married to her Jewish father with a Christina man. So in actuality the German team had no Jews on. In any case this appeased the Americans who had sent representatives to Germany to examine the situation.
Two of the American’s sent to Germany were General Shrill, a member of both the American and International Olympic Committees. When he came back from his trip he gave this statement tot he AAU and the AOC, “I went to Germany for the purpose of getting at least one Jew on the German Olympic team and I feel that my job is finished. As for obstacles placed in the way of Jewish athletes or any others in trying to reach Olympic ability, I would have no more business discussing that in Germany than if the Germans attempted to discuss the Negro situation in America.”Again we see the excuse from America that we have no right to speak out when we are doing the same, an excuse that would be used throughout the 1930’s when discussing the Jewish situation in German. Another member of the AOC who took a far more racist view, “Germans are not discriminating against Jews in their Olympic tryouts. The jews are eliminated because they are not good enough as athletes. Why there are not a dozen Jews in the world of Olympic caliber.” This statement shows the other prevalent view in America and that is showing the same racism against the Jewish community, both in Germany and in America.
Avery Brundage who was the President of the AAU, addressed a crowd at a German-American day rally at Madison Square Garden after he returned from Germany. In his statement tot he crowd he said, “We can learn much from Germany. We too, if we are to preserve our institutions, must stamp out communism. Germany has progressed as a nation out of her discouragement of five years ago into a spirit of confidence in herself. No country since ancient Greece has displayed a more truly national interest in the Olympic spirt than you find in Germany today.” This was the deathblow for the boycott movement in America. Brundage was the most powerful and respect official on the Amateur Athletic scene, both in America and the world.As a result of the reports brought back by members of the AOC and AAU voted not to boycott the games by an almost unanimous decision.This was the deathblow for the boycott movement in America. Brundage was the most powerful and respected official on the Amateur Athletic scene, both in America and the world. And when he delivered this speech, he made the decision that America would not boycott.
Though crippled by the decisions of the AAU and the AOC the boycott movement was kept alive by the Jewish community around the world who had the full support of the NAACP, but neither black nor Jewish organizations had no real power their athletes going to Berlin to compete. All they could do was speak their minds, which they didthe Governor of New York Al Smith who said, “Germany’s pagan putsch makes its acceptance of the real Olympic oath either an impossibility or an hypocracy”Also, the Maccabi World Union, an international organization of Jewish sporting clubs gave this heartfelt plea to the Jews of the world. “We cannot as jews accept lightly the situation created by the Olympic games being held in Berlin. I, in common with all other Jews and many non-Jews, look upon the state of affairs in Germany from the point of view of general humanity and social decency. We certainly do urge all Jewish sportsmen, for their own self respect, to refrain from competing in a country where they are discriminated against as a race and our Jewish brethren are treated with unexampled brutality.”
A few famous Jewish athletes did skip the games in Berlin. Judith Deutsch, an Austrian swimmer who had won gold in Los Angeles in 1932, and Albert Wolff a French fencer who to had won gold in the L.A. Olympics both refused to compete in the Berlin games.These Jews however were the minority. Most Jewish athletes did not have the luxury of already having fulfilled there dreams as these two did. On the American team there were five Jewish athletes: Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman, who were members of the of the 400-meter relay team(along with Jesse Owens), David Mayer, a weight lifter, Sam Balter, a basketball player, and Huyman Goldberg, a baseball player. It is easy to look at these individuals as well as all the other Jews who participated in the games as traitors to their heritage, which they were labeled by many Jewish organizations. But, they had no idea of the events that would take place in Germany after the games concluded. This was the life long dreams of these men, and to place blame on them for fulfilling their athletic destiny is not fair. They proudly represented both America and their Jewish brethren on Athletics ultimate stage.
When the time had finally come, the Germans welcomed their guests with open arms. They went to extreme necessary to give each country a lavish welcomed, even if that meant waiting by a dock at 2 am in the morning to do so. Over thirty million dollars was spent by Germany on their Olympic games, three times as much that had been spent on any other Olympics to date(L.A. 1932, 10 million was the previous high). The main stadium, Reichsportsfield was the biggest in the world with a seating capacity of 110,000. With all the money spent the Nazis had created exactly what they had planned, the greatest athletic spectacle ever.
The Nazi preparations did not stop at the sports arenas, they went to great lengths to clean up the city and eliminate all signs of the antisemitism from the city. All know criminals were rounded up around the city and jailed for the duration of the games.. “Der Sturmer” and other anti-Semitic publications were removed from newsstands and signs barring Jews from buildings were removed, anti-Semitic graffiti was scrubbed off of city walls and Jew baiting was order to cease by HimmlerFinally, Der Angriff, a Nazi Journal instructed its readers, “We must be more charming than the Parisians, more easy-going than the Viennese, more vivacious than the Romans, mor cosmopolitan than London, and more practical than New York.. In a rally the night before the Olympics, propaganda minister Goebbels announced to a crowd of Nazi supports, “Every on of you must be a good host, the future of the Reich will depend upon the impressions that are left upon our guests.”Berlin was truly cleaned up for the occasion with the sole intention of convincing Germans and its foreign guest that National Socialism was a success and that Germany was once again a powerful nation and they succeeded.
The propaganda of Goebbels did not stop with the people of Germany. In a speech given at the pre-games press meeting Goebbels pronounced, “If all unavoidable differences of opinion were to be fought out with clean and descent weapons of mind and with proper respect for the others honest conviction. There would be created in political debate the same atmosphere that has become natural in respect to sport events.” All the had work by the Nazi party and the city of Berlin payed off. They truly had the world fooled, especially the sporting press who painted a wonderful picture of the 1936 Berlin games, starting with their reply to the comments of Goebbels, “Jewish sentiment and all German opposition toward the Nazi regime are per force silent in Germany. But if they could be heard they would undoubtedly be unanimous for Dr. Goebbels ideas, and eager for him to put it into affect as soon as possible. Unfortunately, this was just another falsehood from the Nazi propaganda machine. But, it does set the scene for the show the Nazi’s would put on for the world over the next two weeks, starting on August first with the opening ceremonies.
The opening ceremonies were a lavish well orchestrated event that focused around the Fuhrer. A blonde haired blue eyed marathon runner was the last of the 3,000 Olympic torch bearers. “Bearing the flame high above his head in a silver torch, a tall blonde runner raced swiftly through the stadium today, with even glides and perfect grace he dipped the flame before Adolf Hitler and sprinted up the stairs to the Olympic Alter.” After the lighting of the flame, to the cheers of a roaring crowd Adolf Hitler pronounced, “I declare the games of Berlin in celebration of the 11th Olympiad of modern times have opened.” Many of the nations gave Hitler the Nazi salute as they passed by on the flag procession, among them France and Canada. America simply doffed their hats to him which caused them to be booed by the 110,000 fans. This however, was the only non-roar heard out of the crowd, this was a very successful large scale Nazi rally that proved to the world that the Germans were once again capable of being a world power.
It was Hitler’s full sponsorship of the games that made them such a huge success. Both Hitler and Goebbels viewed the games “as a grand opportunity to raise gigantic monuments and to state civically beneficial pomp and ceremony”Hitler remained in his seat throughout the two weeks of the games, always flanked by both Goebbels and Himmler. Parties were thrown every night by Nazi leaders to prove how power and majestic Germany had become since the Nazi’s took over political control. In American papers you could not find a bad word spoken about Adolf Hitler, in fact he was referred to as the Caesar of our generation by the associated press.
After the opening ceremonies the games were almost anti-climatic. The Americans surged out early with huge wins in track and field. The hero the games was Jesse Owens who won three gold medals and gave the Nazi theory of Aryan domination a slap in the face. American papers proclaimed the next day, After the track and field events the Americans held a lead of 95 points. As the games continued though the lead narrowed at the end of competition the Germans had pulled off a huge upset by defeating the Americans by 57 points in the final point tally. At the end of the games with their victory in hand the German Crowd Shouted, “Sieg Heil user Fuhrer Adolf Hitler Sieg Heil” after he proclaimed the XIth olympiad over.
The next day every German newspaper read “we won”. Aside from the German victory, Italy scored more points that France and took third, and Japan scored more points than Great Britain for the first time in Olympic history. As a result of these results high praises of Totalitarianism were also seen in all of the German newspapers, “The preparations rested on the totality of the nationalist art of government and its fundamental idea of the community of the whole people. The world stands in honest admiration before this work because it has totalitarian character. Without unitary will that which today has astonished the world would have been impossible. It is the supreme achievement of the totalitarian state..
American sportswriters were also singing the praises of Germany. The New York Times reported, “at the conclusion of the games the Reich has more reason than ever to sit back and admire the Athletic miracle that has just happened to them.” The victory also caused sportswriters to question the AAU and AOC, “America must work out a new method of choosing and training its teams to meet the fiercely nationalistic feelings of a number of countries.”The Nazi Olympics was truly a huge world success, the question then was what would they do with this success.
Things in Germany went back to normal almost immediately, the persecution of the Jews picked back up, heading on a course of mass destruction. The Olympic flame had hardly grown cold when Hitler made this Racist comment about the Americans at a Nazi rally, “The Americans should be ashamed of themselves for letting their medals be won by Negroes. I would never shake hands with one of them.”
Things in Germany were back to normal, only now Hitler and Nazi party had an even firmer platform on which to stand. They had used the athletes of the Germany to prove their theories about Aryan domination. The success of the eleventh Olympiad gave Hitler an enormous boost, both in the moral and political feelings of Germany. The world had come to Berlin, with doubts an left overwhelmed by the show they had just seen.
Hitler, however was only happy with success of the Olympics for so long when his giant ego and visions of grandeur got the better of him. In the Spring of 1937, Hitler announced that Germany would begin having National Socialist sporting meets that were to be much like the original Olympics of the ancient Greeks. He then wrote this note to the IOC, “In 1940 the Olympic games will take place in Tokyo. But thereafter they will take place in Germany for all time to come in this stadium. And then we will determine the measurements of the athletic field.” The stadium Hitler was talking about was not the Berlin Reichsportsfield that had served as the main stadium for the Olympics games. Instead, he was speaking of the stadium designed by architect Albert Speer, who tried to warn Hitler that the stadium was an impossibility(Hitler would not listen). The stadium was to be called the Nuremberg Reichsportsfield and was to have had a seating capacity of 400,000.The lofty plan failed, not one brick was ever laid for the stadium.
Obviously the Berlin Games were a huge success for Hitler and Nazi party, but the question we have to ask is did it in any way lead to the horrific events in Germany over the next nine years. This is an impossible question to answer because the Jewish persecutions already seemed to be headed down a horrifying road even before the games began. Yes, the Nazi’s were able to fool the world during these games and make them believe they were giving Jews as much freedom as the Americans were giving African Americans. However, even if the games had not been held there that year the persecutions would have continued down the same path to the Holocaust.
I do however believe that this was the worlds one chance to stop the Nazi’s actions against the Jews before they really got started. A serious boycott effort by the powerful nations of the world like the United States would have been damning to the Nazi efforts who needed all the world to be there. A boycott would have crushed all of the Nazi plans because it would have made them look bad in front of their own people and it would have made the games that year a disaster. 30 million would have been wasted on an Olympics with no significant countries participating. That being said the world can hardly be blamed for going to the Berlin Olympics, because who could have ever dreamed that in ten years these same gracious hosts would have murdered over six million Jews