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The Olympic Games under Hitler’s Germany, and the question of what might have happened if the world boycotted

Stefan Andrews

Ever since the Summer Olympic Games were launched, they have striven to be a grand event where nations could see their greatest athletes compete with the purpose of bringing home pride and honor to their people. Histories are written and records are broken, as the capabilities of the human body are pushed to the limit.

However, in 1931, when Berlin was elected as the host city for the Games to be held in 1936, a bid won by the Germans over Spain’s Barcelona, the Olympics faced a harrowing challenge.  Only two years later, the Nazis grabbed power in Germany, and as the games were about to begin in Berlin, the ideals and values of the Olympic Games nearly crumbled.

That year, it became very clear that the Germans wanted to use the event to push their propaganda, to represent their athletes as superheroes of the Aryan race. As historian Barbara Burstin puts it, these were athletes supposedly superior because of their genetic makeup and lineage and not simply because of physical prowess and training dedication.

Three years in power were enough for German Chancellor Adolf Hitler to successfully transform the nation’s weak democracy into a one-party dictatorship under the Nazi flag. Under the new German social order, people were already persecuted for being Jews, Roma, or a political opponent who took a stance that differed from the Nazi ideology. The Nazis had control over all segments of German life, and this included sport.

Photo from the opening of the Games and the Parade of Nations. Photo by Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P017045 / Frankl, A. / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Photo from the opening of the Games and the Parade of Nations. Photo by Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P017045 / Frankl, A. / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

By 1936, “Aryans only” was effectively an incorporated policy among all of Germany athletic organizations. Out of the 348 participants that represented the host country at the 1936 Games, only one was German and Jewish. Helen Mayer, who competed in fencing, was included on the team because only her father was Jewish, but also due to pressure from the International Olympic Committee.

The German Olympic committee virtually excluded all other Germans who happened to have Jewish or Roma heritage from participating in the Games, including some top-notch athletes. One of them was Lilli Henoch, shot putter and discus thrower, who was four times world-record holder and had won the German national championship 10 times. Gretel Bergmann, a record breaker in the high jump, was also not allowed to represent Germany. This, of course, caused global outrage and triggered a number of Jewish athletes from elsewhere in the world to boycott the Berlin Olympics.

Spectators giving the Nazi salute during one of the medal ceremonies during the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Photo by FORTEPAN / Lőrincze Judit, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Spectators giving the Nazi salute during one of the medal ceremonies during the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Photo by FORTEPAN / Lőrincze Judit, CC BY-SA 3.0.

All through the 1930s, German artists and sculptors represented the athlete as the perfect specimen of the Aryan race, with their well-developed muscles, heroic strength, and facial features always expressing the Aryan ideal. Such representation also spoke volumes of how much the Nazis considered physical fitness important generally and as a prerequisite for a strong fighting force in military service.

The revolt against Germany’s attitudes and actions ahead of the Games only grew as the event approached. At one point, Olympic organizers in the United States and Europe considered boycotting, and even moving the competition elsewhere. The American side, particularly, put pressure on the organizers, but the American Olympic Committee president eventually opposed the idea, remarking that the “Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians.” But that was really only wishful thinking.

The Nazi regime organized the mass display of Nazi propaganda and symbols across Germany during the events. Photo by FORTEPAN / Lőrincze Judit, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Nazi regime organized the mass display of Nazi propaganda and symbols across Germany during the events. Photo by FORTEPAN / Lőrincze Judit, CC BY-SA 3.0

And so the Games opened at the Berlin Olympic Stadium on August 1. After Hitler had arrived at the venue, the parade of nations started. During the opening ceremony and the Parade of Nations, athletes from certain nations gave the Nazi salute as they passed by the Führer, while others gave the Olympic salute (which is actually very similar).

As they passed by Hitler, all nations lowered their flags, except for the United States, which caused a bit of of controversy, but this was later resolved as it was attributed to U.S. army regulation. Writer Thomas Wolfe, who attended the opening ceremony, would later depict it as an “almost religious event, the crowd screaming, swaying in unison and begging for Hitler,” and that “there was something scary about it; his cult of personality.”

Hitler would go on and open the Olympic Games from his own box, situated above those of everybody else. That moment would symbolically confirm that the Games were his, that he was the one who was to be glorified here, not the athletes.

The Olympic Fire in Berlin during the 1936 Games, and in the background a mass display of Nazi flags. Photo by Josef Jindřich Šechtl, CC-BY 2.5.

The Olympic Fire in Berlin during the 1936 Games, and in the background a mass display of Nazi flags. Photo by Josef Jindřich Šechtl, CC-BY 2.5.

During the Olympics, the Nazi regime did not miss the opportunity to put up mass displays of the national socialist symbols and to spread Nazi propaganda all over the country. But notable moments in the competitions followed anyway.

An amusing one was the victory of India in field hockey, over Germany, by 8 – 1. Nevertheless, this loss for the host country did not cause much controversy as Indians were considered to be Indo-Aryans by the Germans, and thus racially related. There was also the Egyptian weightlifter Khadr El Touni, who broke world records by lifting a total of 777.13 pounds, beating two German world champions in the race for medals. Hitler was personally so impressed by the Egyptian, that he personally greeted El Touni and ordered a street to be named after him in the Berlin Olympic village. The entire incident sounds rather out of keeping for the Nazi leader.

Owens performing the long jump at the Berlin Olympics. Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-G00630 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Owens performing the long jump at the Berlin Olympics. Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-G00630 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

The American athlete Jesse Owens emerged as the most successful athlete to compete in Berlin overall, having won four gold medals in the sprint and long jump categories. Germany, as the host country, collected the most medals of all, 89 in total, leaving the United States second best, with 56 medals.

However, many have wondered whether things would have been different if the proposed boycott of the 1936 Games had taken place. If the sponsoring athletic and Olympic organizations across the States and Europe had said No to conducting the Olympic Games in Berlin in the first place, that may have acted as an inspiration to take a stand against the growing militarism and cruelty of Hitler’s politics. Perhaps it would have fueled an international resistance against the Nazis.

Jesse Owens on the podium after winning the long jump at the 1936 Summer Olympics. L–R, Naoto Tajima, Owens, Lutz Long. Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-G00630 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Jesse Owens on the podium after winning the long jump at the 1936 Summer Olympics. L–R, Naoto Tajima, Owens, Lutz Long. Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-G00630 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

The games did happen in spite of all controversies, and once they were concluded, the German policies of expansionism and persecution of Jews, the Roma, and political enemies of the state only intensified and increased to a point that brought on World War II and the Holocaust.

Read another story from us: At the first international Olympic Games held in modern history, winners were given a silver medal, while runners-up received a copper medal

The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin were also the last Olympics for the next 12 years. The games resumed in 1948 when Switzerland became the host of the Winter edition and London of the summer one.