Infamously known as “the Nazi Olympics” or “Hitler’s Games,” the 1936 Olympics are—like so much else associated with the Third Reich—mired in myths and misconceptions. As this year’s Olympics unfold in Brazil amidst the Zika threat, doping scandals, polluted venues, and Brazil’s own ongoing political and economic crisis, a close look at the legends and legacies of history’s most controversial Olympic Games may help us make sense of the hype as well as the drama that usually surrounds this fabled sporting event. 

Historical hindsight is invariably partial blindness, never 20/20—as if the tyranny of the present causes events to undergo what might be called a disturbing “chrono-macular degeneration,” and leads us to rewrite the past. In the case of the 1936 Games, which took place eighty years ago, most Americans today suffer from two blind spots: distorted historical perception about the overall medal outcome and about how the Nazis treated Jesse Owens.  

These twin issues are linked. Americans vaguely imagine that the United States swept the Games thanks to the stellar performance of Owens, the first great African-American track star, who garnered a remarkable four gold medals, and set a record for the broad jump that would last a quarter century.

In reality, the German team handily won the medal count, eighty-nine to the Americans’ fifty-six. It was the first Olympics since 1908 in which the United States hadn’t topped the medal count. And while it is true that Owens captured four gold medals and established an Olympic long-jump record, almost everything else connected with Owens’s performances is shrouded in myth. For example, the story that Hitler stormed out of the Olympics because the German sprinters were defeated by a member of a race regarded as sub-human by the Nazis—who hoped to exploit the world’s greatest sporting extravaganza to prove the superiority of the Aryan race—is simply not true. That tall tale grew out of self-serving evidence given in 1946 at the Nuremberg Trials by Baldur von Schirach, the Nazi minister of culture. According to Schirach, Hitler had said that the Americans should be ashamed for allowing Negroes to compete for medals. “I myself would never shake hands with one of them,” Schirach quoted Hitler. Actually Hitler behaved properly throughout the Games, maintained his composure after Owens’s victories, and did not storm out of the stadium after Owens’s triumphs or otherwise insult him. (A meeting with any of the victorious athletes was rare for Hitler.) After the opening ceremony at which he made a public appearance, staged with typical Nazi bravado, Hitler generally stayed in the background. 

Especially characteristic of Americans’ flawed hindsight is our smug willingness to overlook the fact that several Southern states banned African Americans from participating in mixed-race athletic contests. Indeed, newspapers and magazines throughout the American South did not print any photos of Owens’s victories—whereas, by contrast, the German press showed pictures of his triumphs. (Far more pridefully trumpeted in the German press as testimony of Aryan supremacy and black inferiority than the Olympiad was a world victory that occurred two months before the Olympics started: the German heavyweight boxer, Max Schmeling, knocked out the undefeated Joe Louis in twelve rounds.)


THESE LAPSES OF collective memory point to the chief, most problematic legacy of the Berlin Olympics: the tangled intertwining of politics and sport. But not only racial and ethnic politics—as we shall see, for all the breast-beating about “amateur ideals” by Olympic officials of that bygone era, ideological politics featuring Left-Right battles also began with “Hitler’s Games.” The Olympics, ostensibly staged with great fanfare to promote sportsmanship and understanding among nations, became in the 1930s a battle of one ideology or national philosophy against another. Before and during the XI Olympiad in Berlin—for the first but sadly not the last time—the spirit of amateurism was prostituted for ignoble motives of political self-aggrandizement. 

For instance, the 1936 Games established a pattern that became common with subsequent Olympics: boycotts. For the first time there was an attempt to cancel the Olympic Games because of the fascist ideology and brutal racial policies that the Nazis followed after they came to power in January 1933. Boycotts have since become commonplace. The United States boycotted the 1980 Games because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets reciprocated four years later by not sending a team to Los Angeles. 

The background history is complicated—and is also poorly understood. The Nazis were never invited to host the Games—and probably never would have applied to do so. Instead the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had awarded the Olympics to Germany’s Weimar Republic in 1931 before the Nazi takeover as a way of welcoming Germany back to sports respectability. (The IOC had disallowed Germany to enter the 1920 and 1924 Games as punishment for instigating World War I—an even earlier example of how war guilt and international politics tainted Olympic ideals.) Adolf Hitler had no sports philosophy and initially expressed little interest in hosting the Olympics, preferring instead an all-German athletic festival. But Dr. Josef Goebbels, the influential minister of propaganda, glimpsed how Germany might score a tremendous public-relations coup and convinced Hitler to support both the Winter and Summer Games. (Before World War II, host nations were invited to sponsor both Olympiads. The 1936 Winter Games were staged in the German resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen.)

So a boycott movement emerged in 1934 to protest a “Nazi Olympics.” The boycott gained its strongest support in the United States, though it also had the backing of anti-fascist activists in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and several other European nations. By 1935, American Jewish groups, outraged at the persecution of the Jews formalized that year by the Nuremberg Laws, enlisted allies in the press, including the New York Times, to deny the Games to Germany. Commonweal also editorialized in favor of a boycott campaign. American Catholic and Protestant organizations were also incensed at the closing of all church sporting clubs by the Nazis (such as Germany’s version of Catholic Youth Organization [CYO] club activities). 


THE BOYCOTT MOVEMENT peaked in 1935. Ultimately it failed largely because of one man, the U.S. Olympic Committee president, Avery Brundage, who would be a dominant figure both in the Olympics and in American amateur sports for the next three decades.

Brundage exemplifies a second, closely related and equally checkered legacy of the Olympic scene that dates back to the Berlin Games—the idea that sports policies should be divorced from political considerations except those congenial to the “unpolitical” outlook of Brundage himself. Convinced that it was imperative to keep the Olympics in Germany, Brundage negotiated a compromise with the Nazis. He was especially pleased that Hitler made no attempt to ban Jewish or black athletes from other countries from competing, a hands-off policy that helped undermine the boycott movement throughout the world. The American team alone included nineteen African-Americans and five Jews, including the future beloved New York sportscaster Marty Glickman. German athletes with Jewish blood were banned from the German team on the grounds that each nation had a right to choose its own competitors. (When pressed on the matter by the IOC, Hitler allowed a pair of German-Jewish athletes to compete while ordering a blackout of their performances in the German press.)  

Ultimately the boycott movement failed miserably. An “alternative Olympiad” in Socialist Spain drew a handful of top athletes—and a handful more refused to compete in Berlin. Probably the main reason for the boycott’s failure had to do with Nazi propaganda and IOC intransigence, along with historical timing. The Nuremberg Laws aimed at removing Jews from all sectors of German life had been instituted in October 1935, just weeks before the start of the Winter Olympics, and had shocked many in the civilized world. But international awareness of Nazi perfidy was still dawning and the full record of Nazi barbarity had not yet been fully revealed. In line with what became known (after Hitler gained all his demands at the Munich summit on the fate of Czechoslovakia) as a policy of “appeasement” by the Allies, European leaders vainly hoped that Nazi behavior would be modified by treating Germany with respect. The American Brundage contended that Germany’s domestic affairs were none of the world’s business, so long as it observed the Olympic rules. He even noted that one of the clubs to which he belonged in Chicago banned Jews. He believed that it was important to hold the Games in Berlin because it would lead to “better international understanding” and, most important, “a better human race through the influence of the Olympics.”

Brundage never expanded his narrow conception of amateurism’s “Olympic ideals”—and predictably, 1936 would not be the last time that Brundage played a controversial role in an Olympic Games staged on German soil. Thirty-six years later, at the 1972 Olympics held in Munich, the Palestinian terrorist group Black September seized a dozen members of the Israeli team and murdered eleven of them in cold blood. The shock around the world at this atrocity raised the question of whether the Games should be cancelled. Brundage would have none of it. He gave an impassioned speech defending the Olympic ideal and then dramatically declared, “The Games must go on.” For Avery Brundage, sports took precedence even over life and death.


A THIRD UNFORTUNATE historical legacy of the 1936 Olympics has to do with national pride, prestige, and a status-obsessed “we’re on display” showcase mentality. Hitler was the first head of state to put the full resources of the government behind the Olympic Games. Exemplifying the Nazi preference for massive edifices, he ordered a sports stadium that had been built in 1931 thoroughly renovated. The new Berlin Stadium (still in regular use today) was built to accommodate 110,000 spectators, making it the largest stadium in the world at that time. 

Hitler believed that with the whole world watching, Germany should profile itself. He even directed the state-controlled press to downplay German victories to highlight the nation’s modesty and sense of fairness. Hitler also ordered that visitors from all over the world were to be accorded respect. Berlin transients were rounded up for the duration of the Games. The city itself was decked out with Olympic regalia; hundreds of interpreters with diverse language skills were deployed to help foreigners. All evidence of anti-Semitism was covered up for the duration of the Olympics. Julius Streicher’s infamous race-baiting newspaper Der Stürmer was removed from newsstands during the Olympics, as were other Nazi organs.

Just as they fall for the legend of Jesse Owens being snubbed by Hitler, Americans also fall prey to the misconception that Hitler was a big news topic—and a contentious one—at the Games. The reverse was the case. Most press accounts, in Germany as well as abroad, do not even mention him. Hitler attended the major Olympic events but didn’t call attention to himself. He wore a simple brown uniform, with no decorations save for an Iron Cross (which he had been awarded in World War I) and a Nazi armband. However, he was still master of the grand gesture. When an Egyptian weightlifter, Khadi El Toune, set a new record, Hitler personally congratulated him and even had a street in the Olympic village named after him.

Hitler regarded himself as a Künstler (artist). In British terms, he was an “arty” not a “hearty.” He had no interest in athletics and sports philosophy. The decision to hold the Games in Germany had nothing to do with Hitler or Nazism. 

The real architects of the Berlin Games were two Germans, Dr. Carl Diem and Theodor Lewald. Both men were well known in international sports circles and were responsible for the International Olympic Committee’s decision in 1931 to hold the Games in Berlin. Lewald served as president of the German Olympic Committee and was a member of the International Olympics Committee. Diem was secretary general of the Organization Committee for the 1936 games. Neither Diem nor Lewald was a Nazi, and both men tried to keep the Games as non-political as possible. For example, none of the thirty-five Germans who were hired by the International Olympic Committee to help run the Games were Nazis. Lewald was a personal friend and aide to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics (first staged in Greece in 1896). He also had Jewish roots—his paternal grandmother was Jewish but converted to Christianity. Eventually this racial “taint” would cause him to be ousted from the Nazi-dominated German Olympic Committee after the Games had been staged. 

Known throughout the sporting world, Diem too was a long-time figure in the German athletic community and had labored diligently to have Germany regain acceptance in the international sports community. Thanks to Diem, the Berlin Games also inaugurated two important positive traditions. Diem was the prime organizer behind one of the innovations of the 1936 Games, the idea of creating a distinctive Olympic village to house the athletes. He also expanded the Olympic Torch run into an epic event with a relay of runners carrying the torch from Athens to Berlin.  

At both the Winter and Summer Games, Diem and Lewald hoped to distract attention from Nazi policies. They largely succeeded because Hitler allowed them to be the public face of the Berlin Olympics, as it were, at least as far as the world press was concerned. Yet their very success provided Hitler with one of his greatest public-relations triumphs.

With the help of his propaganda minister, Dr. Josef Goebbels, Hitler leveraged the Games to win a dazzling propaganda victory for Nazi Germany. Crucial to how the Nazis exploited the Olympics was the indispensable and now well-known role played by the talented young filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, already a celebrated movie director in the Third Reich. Riefenstahl had made a name for herself with two films heralding the “New Germany”—Victory of Faith and Triumph of the Will, the latter of which immortalized the 1934 Nazi Party congress. Both films used advanced montage techniques and pioneering camera angles to depict the rapturous embrace of Nazism by the German masses.  

Yet another American misconception is that the Nazis enlisted the services of Riefenstahl and managed the cinematic presentation of the Berlin Olympics. Not at all. She was not hired by the German government. Instead she had been commissioned by the IOC to produce a film about the 1936 Games. Her film, Olympia, was a huge success—easily the best sports documentary made until that time. It set the standard for sports filming until the 1960s. Regarded today as a cinematic breakthrough, it showed the Games at their best, portraying the record-breaking performances dramatically and memorably. Understandably (and predictably), the film was exploited by the Nazis as a propaganda tool and sent around the globe to celebrate the Aryan race. Riefenstahl always claimed she was never a Nazi. But she was certainly one of Hitler’s pets, a relationship she labored to downplay after the war.


THE NAZIS HAD spent lavishly on beautifying Berlin for the Games—and the showcase treatment had undeniably worked. By any measure the Berlin Olympics proved a stunning success for Germany, the Nazis, and Hitler. Not only did Germany win the medal count, but it attracted (and enchanted) more than 3 million visitors, three times the number that had attended the 1932 Games in Los Angeles. More than five thousand athletes from forty-nine nations competed—more than double the number that took part in the 1932 Games. Ticket sales reached 7.5 million Reichmarks, a profit of 1 million. Impressed by the behavior of the German public, most visitors departed with a positive impression of the dynamic “New Germany” that had apparently overcome the Depression that plagued Europe and the West in the 1930s. Nazi pride for once seemed justified. 

The 1936 Games were broadcast over the radio reaching an audience of over 300 million listeners. It was also the first Olympics to be televised. Although the audience for that infant medium was small, this was an important harbinger of the shape of things soon to come. Even Hollywood took advantage of the interest in the Olympics. Twentieth Century Fox set one of its most popular detective series in Berlin during the Olympics: Charlie Chan at the Olympics witnessed the popular Chinese sleuth (played by a Swede no less) solve a mystery against the background of the Games. The film shows no signs of Nazism. The Germans in the movie are not Stormtroopers or SS men, but rather hearty beer-drinking carousers belting out traditional German folk songs.

A final glaring misconception is also rooted in post–World War II hindsight. Ask almost any American where the 1940 Olympics were scheduled to occur in the summer of 1939, and they are shocked, outraged, and incredulous if you answer: Nazi Germany. But that is the historical fact—and further evidence of our collective memory lapses. Even as late as August 1939, just days before the outbreak of World War II on September 1, Hitler’s Germany was planning to host the 1940 Olympics. Japan had originally been awarded the Games, but Japan had begun a brutal war against China that extended to committing one of the worst atrocities of the century, the Rape of Nanking. Brundage was nonetheless all for holding the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo because, as he reiterated, “Sport transcends all political and racial situations.” But when in mid-1938 the Japanese government gave up its claim to the 1940 Games, the Olympics was offered to Switzerland. The Swiss concluded they could not quickly marshal the resources necessary to stage such a massive event. For this reason, despite Germany’s evil racial discrimination and aggressive foreign policy, both of which were nakedly obvious to the world by 1939, the IOC gave the Olympics back to Germany on short notice. 

Because the Nazis had all the practical prerequisites readily at hand, the IOC asked Germany to hold the Games again in Berlin—an amazing decision given the Third Reich’s criminal behavior by this time—the annexation of Austria, the seizure of the Sudetenland, and the explosion of violence against Jews in Kristallnacht in November 1938, all of which showed the true face of Nazism. Perhaps even more amazing is that most leading Western nations, including the United States, had already sent their deposits to the IOC in August 1939 in order to assure their place.

Of course, with megalomaniacal prospects of world conquest dancing in his eyes, Hitler hardly needed the sideshow of another Olympiad to further his visionary plans. The 1936 Olympics had served its purpose. Now the velvet glove was off the hand: the brass knuckles were evident.

A world war—and mass genocide—were on the horizon. Adolf would prove Avery quite wrong: some situations do transcend sports.

John Rodden writes about modern Irish history for a wide range of publications. John P. Rossi is professor emeritus of history at La Salle University.

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Published in the August 12, 2016 issue: View Contents
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