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Germany wins gold in propaganda

The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin

The airship Hindenburg above the Olympic stadium in Berlin (Photo: airships.net)

With the currently ongoing Tokyo Olympic Games postponed from last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic in mind, let’s look at another example of special Olympic Games. 85 years ago today, on August 3, 1936, the Berlin Olympics (August 1-16) were in their third day. The event, conceived amid bitter controversy, became a glorious testament to Hitler's new, strong Nazi Germany – and also to small victories over Nazi racism.

English language poster for the Berlin Olympics (Photo: Olympic-museum.de)
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Germany had a rocky history with the Olympic Games. The country was slated to hold the 1916 Summer Games, but World War I interfered and the Olympics were cancelled. After the war, Germany was excluded from the 1920 and 1924 games as punishment. The nation was finally allowed to participate in 1928, and won the right to host the 1936 Olympics in 1931. However, the country that was awarded the right was not Hitler's Third Reich. It was the Weimar Republic, which ceased to exist in 1933, when Hitler seized power. For a while, it wasn't even sure Nazi Germany could host the games. There were loud calls to boycott the Olympics if it was to be held in a dictatorship.

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American visitor Carla de Vries giving Hitler a surprise kiss during the games (Photo: rarehistoricalphotos.com)

In fact, even Hitler wasn't very keen on international sporting events. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, however, recognized that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to present the new Germany's strength and splendor to the world, and he convinced the Führer to acquiesce.
In the end, Germany made some concessions to make the event happen. Though Jews were barred from participating in German colors, a symbolic exception was made for Helene Mayer, a half-Jewish fencer. Mayer was living in the United States at the time and had been stripped of German citizenship by the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, but she was invited back to fence in German colors. She made the best of her opportunity and won silver medal in women's foil (losing to another Jew, Ilona Elek from Hungary). Like all German athletes, she made the Hitler salute during the awards ceremony, but later explained that she only saluted to keep her family safe, who were still in Germany and held in a labor camp at the time.

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Mayer (right) during the awards ceremony (Photo: rarehistoricalphotos.com)

Another female Jewish athlete, high-jumper Gretel Bergmann, was also invited. Like Mayer, Bergmann was also living abroad (in the UK) and only accepted the invitation to protect her relatives in Germany. She was, however, removed from the German team two weeks before the games, citing poor performance. The charge was a complete fabrication, since she cleared the world record during qualification.

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The Nazis also "cleared up" Berlin to prepare it for the visit of numerous foreigners. Selling Der Stürmer, the most rabid Nazi tabloid, was temporarily banned to keep its outrageous antisemitism out of sight. On a far more sinister note, Romani (gypsy) residents of the city were rounded up as part of the clean-up and sent to a nearby concentration camp, from where they were later moved to Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen.

An Olympic flag sharing the busy Unter den Linden boulevard with numerous Nazi banners (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The games were deliberately made as spectacular as possible. It was the first Olympics in history to feature a torch relay (contrary to popular opinion, the ancient Olympic Games of Greece did not have such a relay, though they did have a stationary ritual fire). The Olympic flame of 1936 was lit among the ruins of the temple of Hera, the same place the ritual flame was lit in antiquity, by a German-manufactured mirror that collected the sun's rays. The torch, made of Krupp steel, was carried to Berlin by a relay of 3,331 runners, with a backup flame carried by car. Interestingly, all the countries crossed by the route (Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria and Czechoslovakia) fell under German control during World War II.

Lighting the Olympic torch in Greece (Photo: Olympics.com)

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Another new feature at the Berlin Games was television. It was the first Olympics to be televised live. Only very few people had TVs at the time, so the reportage was brought to the public through viewing rooms set up in Berlin and Potsdam. Sports broadcast technology was still in its infancy, and had teething problems. The television crew had three different types of cameras, and every shift from one type to another was accompanied by a brief blackout in the broadcast.

A public viewing room for the Berlin Olympics (Photo: nostalgiatech.co.uk)

And, of course, there was film. Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's favored filmmaker, shot a tremendous amount of footage, which was eventually used in her film Olympia in 1938. Like with her previous Nazi propaganda films, The Victory of Faith and The Triumph of Will, she pioneered numerous techniques that are widely used today by anyone filming a sporting event or a crowd scene for a film.

Riefenstahl shooting for Olympia (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

What American sport fans probably best remember about the Berlin Games are Jesse Owens's legendary four gold medals, with which the black athlete shattered the German propaganda phrases of Aryan racial superiority. It should be added, though, that nine other African-American athletes won a total of 10 further medals, 4 of them gold.

Owens's victories being carved into a memorial wall (Photo: Hulton Archive)

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Many athletes, including Owens, wore shoes made by a German company: Adidas (called "Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory" at the time). Adolf "Adi" Dassler, the company's founder, thought the Olympics were a great marketing opportunity and offered specially designed running shoes to many foreign athletes to increase brand awareness. This was not entirely risk-free: the possibility of Nazi reprisals for aiding the country's rivals was very real. As it happened, Owens fell in love with the spiked running shoe so much that he declared he would either compete in that or barefoot.

Owens during the long jump event, wearing Adidas shoes (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Black American athletes were in an unusual and special position in Berlin. On one hand, official Nazi doctrine considered them to be an inferior race. On the other hand, Hitler knew very well that Black Americans were facing significant discrimination back home in the United States, and was determined to rub this fact in America's face: German citizens were ordered to be polite and friendly towards blacks during the games, just to show how Nazi Germany was morally superior to the U.S.

Awards ceremony after the long jump with Owens in the middle and Long behind him (right) (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

On at least one occasion, this friendliness was more than just for show. Owens almost failed to qualify in the long jump, and a most unlikely person came to the rescue: Carl Ludwig "Luz" Long, Germany's premier long jumper. Long walked over to Owens while the latter was sitting on the field dejectedly after two fouls, and offered him advice. He told Owens that he should jump off from a different spot. The black athlete followed the German's advice and qualified on his final attempt. He went on to win the gold medal in the long jump, with the silver going to his helpful rival. The two became friends and started corresponding. In his last letter, written before his death during the battle for Sicily in the summer of 1943, Long asked Owens to visit his son after the war and tell him "what times were like when we not separated by war. I am saying—tell him how things can be between men on this earth." After the war, Owens did what was asked of him and met Long's son in Germany.

Luz Long and Jesse Owens having a chat in the stadium (Photo: The Independent)

Another, better known story about Owens is how he was supposedly snubbed by Hitler, who refused to congratulate him. The anecdote has a grain of truth, but is based on a misinterpretation of facts. On the first day of the games, Hitler congratulated all German victors, but nobody else. He was later told that this was a diplomatically offensive gesture, and he should either greet every victor, or none. He chose the latter. It's true that Hitler didn't congratulate Owens, but neither the latter, nor any other black athletes were specifically singled out. Owens later bitterly noted that despite winning four gold medals and bringing much glory to the United States, he was never greeted by President Roosevelt, either.
 
The story of the Berlin Olympics cannot be complete without mention of the alternative, rival Olympic Games that almost came to be. As we have mentioned earlier, there were calls for boycott against the Third Reich, and Barcelona, Berlin's main rival in the Olympic bid, offered to host an alternative Summer Games, one that opposed Nazi ideology by embracing racial equality. This so-called Olimpiada Popular, "People's Olympiad", was enthusiastically embraced by left-wing political parties, trade unions and worker's sport clubs all around the world.

Poster for the People's Olympiad, representing racial equality (Photo: Archives of the Trades Union Congress)

The alternative games were schedule for July 19-26, so they would end six days before the official Olympics began in Germany. Amazingly, some 6,000 athletes from around the world signed up for the games, 50% more than Berlin's 3,963. Thanks to the left-wing slant of the event, the Soviet Union agreed to send athletes, despite having their own, "in-house" Olympics equivalent called the Spartakiad. Besides the "regular" national teams (including the U.S. and the UK), Germany and Italy were also represented by exiles from those countries, and several regions of France and Spain registered teams comprised of Jewish exiles from Germany.

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The Estadi Olímpic de Montjuïc, the planned main stadium for the People's Olympiad (Photo: Wikipedia)

Unfortunately, the People's Olympiad never took place. Two days before its scheduled opening ceremony, on July 17, General Francisco Franco launched a military coup against the democratically elected left-wing government. Athletes already in Barcelona for the games had to flee for their lives, and the country was swept by the 3-year Spanish Civil War, which established Franco as the country's dictatorial leader, and served as a sort of grand rehearsal for World War Two.

The 1936 Olympic stadium, the Olympiastadion still stands today, though in a modernized form. The structure was built specifically for the 1936 games and stood atop the foundations of an older stadium, one originally built for the 1916 Olympics that were canceled due to World War I. The structure was the centerpiece of a large concept of Olympic fields and facilities, many of which still stand today.

The Olympic stadium today (Photo: Author’s own)

The area served as the headquarters of British occupation forces after the war. In the 1960s, American high school and military football teams introduced many Germans to (American) football in the stadium in exhibition matches. One structure in the sports complex that was notably destroyed (though later rebuilt) was the Olympic bell tower, which was set on fire by Soviet troops to destroy the documents stored therein, then demolished by the British in 1947. The tower's large bell survived and was used as a practice target for anti-tank ammunition for a while. It serves as a memorial today.

A 1993 photo of the bell in front of the Olympic stadium (Photo: James G. Howes)
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