In A Nutshell
Few sporting events have generated as much controversy as the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In just its fourth year, Adolph Hitler’s regime was already infamous for its racism and persecution of minorities. A half dozen countries—including the United States—considered boycotting the event. But when Hitler temporarily suspended his pogrom to rid Germany of undesirable non-Aryans, 49 countries sent teams to Berlin, more than any previous Olympiad. While Hitler’s German athletes dominated the games, the stars of the 1936 Summer Olympics were America’s black athletes, led by Jesse Owens, who demonstrated the fallacy of racial and ethnic superiority. But when the pageantry ended, the world (and America) quickly forgot that lesson.
The Whole Bushel
Berlin was originally slated to host the 1916 Olympics, but by then Germany was embroiled in the First World War. When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the 1936 Summer Olympics to Berlin in 1931, it signaled that Germany—long despised for its role in the Great War—was returning to the global community.
Seventeen months later, Hitler became Germany’s chancellor. Within months, concentration camps were constructed and political opponents, homosexuals, and anyone classified as “dangerous” were all imprisoned.
More than 400 decrees and regulations were heaped upon German Jews in the six years before the war, restricting every aspect of their lives.
Hitler quickly began the Nazification of German sports. Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels promoted an idealized Germanic Aryan with blue eyes, blond hair, and physical perfection. Anyone who didn’t fit that image (which would have included Hitler and Goebbels) was purged from the sporting world. Amateur boxing champ Eric Seelig, top German tennis player Daniel Prenn, and German middleweight boxing champ Johann Trollman were among those banned.
Hitler then turned to the coming Olympics. Dr. Theodor Lewald, president of Germany’s Olympic Committee, was removed after it was discovered that his grandmother was Jewish. His replacement made sure none of his athletes had even a hint of Jewish blood.
The IOC was pressured to move the Olympics to another country. The Olympic Charter stated, “Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind. [ . . . ] Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”
Ultimately, the charter was ignored and relocation rejected. A few countries, led by the US, called for boycotts, but their efforts failed.
Black American athletes were among those against a boycott. The Olympics were one of the few sporting events where they could compete on an international stage. African-American newspapers saw hypocrisy in the US boycotting another country for its racism when black athletes weren’t allowed to professionally compete in their own country. Worse, they were denied basic civil rights.
Many argued that African-American Olympic victories would demonstrate the lie of Aryan superiority.
The US ultimately sent 312 athletes to Berlin. Eighteen of them—16 men and two women—were African Americans, more than three times the number of African Americans who participated in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Seven on the US team were Jewish.
Meanwhile, Germany also hosted the 1936 Winter Olympics six months prior to the Berlin games. Held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps, Hitler relented to IOC pressure and allowed the half-Jewish Rudi Ball to play hockey.
But when IOC President Count Baillet-Latour arrived in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, he was horrified to see anti-Jewish signs on the roads. For example, some signs that cautioned of dangerous curves explicitly exempted Jews from heeding the warning.
When the Count complained to Hitler, the chancellor stood his ground. “Mr. President, when you are invited to a friend’s house you don’t tell him how to operate, do you?” Hitler asked. The Count fired back: “When the five-circled flag is raised over the stadium, it is no longer Germany, it is Olympia and we are masters.” The signs were removed.
When the Berlin games opened, the signs came down there, too. The German press was warned to tone down its anti-Semitic rhetoric and the vicious Der Sturmer newspaper was removed from the newsstands. Hitler even allowed Jewish fencer Helene Mayer onto Germany’s team.
Secretly, Hitler had 800 gypsies removed from Berlin streets and sent to a concentration camp. He also ordered a temporary hold on arresting homosexuals, and the SS troops were ordered to suspend strong-arm tactics on Berlin Jews.
Hitler made sure the Berlin games were long remembered. This was the first Olympiad where a torch was lit at Olympia, Greece, and carried on foot to the host country. The torchbearers crossed the borders of Greece, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia, all countries that would soon find themselves under Germany’s boot. The airship Hindenburg flew over the stadium, just months before its fiery demise. And the Berlin games were the first to be televised locally.
While Germany garnered more medals than any other country (89), the superstar of the games was by far Jesse Owens. Much to Hitler’s consternation, Germans chanted his name in the stands and mobbed him for autographs. Hitler refused to meet or congratulate the athlete. (Despite the common tale that Hitler snubbed Owens in doing this, Hitler actually declined to meet any of the athletes.) Owens and nine other black Americans took home 14 medals, a quarter of America’s 56 total awards.
But Owens and the other black athletes returned to the US to find nothing changed. President Franklin Roosevelt never invited them to the White House and, at a reception held for him in New York City, Owens was forced to ride a freight elevator to the ballroom. He would later say: “When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door.”
Things didn’t change much in Germany either. The games had barely closed when the designer of the Berlin Olympic Village killed himself after it was discovered he was Jewish. And Hitler was already planning his world conquest. He brazenly declared: “In 1940, the Olympic Games will take place in Tokyo. But thereafter they will take place in Germany for all time to come.”
Show Me The Proof
Featured photo credit: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P017073 / Frankl, A. / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Jewish Virtual Library: The Nazi Olympics
The History Place: The Triumph of Hitler
Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936, by David Clay Large