The 1936 Olympics in Berlin, also known as the “Nazi Olympics”, was a milestone in the history of the world. All of the attention of the Olympics that year was focused on Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. In 1933, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler became leader of Germany and quickly turned the nation’s democracy into a one-party dictatorship. He took thousands of political opponents, holding them without trial in concentration camps. The Nazis also set up a program to strengthen the Germanic Aryan population. They began to exclude all one-half million Jews from the population, and German life.
As part of the drive to “purify” and strengthen the German population, a 1933 law permitted physicians to perform forced sterilizations of psychiatric patients and congenitally handicapped persons, Gypsies, and Blacks (Encarta Encyclopedia 1996 [CD-ROM]). The 1936 Olympics in Berlin caused many worries, problems, and questions for America and other countries throughout the world. On 13 May 1931, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 1936 Summer Olympics to Berlin. The choice seemed to signal Germany’s return to the world community after defeat in World War I.
Berlin had forty-three votes, and Barcelona, Spain, the other option, had sixteen. The choice showed that Germany was being included once more in the world community. It also showed the International Olympic committee’s respect for Dr. Theodor Lewald, and Carl Diem, German sports leaders. Both men had been the planners for the 1916 Olympics that was scheduled, but was cancelled. Since then, they have been urging the Olympics to attempt to go back to Germany. Both Lewald and Diem were very pleased with the results (Mandell The Nazi Olympics 39).
On 30 January 1933, the German president, Paul von Hindenburg, selected Adolf Hitler to be the head of the government. This was very unexpected. Hitler was the leader of an extreme right-wing political party, the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) Party. Hitler sought to expand Germany with new territories and boundaries. Hitler also focused on rebuilding Germany’s military strength. In many speeches Hitler made, he spoke often about the value of “racial purity” and the dominance of the Aryan master race.
The Nazi’s spread their racist beliefs in schools through textbooks, radios, newspapers, and posters. In Hitler’s “new Germany” there was no place for “non-Aryans”. Jews made up the largest minority group in Germany. Soon after Hitler took power in 1933, questions began to arise from the United States and other Western democracies of whether or not they should support the idea of the Olympic Games hosted by the Nazi Regime. America was particularly concerned about the persecution of Jewish athletes that lived in Germany in 1933.
In the United States, debate over participation in the 1936 Olympics was a hot topic. The U. S. always sent one of the largest teams to the Olympics. Groups on either side of the debate stated strong views of whether the United States should participate in the Olympics in Hitler’s Nazi Germany. After an inspection on how the Jewish athletes were being treated, and the sports facilities in Germany, Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee, was against a boycott of the Olympics (Hoadley ’36 Olympic Hopefuls Remember Nazi Past 3).
He stated that the Jews were being treated fairly at the time, and the games had to go on as planned. His rival, Judge Jeremiah Mahoney, president of the Amateur Athletic Union, pointed out that Germany had broken Olympic rules forbidding discrimination based on race and religion. In his view, participation would mean an endorsement of Hitler’s Reich (Bachrach The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936 23). Brundage continued to fight to send an American team to Berlin. Many major American newspapers, including The New York Times, favored a boycott.
After the announcement in fall 1935 of the Nuremberg laws, which stripped German Jews of their citizenship and prohibited them from marrying or having relations with Germanic Aryans, the support to boycott largely grew. Judge Jeremiah Mahoney continued his efforts to boycott the 1936 Olympics. Mahoney was one of a number of Catholic leaders supporting a boycott. James Curley, the governor of Massachusetts, and Al Smith, the governor of New York, also opposed sending a team to Berlin. The Catholic Journal was another important group that advised boycotting the Olympics.
The American Olympic Committee also listened to concerns of the United States African American community. African American athletes and most black journalists were against the boycott (Swaddling The Ancient Olympic Games 34). They had strong views and reasons why they wanted the black athletes to participate. They thought that if blacks had victories against the Nazi athletes, it would show a sense of pride in America for blacks, and would change the views of superiority of the Aryans beliefs in Germany.
Beginning in 1933, the American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Labor Committee, joined by the non-sectarian Anti-Nazi League, staged mass rallies to protest Nazi persecution of Jews, political opponents, and others. These groups supported the boycott of the 1936 Games as part of a general boycott of German goods. Other Jewish groups, such as the American Jewish Committee did not formally support a boycott, because they feared that an idea like that might trigger an anti-Semitic backlash in both the United States and Germany. (Encarta [CD-ROM])
The debate on whether to participate in the Olympics was not confined to the United States. Boycott efforts also included Great Britain, France, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and the Netherlands. Once the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States decided they wanted America to participate in the 1936 Olympics, the other countries decided to end their fights for boycotts. Forty-nine teams from around the world competed in the Berlin Games, more than in any previous Olympics. Germany had the largest team at the Berlin Games with 348 athletes.
The United States had the second largest team with 312 members (Kastor Olympic History 2). From 6 February to 16 February 1936, Germany hosted the Winter Olympics at Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Giving in to international Olympic leaders’ insistence on fair play, German officials allowed Rudi Ball, who was half-Jewish, to compete on the German ice hockey team. Hitler also ordered anti-Jewish signs temporarily removed from public view. Still, these Nazi ideas and propaganda were prevalent. For example, journalists around the world observed and reported troop maneuvers at Garmisch.
This international pressure forced Hitler to reduce Nazi military’s presence at the upcoming Summer Olympics. The International press brought attention to the fact that the Reich Press used strict censorship over the German press, radio, film, and publishing. The German Chancellery issued numerous censors regarding coverage of the Olympic Games, limiting the content of reporting by German journalists. In a move to “clean up” Berlin before the Summer Olympics, the German Ministry of Interior authorized the chief of the Berlin Police to arrest all Gypsies prior to the Games.
On July 16, 1936, some 800 Gypsies were arrested and interned under police guard in a special Gypsy camp in the Berlin suburb of Marzahn. Also in preparation for the arrival of Olympic spectators, Nazi officials ordered that foreign visitors should not be subjected to the criminal strictures of the Nazi anti-homosexual laws. Germany promoted the Olympics with colorful posters and magazines. Athletic imagery drew a noticeable link between Nazi Germany and ancient Greece. In August 1936 Olympic flags covered houses and buildings in Berlin. Most tourists were unaware that the Nazi regime had temporarily removed anti-Jewish signs.
Most tourists were also unaware that Gypsies were taken off the streets and were placed in a camp at the edge of Berlin (Bachrach 83). Hitler opened the Summer Games on August 1, 1936. The opening ceremony took place in a stadium filled with 110,000 people. Athletes in opening day uniforms marched in the stadium, team by team. German middle-distance runner, Fritz Schilgen arrived with the lighted torch, which was relayed from the site of the ancient Olympic Games, in Olympia. There were exactly eighteen African American men on the United States Olympic Team.
The African Americans dominated the track and field games. Many American journalists hailed the victories the black athletes, because it was a blow to the Nazi myth of Aryan supremacy (Kindersly The Olympic Games: Athens 1896 – Sydney 2000 245). The African American athlete that stood out the most was Jesse Owens, an Ohio State track star. Jesse planned on proving to Hitler that the Aryans were not superior to everyone else. Jesse was outstanding in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash and the broad jump. He was also a key member of the 400-meter relay team that won the Gold Medal.
In all but one of these events Jesse set Olympic records. Jesse was the first American in the history of Olympic Track and Field to win four gold medals in a single day. Other African American star medal winners included Ralph Metcalfe, a Marquette University graduate, Cornelius Johnson, a California college student, and David Albritton, an Ohio State graduate. Metcalfe trailed Owens by one tenth of a second in the 100 meters. Matthew Robinson, whose younger brother was Jackie Robinson, the first black person to play major league baseball, took the silver in the 200-meter dash. John Woodruff won the 800-meter dash.
Archie Williams, from the University of California, won the 400-meter race, and James LuValle took third in that event. Fredrick “Fritz” Pollard from the University of North Dakota took the bronze in the 110-meter hurdles (Mandell 248). Jack Wilson won the silver. The triumphant African American Athletes were well received by the German populace. Everywhere Jesse Owens was, there were German spectators cheering for him. However, the Nazi leaders felt much different. The press reported that Hitler refused to shake Jesse Owens’s hand, and refused to recognize any of the other black athletes.
Nazi newspapers were not allowed to express their opinions freely because of censorship, and referred to the African American athletes as “auxiliaries”. Even when the athletes returned to America after the Games, Owens was not offered a Hollywood contract, unlike some of the white athletes that competed in Berlin (Sirracose History of the Olympic Games 201). Jewish Athletes were especially discriminated against during the Nazi Olympics. Two weeks before the Games, German Officials informed Gretel Bergmann, a Jewish Athlete who had beaten a German woman’s record on the high jump, that she had been left without a place on the team.
The German’s sacrificed the chance for a gold medal by discriminating against the Jews. To throw off the other countries competing that heard of this action, Hitler placed a half-Jewish, blonde fencer on the team. However, no other Jewish athletes competed for Germany. A number of Jewish athletes from Europe and the United States of America competed in the Olympics. Seven American Jewish men went to Berlin. Most of these athletes were pressured by Jewish newspapers to boycott the Games. But they all chose to go to Berlin (Kastor 2). Another controversial move was the benching of two Jewish American runners, Marty Glickman, and Sam Stoller.
They had trained very hard for the 400-meter relay, but were replaced at the last minute with Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalf. The American coach’s gave many reasons for this move. They claimed that they needed their fastest runners to win the race. Glickman claimed that coach Deam Cromwell and Avery Brundage were motivated by anti-Semitism. However, Stoller did not believe that anti-Semitism was involved. Found later in his diary, Stoller described the incident as the “most humiliating episode” of his life (Green Berlin Olympics exhibition opens in Washington 2). Many observers of the race believe that politics were involved.
The Germans came out victorious from the XIth Olympiad. Their athletes won most of the medals, when all of the event totals were added up. The visitors praised German hospitality. Many newspaper accounts echoed Fredrick Birchall’s report in the New York Times that the Games put Germans “back in the fold of nations,” and even made them “more human again. ” Some writers even found reason to hope the peaceful interlude would last (Bachrach 106). After the Olympics, Hitler had plans for German expansion to new territories. Hitler also planned on taking over the Olympic Games forever.
He had confidence that after the Tokyo games in 1940, the games would be in Germany for all time to come (Martin The Olympic Marathon 153). The pause in the anti-Jewish campaign was very brief. Jews began to fear again, after the Olympic truce. There were many Jewish suicides after the truce ended, because they did not want their life to be torture (Green 2). On the night of November 10, 1938, also known as the night of broken glass, Aryan riots broke out, and burned more than one thousand synagogues in Germany. They also vandalized seven thousand Jewish businesses and homes and killed dozens of Jews in assaults.
More Jews began using suicide as an answer, and some fled the country (Martin 223) The 1936 Olympics in Berlin caused many worries, problems, and questions for America and other countries throughout the world. When the 1936 Olympics, or “The Nazi Olympics” comes to mind today, usually Jesse Owens comes to mind first. His performance at Berlin was stellar, and would inspire athletes later to come. Most Americans usually feel a sense of pride when they hear Jesse Owens’s name. Most Americans believe that Jesse Owens shattered the Nazi myth of Aryan superiority. However, this is untrue.
Owens’s performance at Berlin had little impact on the Nazi’s beliefs. Actually, the racism grew larger in Germany after the Olympics. The Holocaust is a great example of this point. Also, the medals Owens took home had little impact on racism in The United States of America. Southern newspapers during and after the Olympics would not even print pictures of Owens in the paper. When Jesse Owens and his other teammates arrived home, they continued to be discriminated against in many aspects of American Life. However, the 1936 Olympics caused the world to focus on Nazi Germany.
Despite Hitler’s efforts to remove notions of Aryan superiority during the Olympic Games, reporters around the globe saw evidence of a strong racial hatred. The United States and other countries were closely watching Germany to see where Hitler’s aggression would lead. The 1936 Olympics served to put Hitler’s views in the spotlight. The world was on guard for Hitler’s actions. People began realizing that his views could no longer be tolerated. These views received worldwide attention at the 1936 Olympics. Hitler’s actions soon started World War II a few years later.