In August 1936, Adolf Hitler‘s Nazi dictatorship hid away its racist, antisemitic, militaristic essence while hosting the Summer Olympic Games, presenting an image of a peaceful, tolerant Germany.
The United Stated rejected a proposed boycott of the 1936 Olympics, missing the opportunity to take a stand that possibly could have bolstered an international resistance to Nazi tyranny. When the Games were over, Germany’s expansionist policies and the persecution of Jews and other “enemies of the state” accelerated, culminating in World War II and the Holocaust.
In 1931, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 1936 Summer Olympics to Berlin. The choice was Germany’s return to the world community after its defeat in World War I.
Two years later, Hitler became chancellor of Germany and quickly turned the nation’s fragile democracy into a one-party dictatorship that persecuted Jews, Romani, homosexuals and all political opponents. The Nazis soon controlled every part of German life including to sports.
German sports imagery from the 1930s promoted a myth of “Aryan” racial superiority and physical prowess. German artists idealized athletes’ muscles and strength and accentuated Aryan facial features. Sculptures and graphics reflected the importance the Nazis placed on physical fitness.
1933 was the start of an “Aryans only” policy in all German athletic organizations. Non-Aryans were systematically excluded from German sports facilities and associations. The German Boxing Association expelled professional light heavyweight champion Erich Seelig because he was Jewish. Seelig resumed his boxing career in the USA. Another Jewish athlete, Daniel Prenn, was Germany’s top-ranked tennis player. He was removed from Germany’s Davis Cup Team. Gretel Bergmann, a world-class high jumper, was kicked out of German track and field organization in 1933 and was forbidden to compete with the German Olympic team in 1936.
Jewish athletes barred from German sports groups started their own separate Jewish associations and improvised segregated facilities. But these Jewish sports facilities were no match for the well-funded German groups.
Hoping to impress the many foreign visitors who were in Germany for the games, Hitler authorized a pause in anti-Jewish activities, including the removal of signs barring Jews from public places. The games were a resounding propaganda success for the Nazis. The 1936 Games was also the first to have the Olympic torch relay, where a lighted torch is carried from Olympia in Greece to the site of the host of the Olympic Games. On opening day, hundreds of athletes marched into the stadium, team by team in alphabetical order. Hitler presided over the opening of the games.
As a token gesture to placate international opinion, the Nazis allowed the fencer Helene Mayer to represent Germany at the Olympic Games in Berlin. Mayer’s father was Jewish, so she was seen as a non-Aryan. She won a silver medal in women’s individual fencing and, like all other medalists for Germany, gave the Nazi salute on the podium. No other Jewish athlete competed for Germany in the Summer Games.
Nine athletes who were Jewish won medals in the Nazi Olympics, including Mayer and five Hungarians. Seven Jewish male athletes from the United States went to Berlin. Like some of the European Jewish competitors at the Olympics, many of these young men were pressured by Jewish organizations to boycott the Games. These athletes chose to compete for a variety of reasons. Most did not understand the extent and purpose of Nazi persecution of Jews.
The Berlin newspapers toned down the harsh rhetoric, in line with directives from the Propaganda Ministry, headed by Joseph Goebbels.
Rumblings of a boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics surfaced in the USA, Great Britain, France, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and the Netherlands. Debate over participation was most intense in America, which traditionally sent the largest teams to the Games because we were the biggest and the best. Some people proposed a counter-Olympics. One of the largest was the “People’s Olympiad” planned for the summer of 1936 in Barcelona, Spain. It was canceled after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July, just as thousands of athletes had begun to arrive.
Individual Jewish athletes from around the globe did boycott the Berlin Olympics and the qualifying trials. In the USA, some Jewish athletes and Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Labor Committee called for a boycott, so did some liberal politicians and many college presidents. But, once the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States chose in a close vote to participate in late 1935, other countries fell in line and the boycott movement failed.
Most African-American newspapers supported participation in the Olympics, thinking that black victories would undermine Nazi views of Aryan supremacy and spark African-American pride. American Jewish organizations largely opposed the Olympics.
The Nazis made elaborate preparations for the 1936 Summer Games. A huge sports complex was constructed, including a new stadium and state-of-the art Olympic village for housing the athletes. Olympic flags and swastikas were added to the monuments and houses of Berlin.
Most tourists were unaware that the Nazi regime had temporarily removed anti-Jewish signs. Nazi officials also ordered that foreign visitors should not be subjected to the criminal penalties of German anti-gay laws.
On August 1, 1936, Hitler opened the Games. Musical fanfares directed by the famous composer Richard Strauss announced the nasty dictator’s arrival to the crowd.
49 teams from around the world competed in the Berlin Olympics, more than in any previous Games. Germany had the largest team with 348 athletes. The American team was the second largest, with 312 members, including 18 African-Americans. American Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage led the delegation. Brundage was a main supporter of the Games being held in Germany, arguing that “politics has no place in sport“. The USSR did not participate in the Berlin Games, or any Olympics until the 1952 Games in Helskinki.
Germany promoted the Olympics with colorful posters and photos in magazines. The images drew a link between Nazi Germany and ancient Greece, symbolizing the Nazi racial myth that a superior German civilization was the rightful heir of the “Aryan” culture of classical antiquity. This vision of classical antiquity emphasized ideal “Aryan” racial types: heroic, blue-eyed blonds with finely chiseled features.
The propaganda continued after the Olympics with the international release in 1938 of Olympia, a documentary film directed by German Leni Riefenstahl. Renowned for her earlier propaganda film, Triumph Of The Will (1934) depicting Nazi rallies at Nuremberg, Riefenstahl was commissioned by Hitler to produce this film about the 1936 Summer Games.
Germany won big at the 1936 Games. German athletes captured the most medals, and German hospitality and organization won the praises from the press. The New York Times reported that the Games put Germans “back in the fold of nations,” and made them “more human again”. Only a few reporters understood that it was all merely a facade hiding a racist and oppressively violent regime.
After the Games, Hitler pressed on with plans for German expansion. Persecution of Jews resumed. Two days after the Olympics, Captain Wolfgang Fuerstner, head of the Olympic village, killed himself when he was dismissed from military service because of his Jewish ancestry.
Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Within just three years of the Berlin Olympics, the “hospitable” and “peaceable” sponsor of the Games unleashed World War II culminating in the Holocaust and the murder of more than six million Jews, Romani, Queers and “Enemies of the State”.