Hitler’s Olympics in Berlin

As the Tokyo Games begin, a documentary is released to mark the 85th anniversary of the deeply sinister German event


2B95Y7Y ADOLF HITLER Vintage Olympics 1936, Olympic Games in Berlin Fuhrer Adolf HITLER with Polish athletes during the games and award ceremonies Nazi Germany.. Image shot 1936. Exact date unknown.

July 22, 2021 12:27

In the context of the chaos and turmoil of Nazism, what happened in Berlin in the first half of August 1936 is really little more than a footnote — but one which has left an indelible footprint on our perception of those times.

What became known as “Hitler’s Olympics” was probably the first global act of political propaganda and the Olympic movement still bares its scars. But in truth, what was happening on the track was merely a sideshow. Falling midway between Hitler becoming chancellor and the outbreak of the Second World War, it is a convenient lens through which to assess the stranglehold the Nazis were exerting. But from the regime’s perspective, it was the perfect opportunity to test the resolve of an onlooking world that was desperate not to revisit the carnage of the 1914-18 war.

For Hitler, the Olympics were a decadent distraction “dominated by freemasons and Jews” — it was Goebbels who persuaded him of the unique propaganda opportunity they presented. But creating the façade of a modern, peace-loving country forced the regime to consider the way their policies were being perceived abroad. Sport, like other areas of German society, was effectively Judenrein and Jewish athletes were excluded from competition with Aryans. Aware of how this fuelled the ire of the International Olympic Committee, Germany cynically permitted exclusively Jewish sports clubs to continue to operate, falsely presenting them as genuine routes for talented Jewish athletes to win places in the German Olympic squad.

In the broader context, for Nazi strategists, the primary purpose of detoxifying the brand in the eyes of the world was to obscure their militaristic ambitions and conceal the true extent of their rearmament programme. Bear in mind that a year before the Games, the Nuremberg Citizenship Law was passed, creating the legal framework that legitimised the alienation and expulsion of Germany’s Jews. However, even Goebbels could not prevent calls to boycott the Games. Crucially, he found an ally in Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee, who enthusiastically supported German assurances that Jews would be able to compete in Olympic trials via the exclusively Jewish sports clubs. In an effort to silence objections, Brundage made a highly choreographed visit to Germany, where he met with heavily-coerced Jews who spoke glowingly of life in Nazi Germany. He openly admired the way the regime marginalised opponents, and during the visit he even spoke of how his own sports’ association denied membership to Jews and Blacks. When the boycott movement was finally quashed, Brundage described the protests as a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy”, winning support from Colonel Evan Hunter, Secretary of the British Olympic Association, who wrote: “My own view is that we are pandering too much to the Jews!”

Six months prior to the Berlin Games, Germany staged the Winter Olympics – the perfect dress rehearsal for the main performance in the summer. Throughout the region, anti-Jewish signs were removed. Etiquette lessons were organised for waiters, guides and shopkeepers to ensure racial issues were not discussed in public and a directive to “offer up tramcar seats to any foreign lady, no matter what her racial profile” appeared in local newspapers. Two weeks after these Games, Germany tested Europe’s resolve by sending troops into the Rhineland, flouting existing peace treaty obligations – a calculated risk that was vindicated by the muted response it evoked.

It seems entirely appropriate that the Nazis would subvert a sporting event. It highlighted the significance of competition to their worldview.

For them, humanity was defined by conflict and struggle — in particular, a ruthless racial battle in which the strong and superior were destined to subdue, overwhelm and eventually eliminate groups perceived to be weaker, inferior and therefore dispensable; a racialised worldview that was not exclusively Nazi. In the inter-war years, notions such as “mixed marriages” contaminating so-called “pure blood” were rife. These beliefs were rooted in the grubby racism of European colonialism and the global slave trade.

As James Q Whitman documents in his book Hitler’s American Model, it is an uncomfortable truth that influential Nazi lawmakers were admirers of the segregationist “Jim Crow” laws designed to marginalise African Americans, and that during the establishment of the camp system, which led to the murders of millions of Jews and others perceived to be racially inferior, scores of Black Americans were being lynched across the southern states.

Yet let’s not mistake comparison for equivalence. Of the seven Americans lining up for the final of the 100 metres trial for the Olympic Squad, only two would have been permitted to compete for Germany on racial grounds. Jesse Owen, Ralph Metcalfe and Mack Robinson were black and Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller were Jews. As Berlin’s summer extravaganza approached, the Olympic torch relay, one of the Nazis’ most enduring legacies, misappropriated the mystique of Ancient Greece to promote the contemporary myth of Aryanism. Three thousand runners covered the route through Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, and Czechoslovakia — countries the Nazis would return to in the coming years. Meanwhile, 600 Berlin-based Gypsy, Roma and Sinti were forcibly removed to a field, totally devoid of sanitary facilities, six miles north of the city. In addition, as the SS Manhattan set sail from New York with the US Olympians on board, Gretel Bergman, the champion Jewish high-jumper whose inclusion in Germany’s squad had helped quell outside protest, was unceremoniously ejected from the team.

Much is made of Jesse Owens shattering the myth of Nazi racial superiority by winning four gold medals. Stunning though his performances were, it is a skewed narrative. No doubt, watching Berliners show such genuine admiration for an African-American must have been difficult for the Nazi hierarchy to swallow. But it instantly became proof of their warped, racist worldview that ‘negroes’ were descendants of animals. Goebbels recorded in his diary that it was “a scandal to allow such abominations to compete in the civilised world” and that, “white humanity should be ashamed of itself…” The belief that Hitler refused to congratulate Owens is a commonly held misconception. The fact is that, given the choice between congratulating every medal winner or none, he chose the latter, a decision which may well have been made for racist reasons. What is indisputable, though, is that the invitation to the official post-Games presidential reception for returning US Olympians was not extended to the 18 black members of the team.

After the Games, Aryans Only signs reappeared overnight and Jews braced themselves for the inevitable backlash of antisemitism. Copies of the savagely antisemitic Der Stürmer were back on public display, and the menacing slogan that had appeared on its pages a few months earlier — “When the Olympic Games are over, we beat the Jews into a pulp” — was openly chanted by mobs on the streets. Goebbels must have been delighted to see the world press describing Hitler as “one of the greatest political leaders in the world”, and Germany as “much maligned and its people deserve the best the world can give them”. In one journal, stormtroopers were even characterised as Germany’s equivalent to the RAC, eager to provide perplexed foreign drivers directions and roadside assistance. There is no bigger world showcase than the Olympics.

But to date, no country has rivalled what Germany achieved 85 years ago (although treatment of the Uyghur minority in the wake of next year’s winter Games threatens to make China a serious contender).

Perhaps what is most alarming, in Berlin and potentially in Beijing, is the way in which the rest of the world can be so easily duped. Wishful thinking, short-term expediency and national self-interest can so effortlessly collude to cloud rational judgment.

Antony Lishak, CEO of Holocaust education charity Learning from the Righteous, will discuss his film ‘The Legacy of 36’ online on August 10. Tickets available at:

July 22, 2021 12:27

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