The Berlin Olympics

In 1936 Nazi Germany hosted the Olympic Games, with most events held in and around Berlin. The NSDAP itself played no part in Germany obtaining the Olympics; the games had been awarded to Berlin in 1931, two years before Hitler came to power. (Ironically, Berlin had also been awarded the 1916 Olympics, which were cancelled due to World War I). Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels was initially sceptical about the Olympics – but soon recognised that the games offered an ideal platform to promote Nazism on the world stage. The regime spent 42 million marks on a new Olympic precinct just outside Berlin. They constructed a stadium, then one of the largest in the world, capable of holding 110,000 people. Every detail of the games was carefully stage-managed by party organisers. Film of Olympic events was recorded by prominent director Leni Riefenstahl, while television broadcasts of the games were made for the first time in history.

The Berlin games were largely successful but there were several moments of discomfort and controversy. Many nations and national athletic bodies had considered boycotting the Olympics, as a protest against Germany’s anti-Semitic policies. The calls for a boycott were strongest in the United States, while outspoken boycott movements also emerged in Britain, France and Sweden. American officials ultimately decided to allow athletes to attend, arguing that politics should not interfere with sport. Some individual athletes withdrew from the US team and refused to participate. The left-wing government of Spain boycotted the Berlin Olympics and instead organised its own alternative games (though these were suspended because of the Spanish Civil War).

For the 16 days of the games, the Nazi state donned a mask of respectability. Signs declaring “Jews not wanted” were removed from public places. Julius Streicher’s hateful anti-Semitic newspaper Der Sturmer was removed from sale. Streets were cleaned of political propaganda, refuse and homeless people. Even troopers of the SS and SA, ordinarily gruff and cruel, were ordered to smile, behave courteously and make polite conversation with international guests. Thousands of foreign visitors left with a positive impression of the new Germany. The athlete’s village – a 140-building complex with brand new facilities and its own post office, bank, swimming pool and training track – was praised by athletes and officials. The international press commended the German government for its organisation, its facilities and its innovations (including the relay carrying the Olympic torch from Greece – an invention of Nazi propagandists).

“The genuine and whole-hearted enthusiasm of the German people for the Olympic Games seemed an indicator that the people of Germany wanted to live in peace and friendship with the rest of the world, and that even its leaders had not completely abandoned the comity of civilised nations. For the three months of the ‘Olympic pause’, when the darker aspects of the regime were cast into the background, ordinary people in Germany could regain their common humanity and meet and converse with foreigners regardless of their ethnic or religious background… The most optimistic could believe that Germany was playing by the rules…”
Arnd Kruger, historian

Despite the earlier talk of boycotts, the Berlin games had more competitors than any Olympiad to that point, with more than 5,000 athletes from 51 countries. One dilemma for athletes was whether to return Hitler’s Nazi salute during their entrance march at the opening ceremony. Most nations left this decision to individual competitors, and athletes from several countries – including Austria, Bulgaria, Bolivia, Bermuda, Iceland and Afghanistan – all returned Hitler’s salute. British and American athletes chose not to return it, which received a hostile response from the German crowd. Nazi attitudes toward Jewish competitors also generated controversy. Gretel Bergmann, a Jewish-born German high jumper, was not selected for the team, despite smashing a national record weeks before the games. Two Jewish-American sprinters were withdrawn from the 4×100 metre relay team, possibly to avoid the embarrassment of them winning medals. When it was discovered that Fuerstner, the superintendent of the Olympic Village, had Jewish ancestry, he was replaced by a German military officer – who subsequently took the credit for Fuerstner’s work.

The best-known controversy was the phenomenal success of Jesse Owens, an African-American athlete, in track and field events. Owens won gold medals in the 100-metre and 200-metre sprint, the 4×100 metre relay and the long jump. According to folklore, Hitler shunned Owens by refusing to shake his hand. The reality is Hitler did not shake hands with any non-German athlete. According to Owens, Hitler offered him a friendly wave during one of the medal presentations. Owens also claimed that he was better treated in Nazi Germany than in the racially segregated United States; less widely known is the failure of US president Franklin D. Roosevelt to send Owens a congratulatory telegram or offer to meet him after the games. Hitler’s public response to Owens’ gold medal spree may have been exaggerated by the American press – but in private the German leader fumed about the success of a black man. Hitler told Albert Speer that Negroes should be excluded from future Games because they were from the “jungle” and possessed sub-human physical strength. But despite Owens’ four medal haul, Hitler nevertheless had ample victories to cheer about, as German athletes finished on top of the medal tally (89 medals, 33 gold) – well ahead of the United States (56 medals, 24 gold).

The Nazis continued to use sport for political ends. Another example was boxer Max Schmeling, who was world heavyweight champion between 1930 and 1932. Schmeling had several high profile fights against American boxers during the 1930s, including Jack Sharkey, Max Baer and Joe Louis. Since Baer was of Jewish origin and Louis was African-American, the press in both countries made much of the obvious political connotations. Schmeling toured America in 1936 and scored an upset victory over Louis. The Nazis seized on him on his return to Germany, hailing Schmeling as a champion, the pinnacle of Aryan strength and manhood. When Schmeling returned to the US in June 1938 to fight Louis for the world title, the American press demonised him as a robotic, Jew-hating Nazi lover (quite unfairly – Schmeling had no interest in politics and did not support the Nazis). On his march to the ring at Yankee Stadium, Schmeling was jeered and pelted with garbage by the crowd. Schmeling lost the re-match with Louis and was ignored on his return to Germany. He later served briefly in the Luftwaffe (air force) during World War II and became an executive for Coca-Cola after the war.

1. The Nazis were responsible for organising the 1936 Olympics, which were awarded before they took power.

2. Hitler and Goebbels viewed the games as an opportunity for propaganda, to convey positive images of Germany.

3. The construction of new facilities and the removal of unsightly elements of Nazi society were organised during 1936.

4. There were international calls to boycott the games due to Germany’s racial policies, though few nations agreed.

5. The Olympics involved some notable on-field incidents, some related to Hitler’s twisted views about racial superiority.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Berlin Olympics”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],