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Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936

By David Clay Large. 401 pp. Norton, 2007. $27.95.

While kick-starting the 1896 comeback of the Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin waxed dreamy about “the eternal Hellenism that has not ceased to light the way of the centuries.” But as David Clay Large tartly observes, Olympiads between 1896 and 1936 “had never been an athletic ivory tower. Indeed, few international institutions were more caught up in the political passions of the day.”

The Winter and Summer Games of 1936 in Berlin set a record for foreign policy entanglements. Large goes deeper into the German archives, particularly of sport, than anyone else has. So Nazi Games sometimes reads like a term paper, but captures the subtle ways in which Hitler’s government strung along the world until the closing ceremonies. As a local SA tune put it, “When the Olympics are over, we’ll beat the Jews to a pulp.”

German success at the 1928 Summer Games in Amsterdam brought the Nazis a satisfying tingle of racial superiority, enough to override the mediocre results four years later in Los Angeles that inspired Hitler to denounce the Olympics as a “plot of Freemasons and Jews.” While governments and the International Olympic Committee were hardly unaware of Nazi racism and thuggery, forty-nine nations sent teams to Berlin—up from thirty-seven in 1932. And Berlin was host to a series of Olympic firsts, including the Olympic torch run, television transmission, and basketball.

The American Olympic Committee proved less than Hellenically high-minded: Avery Brundage, then AOC and later IOC head, tried to quash a Berlin boycott with a “fact-finding” tour of Germany that whitewashed Nazi offenses, proclaiming, “Politics has no place in sport.” After the IOC awarded the 1936 competitions to Germany—at the time, the same country hosted winter and summer events—most boycott attempts came from the United States, primarily Jewish groups and the NAACP. The Nazis parried by agreeing to let anyone from outside Germany compete while reserving the right to choose German jocks. This led to token Jewish representation on German teams; in one of the games’ many ironies, half-Jewish Helene Mayer copped a silver medal in women’s fencing.

Large describes the staging of the 1936 competition in daunting detail, capturing both grandiosity and desperation as the Nazis determined to prove themselves the master race through mastery of sport and spectacle. The Germans won more medals than any other country while Berlin showed its more attractive face: Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels vied to throw the most lavish party; thousands performed at the opening ceremonies, including Richard Strauss; a massive arts festival was staged, although Martha Graham boycotted it; a 9.5- ton Olympic bell was forged; gay bars were allowed to reopen; women could raise their skirts five centimeters. And Goebbels’ propaganda ministry bankrolled an epic documentary, Olympia, by pet filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.

Outside the Fatherland, Goebbels had less spin control. Track star Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals, became an international celebrity thanks to a perceived snub by Hitler, who quit congratulating winners as soon as the first black American, Cornelius Johnson, won the high jump. Here the ironies pile up: Owens’s German long jump competitor offered advice that helped Owens win. Owens went on to praise Hitler as a “man of dignity” and complained of the media’s “bad taste in criticizing the man of the hour in Germany.” The “snub” spearheaded antiNazi propaganda. So the Nazis won the games but lost world opinion—which didn’t slow their sprint through enemy defenses three years later as they overran Europe.


Originally published in the December 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here