chapter
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Berlin 1936

The 1936 Olympics are by some margin the most written about in the history of the modern event, yet their historiography has been tarnished by the lure of hindsight, a continued fascination with fascism, and factual inaccuracy born of the desire to cling to convenient mythology. Both for dedicated sports specialists and mainstream historians citing them briefly in their general accounts of the period, Berlin 1936 largely remains the ‘Nazi Olympics’ or ‘Hitler’s Games’. Two narratives dominate: the hypocrisy of hosting a peaceful event as the precursor to the most devastating war in human history, and in this setting, the morality tale of Jesse Owens defying Adolf Hitler’s Aryan policies with four gold medals and superlative performances in track and field. Yet such emphases are reductive. To read the Berlin Games through the lens of later events-in addition to genocide and war, plans to host a Reich version of the event in a 400,000 capacity stadium in Nuremburg, evocation of the Olympic spirit at the Eastern front, and the trenches and flak machines operated by youths on the Reichssportfeld in the final defence of the city are oft-cited examples-is to overlook the fact that they were awarded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) (by postal ballot, in preference to Barcelona) as a gesture of reconciliation to a democratic Germany in 1931 and, after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, executed by the regime in tandem with two leading functionaries from the world of Weimar sport (Carl Diem and Theodor Lewald, himself half Jewish) (Eisenberg, 1999; Keys, 2006). In addition, focusing excessively on Owens perpetuates the myth that Hitler refused to congratulate him (a snub, it is now well established, which never occurred), whilst the US athlete was in fact more slighted by President Roosevelt’s refusal to send him a telegram and compared the adulation he received from the German public favourably with his mixed reception at home (Krüger, 2003b). Certainly, Owens is lovingly portrayed in Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Olympia’, a film which appeared in 1938 (to mark Hitler’s birthday) and has since cast a particular fascist sheen on the general appreciation of the Games (Graham, 1986). The double-bind of Riefenstahl’s film-a work of art (crowned by interna-

tional juries before the war and rehabilitated by art-house audiences in the early 1970s) which captures the beauty of a sporting event with clear propagandist intent-offers perhaps the most balanced way of considering the

Games themselves. When dealing with the 1936 Olympics, we are faced not so much with either/or choices but with both/and possibilities. It is not necessary, for instance, to view 1936 as the natural climax of a sporting ideology with proto-fascist roots (Hoberman, 1995). Whilst many IOC members had an ingrained antipathy towards Jews and came from countries whose governments had tilted towards the right, it must be remembered that the bourgeois elites that made up the committee (including those from the USA) had more to fear from Bolshevism than Nazism, and thus protested against and acquiesced with the hosts in equal measure. Hitler was told firmly on the opening day, for example, to greet all winners (not just Germans) or none at all-an instruction he followed by opting for the latter-but the IOC remained reluctant to probe the contentious racial selection policy of the German national team. Nor is it sensible to focus on the displacement of criminals, prostitutes and hundreds of gypsies from the city centre (the latter to a camp in the suburb of Marzahn, whence they were transferred to Auschwitz in 1943), the removal of anti-Semitic signs and discourse from public areas and newspapers, and the swift return of brutality at the end of the Games. Such acts were deplorable, but at the same time the organization of the Games largely in accordance with international regulations produced an Olympic pause and brief return to the atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, albeit one that had no effect on the regime’s politics or the subsequent course of history. Equally, the organizers were both bound by the regime and able to preserve an important modicum of autonomy. International pressure prevented the dismissal of Diem and Lewald from the already appointed organizing committee, but its saturation with party officials and the annexation of its overseeing body (the German Olympic Committee) secured capillary control. None the less, Diem and Lewald resisted and collaborated to their best advantage, benefiting from huge financial windfalls, asking Joseph Goebbels to enhance publicity, and gaining ground in general for sport after decades of conflict with the gymnasts (Turnen) (Eisenberg, 1999). In almost every aspect, therefore, it is vital to consider the Games in the round. Before examining the event in more detail, it is important to introduce

some further caveats. The Berlin Olympics did not evolve in a vacuum, and viewing them discretely or as a simple symbol of Nazi evil can lead to mis-or over-interpretation. Contextualization is essential, and several spheres demand attention.