The success of the Olympic games of 1936 was one of the Nazis’ greatest propaganda victories. The staging of the games, awarded to Germany in 1931, was threatened by Hitler’s seizure of power. The Nazis, it was well known, disliked internationalism and the participation of Jews and blacks in “healthy” sporting competition. But Hitler placed the anticipated diplomatic benefits and propaganda display above ideology. The German people would see how the world accepted and admired Nazi government. In June 1933 he informed the International Olympic Committee that Germany would adhere to its rules, and Jews would be allowed to compete. The threat of boycott increased after the passage of the Nuremberg Laws in September 1935, especially in the United States, but was headed off by the International Olympic Committee and Avery Brundage, chairman of the U.S. National Olympic Committee.
In the event, the weeks of the Olympics provided a brief respite for Germany’s Jews. Signs forbidding access to Jews were removed from Olympic areas and sites likely to be visited by tourists. But the games were used as a pretext for the rounding up of hundreds of Gypsies in Berlin and their transfer to a de facto concentration camp at Marzahn. The American liberal periodical The Nation (1 August 1936) reported that one “sees no Jewish heads being chopped off, or even roundly cudgeled. . . . The people smile, are polite and sing with gusto in beer gardens. Board and lodging are good, cheap, and abundant, and no-one is swindled by grasping hotel and shop proprietors.Everything is terrifyingly clean and the visitor likes it all.” But behind the scenes the Jewish high jumper Gretel Bergmann was excluded from the German team on a technical pretext, along with the part-Jewish fencing champion Helene Mayer. Only one Jew, the ice hockey player Rudi Ball, was allowed to compete for Germany.
The Winter Games were held at Garmisch-Partenkirchen from 6 to 16 February, with 756 competitors from twenty-eight countries; the Summer Games in Berlin from 1 to 16 August with 4,069 competitors from forty-nine countries. This represented the largest number of participants up to then, and the Winter Games broke all attendance records. The huge Olympic Stadium was completed in the nick of time, and Olympic rituals now considered “traditional,” such as the lighting of the flame and the carrying of the torch from Greece to the host city, were invented in keeping with the Nazis’ sense of pageantry.
German athletes were more successful than expected, winning more medals than either the United States or Italy. Hitler appeared almost daily as the patron of the games, rejoicing at German victories but ostentatiously ignoring black American winners, most famously Jesse Owens. Otherwise quite rational observers thought that whenever Hitler appeared, Germany won: the London Sunday Times reported on 9 August 1936 that “it is uncanny how often Adolf Hitler’s entrance coincides with a German win” (Welch 1983a, p. 118). For all the superficiality of the Nazis’ tolerant pose, the propaganda risk paid off, and Leni Riefenstahl’s visually adventurous film of the Olympiad provided a notable expression of Nazi ideals.
Suggestions for further reading:
Graham, Cooper C. 1986. Leni Riefenstahl and Olympia. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.
Hart-Davis, Duff. 1986. Hitler’s Games: The 1936 Olympics. London: Century.
Mandell, Richard D. 1987. The Nazi Olympics. Urbana: University of Chicago Press.
Welch, David. 1983a. Propaganda and the German Cinema 1933–1945. Oxford: Clarendon Press.