July-September 2008 Message from Dan
Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:
My love affair with the Olympics lasted only twelve years – a mere three Olympic cycles (back when both the Winter and Summer Olympics were held in the same year.)
The love affair began in the winter and summer of 1960, when I’d just turned 12 years old. The Winter Games (with no less than Walt Disney as the Head of Pageantry) were televised – sort of – from Squaw Valley and really caught my kid-imagination. I must have been home sick from school because I remember watching with my mother as the little-regarded, longshot U.S. Hockey Team beat the top-rated Canadian team to get a shot at the USSR team – which it beat – only to go on and upset Czechoslovakia to win the Olympic Gold. It was more exciting to 12-yr-old me than the so-called 1980 Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid would be 20 years later.
Besides, by 1980, I no longer cared much for the Olympic Games.
But in 1960, as a kid who loved playing every sort of sport imaginable (and some that hadn’t yet been imagined) and who loved flags – I studied flags in my Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia all that year, copied them, learned their meanings, and designed my own – I went apeshit over the Olympics. Being the bossy kid in the little Illinois town of Brimfield (aka “Elm Haven”) where we lived then, I organized our own “Kid Winter Olympics” even though most of us didn’t have ice skates, much less hockey paraphernalia and all the rest. We made do. It was a cold, snowy winter with plenty of ice. For the “downhill events,” I dragged the other kids – Mike, Jim, Kevin, Donna Lou, Jerry, Chuck, Mike’s sister Kathy, and my little brother Wayne -- with me three miles out of town to Art and Anne’s farm, where we sledded and saucered down a steep hill until we launched ourselves off homemade snow ramps above –and invariably onto – the frozen creek ten feet below. When my mother asked me that night (as she often had to), “What happened to your little brother?” I replied succinctly, “Saucer jump.”
I couldn’t just let us play . . . no, I had to make my friends choose their countries and make flags. Flags were the Olympics. We kept score – something we often forgot to do during our summer long hardball marathons at the high-school ballfield just out of town, where we’d play twelve hours at a time, playing ourselves into a stupor where we didn’t know what inning we were in, much less what the score was.
That summer of 1960 – I was already really interested in the presidential race that was shaping up – there were more Olympics, from Rome this time, but none of us kids would stay inside to watch TV (except for “Home Run Derby” on Sunday nights) when we could be outside playing sports. It was summer.
My love affair for the Olympics ended abruptly on September 4, 1972, with the “Munich Massacre” at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.
“They’re All Gone”:
Perhaps you remember the details of the Munich Massacre, although they tend to grow foggy with time. The Games were into their second week, everything was going well – Germany was especially proud of being allowed to host the Olympics you must remember, since this was only 27 years after the end of World War II and the Munich Olympic facilities were only a few miles from Dachau. The official mood was Gemütlichkeit and no armed security guards were allowed to be visible anywhere. This worried the Israeli officials but they were told not to worry – Alles in Ordnung.
Suddenly all hell broke loose. A group of Palestinians calling themselves “Black September” easily got into the Olympic Village with their weapons by climbing an unguarded fence (with help from some American athletes who also were sneaking in after hours) – then broke into the apartments where the Israeli team was quartered, killed two Israelis who fought back, and took nine Israeli-athletes hostages at gunpoint.
The Palestinians made various demands – the stand-off was watched live by a worldwide audience as the late, great sports announcer Jim McKay did an extraordinary job of heading up the news coverage there (although nothing was known about the fate of the dead or living hostages at the time of the stand-off, except for the body of one murdered Jew, wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg, which was tossed out of a window by the Palestinians in full view to show their resolve) – and by that night the terrorists demanded a flight to Cairo and they and their hostages were all taken by bus to nearby Fürstenfeldbruck NATO airbase. Once there, the German police totally botched a “rescue attempt” – staking everything on five mediocre police snipers , untrained in special operations or hostage situations, to take out the terrorists – and before it was over, one of the terrorists tossed a hand grenade into the helicopter holding all nine of the tied-up Israelis, incinerating them all. All of the Israelis died but three of the terrorists survived – the German police were really lousy shots – and another escaped briefly before being tracked down and killed.
The first news reports we heard announced that all of the hostages had been successfully rescued and were in good health. Then the reality began to seep through in the form of silence. It was at 3:24 A.M. German time that Jim McKay made this announcement –
“When I was a kid, my father used to say ‘Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.’ Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They’ve now said there were eleven hostages. Two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.”
For most of us in America, that was the first time we’d paid real attention to Palestinian or Islamic terrorism.
The Munich Massacre was terrible enough (as was its aftermath, where after a German plane was possibly hijacked in October – “possibly”, since some intelligence experts argue that it was a “hijacking” done with collusion of the German government – the Germans promptly released the three surviving terrorists to a hero’s welcome in Libya) – but the response of the International Olympic Committee at the time was, I thought, almost as bad as the massacre.
Avery Brundage, head of the IOC, suspended the Games for one day – September 5 (the helicopter and corpses were still smoking) – and then made a speech praising the strength of the Olympic movement in which the murdered Israelis were hardly mentioned. For that, judge for yourself –
| “"Every civilized person recoils in horror at the barbarous criminal intrusion of terrorists into peaceful Olympic precincts. We mourn our Israeli friends [...] victims of this brutal assault. The Olympic flag and the flags of all the world fly at half mast. Sadly, in this imperfect world, the greater and the more important the Olympic Games become, the more they are open to commercial, political, and now criminal pressure. The Games of the XXth Olympiad have been subject to two savage attacks. We lost the Rhodesian battle against naked political blackmail. I am sure that the public will agree that we cannot allow a handful of terrorists to destroy this nucleus of international cooperation and goodwill we have in the Olympic movement. The Games must go on...."
– Simon Reeve, "One Day in September" (2000)
Note that Brundage equates – “finds moral equivalance in” to use a current phrase – the boycott against Rhodesia (a racist apartheid state at the time) being included in the Olympics that year with the kidnapping and murder of eleven Israeli athletes.
And Brundage lied when he said “the flags of all the world fly at half mast.” During the memorial service, the Olympic Flag was flown at half-staff at the order of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt. Most of the other nations followed suit. But ten Arab nations and the Soviet Union insisted that their flags remain at full-staff. Brandt and Brundage complied. Those flags were fully visible flying at full-staff behind Brundage as he spoke in Munich that day.
The rest of the Israeli Olympic competitors had flown home by then and the victims’ families were represented at the memorial service by the widow of one of the victims and by Ankie Weinberg – mother of Moshe Weinberg, the wrestling coach who’d fought to save his guys in the Olympic apartments and whose corpse had been dumped out the window by the terrorists – and by Weinberg’s cousin, Carmel Eliash. During the memorial service, Eliash collapsed and died of a heart attack.
In the years since the Munich Massacre, some of the families of the victims have asked that the International Olympic Committee establish a permanent memorial to the murdered athletes, but the IOC has declined, saying that such a memorial “could alienate other members of the Olympic community.” The International Olympic Committee – as are the Summer and Winter Olympic Games – as we shall see, are totally above politics of any sort.
At any rate, my love of the Olympics died as I listened to that old anti-Semite Avery Brundage’s speech exalting the glories of youth and sport while never properly recognizing the innocent young men who had just died so horribly. “The Games must go on” my ass. As the Dutch distance runner Jos Hermens was quoted in Sports Illustrated that fall, “You give a party, and someone is killed at the party, you don’t continue the party. I’m going home.”
So I took my ball and went home in September of 1972 and although I’ve watched Olympic games since then, I’ve never really believed in or trusted them.
And 1972 Munich wasn’t the first time that the Germans had held a nasty party or the first time that the International Olympic Committee had shown its true colors.
The Nazi Olympics:
The IOC awarded the 1936 summer and winter games to Germany on May 13, 1931. The Weimar Republic then represented Germany and most IOC officials agreed that the choice would signal the return of Germany to the world community after its defeat in World War I.
After Adolf Hitler and the Nazis took power in 1933 – were voted into power one needs to remember – they inherited the Olympics. The summer and winter games weren’t exactly the first thing on Hitler’s mind in those days. One look at the top Nazis – fat-boy Hermann Göring, skeletal Joseph Goebbels, and pasty, flabby, clothes-always-on-and-buttoned-up Adolf himself – and you just know that these aren’t athletes or great sports fans. (The only sport that Hitler ever paid any real attention to was boxing.)
But they did quickly see the nationalist and propaganda potential in the Olympic Games.
Flabby, pasty, night-dwelling Adolf Hitler hated “intellectualism” even more than he hated being out in the sunlight sweating, and he’d written in Mein Kampf –
“In a race –Nationalist [völkischen] state the school itself must set aside infinitely
more time for physical conditioning. Not a day should pass in which the young
person’s body is not schooled at least an hour every morning and evening, and
this in every sort of sport and gymnastics.”
Hitler’s goal was an insane mind in a healthy body. And all that enforced sports was not just a means to give a sense of power and invincibility to the new master race they were breeding in the Third Reich, but was an actual precursor to that breeding of more Aryans. Also from Mein Kampf –
“The maid should know her knight. If beautiful bodies were not completely placed
in the background by our foppish modes, the seduction of hundreds of thousands
of girls by bowlegged, disgusting Jew bastards would be quite impossible.”
To help the German maids tell the Aryan knights from the disgusting Jew bastards, Hitler – who was never seen without his top shirtbuttons buttoned – recommended a “healthier mode of dress” that would show off the Nazi youth’s and maidens’ sport-honed Aryan bodies to best advantage. Flash a little Nazi thigh; show a little Master Race well-oiled muscle.
The Nazification of Sport:
It’s important for the younger or less history-inoculated reader to understand that a regime such as the German National Socialists – and some regimes in existence today – do not practice politics per se. They practice a sort of super politics in which everything – everything in life: marriage, thought, literature, art, love, education, childrearing, work, sports, having fun, even sex – is infused with, dominated by, and subordinated to a political (or religious) philosophy. The only true value of sports in a super-politics regime is how it serves the aims of the State or Faith (which are invariably the same thing).
Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, announced on April 23, 1933 –
“German sport has only one task: to strengthen the character of the German
people, imbuing it with the fighting spirit and steadfast camaraderie necessary in
the struggle for its existence.”
This was the climate and attitude then to which the Winter and Summer Games of the XIth Olympiad of the Modern Era were headed in the mid-1930’s.
The De-Jewification of German Sports:
The removal of Jews from the German sporting scene in the 1930’s deserves its own book and I’m sure many volumes have been written on that theme. It’s depressing reading at any length. Even the summary is all too familiar.
As soon as Hitler took power, German authorities began excluding Jews from all sport and recreational facilities in the nation. Top tennis players, fencers, track and field stars, and even professional boxers – or perhaps especially professional boxers, since that was Hitler’s favored sport – were removed from Davis Cup Teams, fencing competitions, track and field associations, and from the German Boxing Association for “racial reasons.”
The 2004 film documentary “Hitler’s Pawn” tells the story of Gretel Bergmann, a world-class high jumper who was expelled from her sports club in 1933, went to England on her own, was called back to Germany when the Nazi German Olympic Committee needed Jewish “cover” to placate American groups which threatened to boycott the ’36 Olympics, and who trained in various fake Jewish sports training facilities – tying the German record for the women’s high jump – before finally being denied a place on their Olympic Team on 16 July, 1936, the day that the ship carrying the American team sailed from New York (i.e. when the possibility of an American boycott was past.)
Suffice it to say that by 1936, Jewish athletes were effectively non-existent in German sports. Soon, of course, the majority of them would become literally non-existent in death camps.
The 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY, and – to a much greater extent – the 1932 Summer Games in Los Angeles had not only been a huge success, despite the pesky reality of the Depression setting in, but had raised the bar in every aspect of Olympics festivities and Olympic competition.
The competition itself was wonderful, setting some records that lasted well into the 1950’s. More important to the Germans observing and taking notes, however, was the change in the size and tenor of the festival-aspect of the Games.
Despite the Crash of ’29, the Lake Placid planners and then the Los Angelenos had done it right: even with money so short, the state of California gave the organizing committee $1,000,000 and hardstrapped citizens floated and supported a special bond issue for another $1,500,000. (That was real money in 1931.) There was a successful nationwide appeal for more donations. The chief stadium in the Los Angeles' games, still in use today, seated 104,000 and had the best track surfaces in the world. The gymnastics and track and field apparatuses were beyond state-of-the-art for the day.
All athletes in previous Olympiads of the modern era had to make due with temporary and uncomfortable ad hoc lodgings (although only American teams were known to complain), but in Los Angeles the Olympic planners came up with the first-ever “Olympic Village,” constructed in a western area of L.A. then known as Baldwin Hills. It was an entire 250-acre complex of cottages, dining halls, and communal areas plunked down atop bare hills with views of the mountains and Pacific Ocean – spartan by today’s standards, but sheer luxury to visiting athletes in 1932. Nearby Hollywood provided films that the athletes could watch each night. This may have been the first example of international Olympic athletes mingling, living together, and experiencing that unique Olympics bonhomie – all while they watched Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix, and Mae West.
The American Olympic planners, perhaps inspired by the nascent Hollywood imagineers, came up with some nice festival and pageantry touches that were new to the Olympics – but immediately imported, as would be the many Nazi touches, into the “tradition” of the Games. These new touches included the definitely Hollywood-inspired “Olympic flame” (there was no precedent from the historical Olympic games) and the giant torch that burned in the giant brazier above the Los Angeles Stadium all during the games. And, reviving a nice touch from the first Games of the Modern Era – the pitifully tiny 1896 games in Athens – the L.A. hosts released hundreds of pigeons into the air during the opening ceremonies.
The Nazis were watching and taking notes. To paraphrase a better writer on a slightly different topic – "No one would have believed in the third decade of the Twentieth Century that this world of the Los Angeles Olympics was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater – and infinitely colder -- than man's."
Dr. Carl Diem, the German (but not quite Nazi) in charge of the German organization, had been in Los Angeles taking notes and when it came time to plan in earnest for the Nazi Olympics, he followed Adolf Hitler’s simple approach to such things (ala the Nuremberg Nazi rallies) – i.e. make everything larger, bolder, bigger, louder, more blatant, and – this is important – more fake-authentic festively old and pagan.
Festivals and Symbols:
No one in the world at that time, and perhaps since, was better at whomping up overnight “ancient traditions and festivals” than the Nazis.
It’s easy to dismiss or even laugh at the mass insanity that swept up the vast majority of Germans in the 1930’s, but unless one has experienced that almost orgasmic surrender to the mass mind – a total subordination of the individual to the Movement – then it’s better to remain fearful of it than to make fun of it. Hitler’s indifference to the Olympic Games was soon transformed – by Joseph Goebbels – into a sharp understanding of how the same nationalist techniques used in the Nazi rallies and propaganda campaigns could be used to bind the German people closer together in 1936 even while pleasing the IOC and soothing the ruffled fur of that most amorphous and elusive of creatures, the “international community.”
The de-Christianization of Germany – the transformation of one of the most advanced industrial, cultural, and intellectual nations in the world into a nest of Nazi vipers – was being brought about by the substitution of pagan-Nazi rituals, loyalties, ceremonies, and passions to take the place of all earlier institutions, civil and religious. The Nazis applied that expertise to preparing for the Olympics. In a sense, they were the perfect group to piggy-back on – and improve -- the already faux-traditions of the modern Olympic movement by giving it more fake back-story.
First, the Germans ordered up a huge “Olympic Bell.” Obviously bells had dick-all to do with the classical Greek Olympics, but that didn’t matter to the Nazis or the German Olympic Organizers or the IOC . . . the classical Greek Olympics didn’t have flags, women competitors or spectators, nations competing, sacred fire, torches, the marathon run, or pigeons for that matter. The big Nazi bell was sculpted by German artist Walter E. Lemcke, cast with various recent slogans of Olympism that had been thought up or stolen from better sources in recent decades – including the Father of the Modern Olympics creator Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s borrowing of “Citius, Altius, Fortius” as well as Coubertin’s ingenious symbol of five intertwined rings – and then cast an eagle on top to show it was the German Olympics. (Although, to be fair, it was the modest, feathered, sort of moulting-looking Weimar eagle, not the stylized Nazi eagle symbol that would soon be seen all over the world.)
Around the lip of the Olympic Bell – sure to be a fixture of all future Olympic Games for all of the Olympics yet to come – were the inscriptions “Berlin 1936” and “Ich rufe die Jugend der Welt” (“I summon the youth of the world” – more or less.)
Bochumer Verien für Gusstahlfabrik A.G. agreed to cast the monster – it required more than 15.5 tons of molten steel – and when it cooled it stood (including its yoke) almost ten feet high. The thing was pitched to a tune of E-minor and “had rich overtones.” Indeed.
It took a tractor and trailor as large as a railway flatcar to haul the thing around Germany.
And haul it they did. The Nazis loved traveling pagan festivals and the Olympic Bell – barely cooled but already enshrined in a fake aura of ancient tradition – began roaming the country at a staid 12 miles-per-hour, pausing to be celebrated and adored in Dortmund, Unna, Werl, and in Hamm (where they’d just renamed the ancient and picturesque town square Adolf Hitler Platz) and then it trucked on to Beckum, Wiedenbrück, Güttersloh, Bielefeld, and Oeynhausen. Then to Hannover – where thousands of factory workers, sporting clubs, Storm Troopers, and SS guards turned out to worship the bell, which was par for the course – and then north and east to Braunschweig, Magdenburg, Bug, Genthin, Plausen on the Havel, Eiche, Potsdam, and . . . .
Anyway, after infinite adoration and Sig Heiling, it eventually got to Berlin.
There the new Olympic Bell was hauled to the top of a skinny 243-foot tower called the Glockenturm where it was connected to a winding wheel almost 12 feet in diameter which was to be swung back and forth by an electric motor that was timed to produce deep gongs every 30 seconds.
The Germans are nothing if not masters of detail.
But it was that clever Gothic-script “Ich rufe die Jugend der Welt” – actually taken from Schiller, no Nazi he, but perfect for the Nazis – which did the Nazi Olympic Bell in, acceptance-wise and tradition-wise. Goebbel’s Propaganda Ministry – in collusion with the civilian German Olympic Committee and organizers – were papering the world (well, Hitler had been a wallpaper hanger) with magazines, stamps, pamphlets, flyers, posters, articles, collectable cards, and press releases about the upcoming Nazi Olympics and its great Olympic Bell. Unfortunately for the bell’s chances of being accepted, the stamps and posters and even advertisements in foreign (non-German) magazines showed Hitler standing next to the bell and it seemed as if he, Hitler, were summoning “the youth of the world.” (Which, of course, he was.)
Mixed with the news of Storm Trooper brutalities, ever more oppressiveanti-Jewish laws, concentration camps, etc., this didn’t play well elsewhere in the world. The Olympic Bell – even for the IOC, which lapped up such stuff – was a non-starter.
Goebbels and the Propaganda Ministry immediately abandoned the bell as the central “new ancient tradition” of the Olympic Games – besides, it had already served its purpose within Germany -- and came up with a new ancient tradition. And this one was a winner.
The ancient Greeks didn’t have bells, but they did have fire and even had included fire and torches in their Olympics . . . sort of. The fire rituals were private and religious and there were no torch runs or symbolic Olympic torches as part of the ancient Games, but that didn’t inhibit the Nazis and the German organizers. At noon on 20 July, 1936, in a quiet and remote little valley in the Peloponnesus, 15 Greek maidens – declared to be virgins all (although there is no report on who certified this) – clad in classical Greek drapings, entered the ruins of what had once been the great stadium in Olympia and placed a large, concave reflector in a wrought iron base. Like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, this reflector then focused the rays of the sun over the Alphios valley onto some fluffy stuff at the end of the stick (held by one of the maidens) and the fluffy stuff ignited.
Thus the whole myth, in every sense, of the Olympic Torch Run was born.
From the altar there in the sacred enclosure of Altis, past the ruins of the ruined temple of Hera, there by the ruins of the ancient Olympic stadium, the Sacred Olympic Fire was trotted first through Greece and then all the way up to, through, around Germany, until it came to its sacred final resting place in a big brazier – based on the Los Angeles torch brazier – at the new and gigantic Berlin stadium.
The idea was totally that of Dr. Carl Diem, the noted German sports historian and head of the German Olympic festival and games organization. The problem was – although the ancient Greeks had carried torches, fagots of narthex stalks, there was no torch then in ancient Greece or now (in 1936) that would burn for the twelve days of the Olympic Games or even last out a light rainstorm during the Torch Procession. A pipe carrying natural gas to burn would solve the Olympic Stadium torch problem, but to provide the carryable torches, German chemists devised a torch that would burn brightly for ten minutes yet remain unaffected by wind, rain, or a runner tripping over his or her own shoelaces. The burning material was incendiary magnesium and the high-tech torch would contain two special fuses so that even if the burning matter fell out, the fuses would continue to glow and reignite some safety materials.
So the torch ran. Or rather, it was run. Through national capitals, of course, but also through thousands of villages and hamlets and backwater towns. From Greece to Bulgaria. From Bulgaria up through Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, and Cezechoslovakia. (If this litany sounds familiar to you, it may be because all of these nations would be overrun and occupied by Nazi armies within a few years.) It required 335 runners, each trotting a kilometer, to cover the distance to Athens, another 238 runners to traverse the mere 238 kilometers of Bulgaria, 575 for Yugoslavia, 386 for Hungary, 282 for the Czechs, and so on.
And once in Germany . . . well, it was the Bell all over again. Only bigger! Bolder! Louder!
Let us look only at Dresden where the Sacred Flame was met in the open area of the Königsufer by hundreds of thousands of celebrants, including Hitler Youth trumpeters blasting out fanfares, while all of the city’s famous church bells tolled the Torch’s arrival. The participation of the Catholic and Protestant churches and cathedrals seems a little odd now, in retrospect, given the purely pagan and political nature of the festival. A new, Greek-inspired altar had been built in front of city hall and there the pagan Olympic fire burned while one Nazi politician after another gave speeches that were broadcast via radio to all of Germany and the world.
When the magnesium flame arrived in Berlin at 11:38 on the morning of August 1, 1936 – the day the Games were to begin – it was met at the Lustgarten by hundreds of thousands of civilian spectators, 25,000 brown-shirted Hitler Youths, thousands of “youths” imported from other countries for the event, and 40,000 Storm Troopers.
We know the grand finale of this new ritual since we’ve seen it at every Olympics since then – the entry of the Torch into the stadium, its transfer by a series of runners, the final torch-carrier (usually a celebrity athlete of that country from earlier competitions, but always beautiful) climbing the long stairway of white steps to the waiting torch brazier, the raising of the Torch in one hand, the pregnant pause, the lowering of the Sacred Flame . . . .
The Nazis did it good.
To Boycott or Not to Boycott:
Not everyone wanted to go to the damned 1936 Nazi Olympic Games.
Avery Brundage, then president of the American Olympic Committee (and later the old man who I heard give the 1972 Munich “memorial service” to the dead Israelis who managed to all but forget the dead Israelis), did want his athletes to go to Germany. Responding to reports of persecution of Jewish athletes in 1933, Brundage said, “The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed, or race.” This sounded noble enough, but in his privately published pamphlet Fair Play for American Athletes Brundage talked about an international “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” and said that American athletes should not become involved in “the present Jew-Nazi altercation.”
So Brundage – whose building company would later be hugely rewarded by Nazi contracts for his patronage and support – continued the argument, heard most loudly to this day, that “politics has no place in sports” (meaning that the Olympic Games could and would be the butt-boy to any human-rights-denying totalitarian regime if they agree to put on a quality enough show) and he vehemently opposed any boycott. But other groups, including the American Amateur Athletic Union – led by Brundage’s rival Judge Jeremiah Mahoney – pointed out that Nazi Germany had broken Olympic rules by prohibiting participation on the basis of race and religion. In Mahoney’s view, going to the 1936 Olympics was the equivalent of endorsing the goals of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.
Various politicians (such as Al Smith) and Catholic and Jewish groups – as well as left-wing groups and trade unions – lined up behind Mahoney and staged mass rallies to protest the Nazi persecution of the Jews and to support a boycott of the 1936 Olympics.
Individual athletes, including Jewish athletes from countries other than Germany, then, as today, had to decide on their own whether to participate or not. Then, as today, almost all of them decided to. But a few then – such as Milton Green, captain of the Harvard University track team and record holder in the 110-meter high hurdles and his teammate, Norman Cahners, both Jews, decided to boycott. They were almost alone in that. Today – given the immediate professional and endorsement financial awards involved in the Olympics, undreamt of in 1936 -- it’s hard to imagine any world-class athlete giving up his or her chance to compete based on a mere ethical decision.
There were shortlived boycott efforts in Great Britain, France, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and the Netherlands as well as in the United States, but none of the others came to anything. Only the U.S. threat frightened the Nazis.
Hitler’s “Capitulation” to the IOC:
What interests me somewhat is how much Hitler, Goebbels, and the Nazi gang bent to pressure from American groups and the 1930’s IOC itself to show that they were complying with what we now refer to as “human rights,” compared to the tendency of police-state regimes chosen to host the Olympics in more recent decades which give only the lightest lip service to Olympic and “international community” demands for less oppression and then go ahead rounding up the dissidents in ever larger numbers.
But the Nazis knew that an American boycott or IOC revocation of their 1936 Olympics could be catastrophic not only to the world’s image of rising, modern, unified, happy Germany but to the internal control of their still-shaky Nazi regime.
Thus the elaborate and cynical ruse mentioned earlier where Nazi sports officials “called back” exiled Jewish athletes such as high-jumper Gretel Bergmann and let them think they were actually training to be on German Olympic teams. (In a typically bizarre Nazi twist, Bergmann’s roommate during the training sessions – a weird, giggly 17-year old high jumping girl who was too shy even to shower with Gretel and the other athletes – turned out to be a 17-yr.-old man in drag. He was obviously put there by the Nazis but why? -- to spy on Gretel? Or was this an early attempt to do what the Russians and Eastern Europeans succeeded at doing later in the history of the Games – i.e. entering male athletes in women’s games to garner more medals? No one seems to know and few care, but one thing was for sure – that 17-yr.-old young Nazi male constantly mingling with these beautiful women athletes wouldn’t sleep with his roommate Gretel – the penalty in the Third Reich for an Aryan male knowingly having sex with a Jewess was death.)
But the Nazi eagerness to pretend that they were improving their treatment of the Jews and other less-than-human races went far beyond the Jewish-athlete ruse that eventually placated the Americans and allowed AOC president Avery Brundage to bring his teams to Germany with a clear conscience.
The Reich Press Chamber under Goebbels’s Ministry of Propaganda exerted absolute censorship over all German press – radio, film, publishing – and blizzarded their obedient news puppets with constant directives detailing how coverage of the Olympics would be reported by German journalists:
“The racial point of view should not be used in any way in reporting sports
results; above all Negroes should not be insensitively reported – Negroes are
American citizens and must be treated with respect as Americans.”
— Reich Press Chamber, 3 Aug., 1936
Little wonder then, as we shall see, that the “hero of the 1936 Olympics,” black American athlete Jesse Owens – as well as Ralph Metcalfe and other Negro athletes at the games – found their reception in Germany more gracious and accepting than any that they might hope to receive in most parts of the United States in 1936.
The IVth Winter Games of the Modern Olympics were held in the Bavarian-Alps market town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen (only recently opened to this odd idea of winter sports) from Feb. 6 through Feb. 16, 1936. The winter games were small Kartoffeln for the Nazis – more a dry run for their huge summer effort than anything else. And the weather did not cooperate, bringing heavy snow that made it difficult to get around and even difficult for visiting spectators to see many of the events.
But it wasn’t quite as hard in February of 1936 as it would be in August to get glimpses of the Third Reich’s hatred of Jews. Signs along the roads to Garmisch-Partenkirchen showed foreign visitors just a hint of the Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitism. Berlin correspondent William L. Shirer recorded in his diary one such official sign he saw near Ludwigshafen – “Drive Carefully! Sharp Curve! Jews 75 Miles an Hour!”
Such minor oversights might have continued up to and through the summer games if Count Baillet-Latour, the Belgian grand signeur and president of the International Olympic Committee, hadn’t noticed such signs and posters while motoring to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Immediately upon arriving at Garmisch where the VIPs were ensconced, the incensed Baillet-Latour demanded an immediate audience with der Führer. Even in 1936, Reichs-Chancellor Hitler was not accustomed to being yelled at, but Count Baillet-Latour did indeed raise his voice. Such racial invectives, visible to all foreign visitors and spectators of the sacred winter and summer Olympic Games, he shouted, were absolutely unacceptable for a sports festival open to all races, religions, and nations. Hitler answered through tight, white lips that he could not alter “a question of the highest importance within Germany . . . for a small point of Olympic protocol.”
Count Baillet-Latour announced to the Führer that this was no small point of protocol but, indeed, was “a question of the most elemental courtesy” and threatened a cancellation of both the winter and summer games.
As the scene was later described –
“Though stymied a bit at first, Hitler began to talk glibly, exciting himself more
and more while staring at a corner of the ceiling. Soon he seemed oblivious to the
presence of his companion and it was almost as though he was in a sort of trance.
Schmidt ceased translating and waited for ‘the crisis’ to pass – being familiar
with this kind of scene.”
Then the Reichs-Chancellor fell silent. Count Baillet-Latour also remained silent. Suddenly Hitler said, “You will be satisfied. The orders shall be given.” Then Hitler stood up and left the room.
When Baillet-Latour returned to Brussels by car, all of the anti-Semitic signs had been removed. They stayed removed until the IVth Winter Games and XIth Summer Games were over.
The Winter Games:
As a dry run for the real Olympics that was all but buried in heavy snow – the strongest auditory memory for many visitors to the 1936 Winter Games was the whine of Mercedeses and other expensive cars’ spinnning wheels as they rocked back and forth trying to get unstuck from the slurry of deep snow and wet clay – the Garmisch-Partenkirchen games were mostly a success for the Nazis.
A few of the foreign correspondents didn’t follow the script. Westbrook Peglar, then a sports reporter for the New York World Telegram, infuriated Goebbels and the Propaganda Ministry by ignoring the völkish grins and goodwill on display everywhere and writing about some 5,000 to 10,000grim-looking S.S. and Wehrmacht troops with their Nazi scuttle helmets and determined looks as they marched and blitzkrieged on nearby winter maneuvers. (Hitler ordered the winter exercises cancelled.)
William Shirer wrote in his diary that week –
“This has been a more pleasant interlude than I expected. Much hard work for
Tess and myself from dawn to midnight covering the Winter Olympics, too many
S.S. troops and military about (not only for me but especially for Westbrook
Peglar!) . . .And on the whole the Nazis have done a wonderful propaganda job.
They’ve greatly impressed most of the visiting foreigners with the lavish but
smooth way in which they’ve run the games and with their kind manners, which to
us who came from Berlin of course seemed staged. I was so alarmed at this that I
gave a luncheon for some of our businessmen and invited Douglas Miller, our
commercial attaché in Berlin, and the best-informed man on Germany we have in
our Embassy, to enlighten them a little. But they told him what things were like,
and Doug scarcely got a word in.”
Shirer’s experience was not unique. Visiting reporters and spectators ignored warnings from correspondents and others who’d been in Germany watching the rise of Nazi super-politics and reported back glowingly to their American and British audiences and friends about how helpful, enthusiastic, and . . . yes . . . eminently civilized their German hosts had been.
The IVth Winter Olympiad was huge compared to the earlier three – more than 1,000 athletes from 28 countries competed – but in a sense there were only two people of importance there, two superstars that dominated coverage, conversation, and attention: Sonja Henie and Adolf Hitler.
Henie, most often clothed in white satin, had been the figure skating gold-medal-winning star of the 1929 St. Moritz games and the 1932 Lake Placid games and arrived as a superstar at the 1936 games. When a young English upstart named Cecelia Colledge startled everyone by finishing only three points behind Henie in the compulsory figures and both women advanced to the freestyle skating so close, Sonja Henie gave the performance of her life, winning the gold.
Balancing Henie’s white-satined domination of the spotlight was the nearly silent black-leather-coated figure of Adolf Hitler. Everything about the man suggested restrained power and charisma to those watching and his silence during public appearances at the games merely underlined his maturity and civilized, welcoming behavior. The phrase that was coalescing around Hitler at the winter games was . . . the Man of the Hour. Almost singlehandedly, this Man of the Hour had pulled Germany out of an economic depression and inflation and jobless crisis that made America’s problems look paltry in comparison. And now the Man of the Hour was bringing Germany fully back into the community of nations and helping to show his Fatherland’s kinder, gentler side.
Sonja Henie and Adolf Hitler were seen together much of the time at the winter games. Hitler could be seen smiling and making sotto voce comments and Miss Henie would laugh delightedly. Hundreds and even thousands of nearby onlookers would smile while the flashbulbs popped and newsreel cameras ground. Whenever she was seen with Hitler, Henie wore a dress of close-fitting white satin that showed off her Aryan form to full advantage, a tight cap with white feathers, and a perfect white corsage. The rumors buzzed through the Garmisch-Partenkirchen games like an electric current – was it a corsage from Him?
The closing ceremonies of the Nazi winter games were not patterned on previous simple winter Olympiad festivals but drew directly from the pageantry of the Nuremberg rallies. Just as the winter twilight fell, all of the medal winners assembled at the ski stadium and received rapid but sincere gratulations from the Man of the Hour who, if the medal-winners were Germans, graciously and maturely received their stiff-armed Nazi salute and returned it with that unique, lax, almost limp-wristed and open-palmed return salute that only Adolf Hitler was allowed to use.
As full darkness fell, line after line of massed skiers carrying torches flowed down the ski runs on all the surrounding mountains – the first time that had ever been seen at the games (although it’s been replicated ever since) – and suddenly an immense fireworks display erupted over the valley. As the smoke from the fireworks filled the sky and the last of the torch-carrying skiers reached the bottom, massed ranks of anti-aircraft searchlights stabbed their beams into the sky, creating a single, slim colonnade of light that seemed to reach to the heavens.
The organizers and Ministry of Propaganda had learned some lessons in advance of the real games to start in August. First, keep army maneuvers out of sight. Second, quit having the countless loudspeakers interrupt the proceedings constantly with their barked announcements which always began – “Achtung! Achtung!” Third, keep the coarse, usually drunken day-tripping Bavarian peasants away from the summer games. Fourth, if at all possible, keep Westbrook Peglar out of the country.
And so forth.
A Rhineland Interlude:
On March 7, less than a month after the IVth Winter Olympics closed in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and six months before the huge Summer Games were scheduled to begin, Hitler did what history would show he did best – tear up treaties, invade, and occupy.
I believe that some discussion of Hitler’s bold move to occupy the Rhineland is relevant here because it gives the lie to the oft-repeated cliché that the Olympic Games exert a “moderating effect” on regimes bent on internal oppression, external aggression, or civil war. Later examples would include the Tokyo summer games of 1940 (which Japan cancelled the better to get on with their invasion of China), the USSR in 1980 (which invaded Afghanistan during the last stages of preparing for the Games), the Sarajevo winter games (where one of the most genocidal civil wars in 20th Century European history was bubbling up), and others undoubtedly yet to come.
Today the Rhineland and the Treaty of Locarno are hardly fodder for frequent conversation, but the treaty itself had been the crown jewel of 1920’s diplomacy and the ‘20’s and ‘30’s may have been the busiest period for diplomacy, or at least treaty-making, in the history of the world. Sir Austen Chamberlain (half-brother to Neville) shared the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in brokering the treaty (the 1926 Prize also went to negotiators of the Treaty of Locarno.) All in all, the seven separate agreements negotiated in Locarno (Switzerland) in October of 1925 were seen as the keystone to international peace to the extent that all future diplomatic efforts in Europe were hoped to be carried out in “the spirit of Locarno.”
On March 7, 1936, Hitler went to the Reichstag and tore up the Treaty of Locarno while announcing – to an audience that leapt to its feet in an orgy of Sig Heils and stiff-armed salutes – that he had just sent 35,000 troops across the border of the demilitarized zone into the Rhineland.
The Rhineland was a band of German territory some 30 to 70 miles wide that bordered Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and – more than any of these others – France. Articles 42 and 43 of the Versailles Treaty had specified that all of the Rhineland was to be completely demilitarized – no troops or fortifications allowed, no exceptions – and the 1926 Treaty of Locarno between Germany, France, Belgium, Britain, and Italy specified that the first three signatories promised not to attack each other (or use the Rhineland for any military purpose) while the latter two nations, Britain and Italy, were to act as guarantors. In the event of aggression on the part of any of the first three states, the remaining parties were obliged to assist the nation under attack.
When the Locarno Treaty went into effect, Europe and the world celebrated and then rewarded Germany by admitting it to the League of Nations and by withdrawing the last of the occupying Allied troops from the Rhineland. That withdrawal was completed in June of 1930, before Hitler came to power.
The Treaty of Versailles had also – obviously – prohibited the military rearming of Germany, but Hitler had unilaterally violated that proviso, first trying to conceal the incredible armaments race he’d authorized (this rearmament being one of the primary reasons, along with huge public works projects, by which the Nazis had succeeded in spending Germany’s way out of the economic, unemployment, and inflation crises) and then, as Britain and France showed indifference to his illegal rearmament, openly flaunting the Third Reich’s huge push to rearm. But by 1936, the German military was nowhere near the juggernaut it would be in three years. Nor was the German Army and High Command – most of whom had opposed the Nazis rise to power – yet fully in Adolf Hitler’s pocket. A general mobilization of the huge, well-equipped French army in response to Hitler’s violation of the Treaty of Locarno and de facto invasion of the Rhineland would have – and there is a strong historical consensus on this – not only easily thrown the German soldiers out of the Rhineland (the German High Command warned Hitler of this and had prepared plans to retreat in haste) but would also would have undermined Hitler’s Nazi regime’s still tenuous grip on power within Germany.
When the German General Staff was informed of the invasion on March 6 – only one day before the S.S. and regular troops marched – they were so horrified that they convinced Hitler “to use as weak a force as possible in order to cut losses to minimum in case of a French counter measure.” (And one must remember that under the provisions of the Treaty of Locarno, France, England, and the other signatories, were required to respond.)
Hitler, of course, was gambling on the Allies’ lack of will. But it was a huge gamble. If the 35,000 German troops had been thrown out of the Rhineland by combined French-British-Belgian forces acting as police enforcing the Treaty, the Man of the Hour would have become the Putz of the Hour. On the day that Hitler announced to the Reichstag the news of his throwing out of the Treaty and the presence of German troops in the Rhineland, Germany’s military preparations were simply inadequate. He had made his first major move of aggression in Europe prematurely. The entire future of Hitler and his so-far theoretical Third Reich now depended upon the reaction of the Allies – who had both overwhelming military superiority and international law behind them if they acted.
Hitler himself later remembered those anxious hours –
“The forty-eight hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-
wracking in my life. If the French had marched into the Rhineland we would have
had to withdraw with our tails between our legs, for the military resources at our
disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance.”
To the credit of the disarrayed French government, who knew that a general mobilization would have been very difficult at that time (because of upcoming elections and the pressure it would put on the heavily devalued franc), it was prepared to send troops in. It was the French military, primarily General Gamelin, the Chief of the General Staff, who resisted the idea. The previous November, when the idea that the Germans might reoccupy the Rhineland was first broached in France, Gamelin had asked the French government what its reaction should be and the answer was that the French government would take the matter up with the League of Nations. With that sort of political lack of will already evident, General Gamelin and the General Staff thought it wiser to avoid mobilization and to concentrate their thirteen divisions near the German border, reinforcing their “impregnable” Maginot Line.
Still, that was enough to scare the zauerkraut out of the German high command. As German General Jodl later testified at the Nuremberg trials, “Considering the situation we were in, the French covering army could have blown us to pieces.”
If they had, as we discussed above, it would have in all likelihood meant the political downfall of Adolf Hitler. One person who believed this was Adolf Hitler who wrote – “A retreat on our part would have spelled collapse.”
Why didn’t the French act? One reason lay in the supineness of their strongest ally, Britain.
The French Foreign Minister, Pierre Étienne Flandin, flew to London on March 11 and begged the British government to back France in a military counteraction in the Rhineland. The pleas were rejected. Even though the Allies had such staggering military superiority over Hitler’s Germany at the time, England was not going to risk war – war – because of a few tens of thousands of German troops in the Rhineland and the violation of the major treaty of their era.
As Lord Lothian remarked, “The Germans, after all, are only going into their back garden.”
(One is tempted to wonder if Afghanistan was the Soviet Union’s “back garden” and if Taiwan might be China’s.)
Anthony Eden, who had become Foreign Secretary in December, told the House of Commons on March 9, “Occupation of the Rhineland by the Reichswehr deals a heavy blow to the principle of the sanctity of treaties. Fortunately, we have no reason to suppose that Germany’s present action threatens hostilities.”
Hitler was confusing the issue with a tactic he was to use during each of his subsequent invasions and land grabs in Europe until the actual war started three years later, announcing – even as his soldiers marched – a wide series of “earnest and sincere” peace proposals, including a twenty-five year treaty absolutely guaranteeing peace and an offer to “demilitarize” both sides of the border between France and Germany.
This latter offer, while treated seriously in England and the United States, did not much impress General Gamelin or the disspirited French General Staff, since it would have meant that they would have had to dismantle the huge Maginot Line fortifications, built purely for defense, while the German legions – designed purely for offense (much as were the Soviet forces and the Chinese military today) – would have merely had to pull back a few kilometers to other staging areas.
The Times of London, in a fair and balanced editorial stance not totally unfamiliar to American readers today, “deplored” Germany’s “precipitive action” but saw the whole thing as yet another opportunity for dialogue and diplomacy and headed its leading editorial “A CHANCE TO REBUILD.”
In snowy Garmisch-Partenkirchen the previous month, the suave Adolf Hitler had been the Man of the Hour. Now the neophyte on the international diplomatic and military scene had – in one bold, unopposed move – reversed the entire European balance of power in Germany’s favor. As one British newspaper headline shouted – “WHAT A MAN!”
Hitler agreed with that headline. During the same March 7 speech to the Reichstag in which he announced his unilateral revocation of the Treaty of Locarno and the occupation of the Rhineland, Hitler added – almost as an aside –
“Today I have therefore decided to dissolve the German Reichstag so that the
German people may pass judgment on my leadership and on that of my
associates. During these three years Germany has regained her honor, refound
her faith, conquered the greatest economic distress, and finally inaugurated a
new cultural advance.”
This refendum – the last free vote that German citizens would see until long after Hitler was dead, Berlin in ruins, and Germany shattered – simply meant that all power would now reside not in the German parliament, not even in the State, but in the person of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi stooges.
In a huge wave of ceremonies and propaganda blitzes in the days before the election – a simple yes or no referendum on Hitler’s new absolute power – Dr. Goebbels proclaimed, “Hitler is Germany!” This reality was essentially what the German people were asked to ratify.
Thousands of foreigners and German citizens had come to the IVth winter games at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in February andmarveled at the German Chancellor. By the time they returned to celebrate the XIth Summer Games in August, they would be looking at the absolute Führer.
Opening Day of the 1936 Summer Olympic Games:
August 1st, the opening day of the games of the XIth Olympiad, was a beautiful,warm, clear summer day.
More than 110,000 people had filled the benches and standing areas of the world’s newest and largest stadium to watch the most carefully and cleverly thought-out festival in the history of the world. 20,000 doves, delivered by 100 vans, rustled and cooed in their cages under the stands, awaiting their big moment. Leni Riefensahl, formerly Adolf Hitler’s “favorite actress” and now his favorite filmmaker after she’d made (at his direction) the amazing documentary “Triumph of the Will” to bring the glories of the Nuremberg Nazi rallies to the millions of Germans who could not attend in person, checked to make sure that her small army of film photographers and movie cameras and cranes and moving dollies were locked and loaded and ready to go.
Overhead, the gigantic airship Hindenberg dominated the sky (Riefenstahl had cameras aboard it as well), its gigantic tail blazoned with the huge black broken-cross in the white circle in the red square.
A little before the opening hour of four p.m., a long string of black, open, four-door Mercedes convertibles left the Chancellry – Hitler was riding with Count Baillet-Latour and Dr. Lewald, the head of the German Olympic Committee – and made its way down the newly widened and renamed Via Triumphalis.
Berlin was literally adrape in tens of thousands of flags. The five-ring Olympic Flag was seen everywhere but was always subordinated to the larger and more numerous Nazi Swastika flags. If a German train had the Olympic flag on its engine, all of the cars were draped with Swastika flags. Every major public building was awash in red Swastika banners. More than 40,000 Storm Troopers and other Nazi guard corpsmen kept the ten-mile boulevard clear of straining crowds stretching twenty to thirty deep all along the route. All of the Storm Troopers and many of the viewers wore Nazi armbands.
A few minutes before four o’clock, the autos stopped at the Maifeld – the huge Field of May just west of the gigantic stadium – and Adolf Hitler descended from the imposing touring car and walked across the grass in front of massed ranks of Olympic competitors, all standing in formation and awaiting their own march into the stadium. Then Hitler led the other VIPs through the tunnel and the so-called “Marathon Gate” into the roaring stadium.
The two top Olympic officials – and the gaggle of other Olympic officials who followed them, mixed in with top Nazi officials – wore frock coats, striped trousers, and spats. Draped around their necks like heavy albatrosses were heavy and clumsy gold “Olympic chains of office” – another invented new “tradition” of the busily inventive Dr. Carl Diem. Most of Hitler’s cronies were in full military uniform and some wore steel helmets; Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, wore his self-designed sky blue Feldmarshal uniform. Field Marshal von Mackensen made a slight concession to the sensibilities of the Olympics by parading without the death’s head insignia on his black busby; he would never again appear in public without it.
Hitler – who strolled casually, setting the pace – wore the simple brown uniform of a Storm Trooper and high, polished boots.
As the former Chancellor, now Führer, emerged from the Marathon Gate, thirty electronically amplified trumpets blared a fanfare. Richard Strauss – Germany’s most famous (and perhaps oldest) living composer – directed a chorus of 3,000 crystaline voices singing “Deutschland über Alles” and the Nazi fighting song “Horst Wesselied” and then performed the brand new “Olympic Hymn,” which the elderly and ailing Strauss had written specially for the occasion.
At one point during Hitler’s leisurely stroll to the reviewing stand, a little blonde girl in a blue dress emerged from the crowd, curtsied, and handed Hitler a small boquet of flowers. The little girl was Dr. Carl Diem’s five-year-old daughter. More than a hundred thousand people were said to have sighed in unison.
As the music faded, the huge Olympic Bell atop the Glockenturm at the Maifeld finally began clanging its “I summon the youth of the world” command.
Soon the march of the athletes began and the German spectators were delighted to see that, to accommodate their German hosts, the IOC and other Olympic planners had created a brand new “tradition” of an “Olympic salute” which very closely resembled the Nazi Heil-salute, except that the open hand, palm down, was held off to the side rather than forward. Thus the thousands of athletes saluted Hitler as they passed. The Austrians greeted der Führer with the standard Nazi salute and all of the German spectators roared and applauded their approval. The smaller team of Bulgarians tried to outdo the Austrians by not only giving the Nazi salute, but by dipping their flag so low that it dragged in the track cinders, all while doing a high-stepping goose step. Then – incredibly – all 250 members of the French team, dressed in blue blazers, white trousers, and blue berets, in unison, extended their stiff arms out in a palm-down Nazi salute as they passed. Almost 100,000 Germans went nuts. (Later, the French athletes and coaches and organizers said that they’d meant it to be the Olympic salute, although most admitted that they’d been carried away . . . snapping the Nazi Sig Heil salute is a powerful gesture.)
There were a few downers for the Germans. The British team – Grossbritanien – in their straw hats merely executed a simple “eyes right” salute as they passed Hitler’s Tribune of Honor reviewing stand. The German crowd murmured and hissed. But there came for them an even more irritating moment.
Three hundred and thirty-eight Americans were marching last in order that day under the sign reading Vereiningten Staaten. All other nations had correctly dipped their flags according to Olympic protocol as they passed Adolf Hitler, the patron of the games, but the Americans – unknown to almost all of the German spectators – had another and real tradition. During the contentious London games in 1908, the American team had marched past the Royal Box without dipping its flag, the pugnacious flagbearer that day declaring, “This flag dips for no earthly king.” That impertinent tradition had been continued in later Olympics and continues to this day.
But what about 1936? The man leading the American contingent, AOC president Avery Brundage, wanted no unpleasant moments with their gracious German hosts, but the actual decision about dipping the flag came down to the marching standard bearer, Alfred Joachim, a seven-time winner of the American all-round gymnastics championship. As the huge American team marched past Hitler, heads snapped “eyes right,” straw hats came off and went over their hearts, and Joachim’s flag . . . stayed high.
There came the slightest pattering of applause from the few thousand American spectators and then a shocked, sullen silence from 100,000 Germans. Then murmuring. Then some low whistles and stampings of disapproval. Hitler’s reaction, if there was one, was not recorded.
Then, as the athletes took their places around the field, there came a phonograph-recorded message from the ancient and ailing Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the Modern Olympic Games, and then an endless 20-minute speech from head of the German Olympic Committee, Dr. Lewald, and finally Adolf Hitler advanced to the microphone and gave what must certainly be the shortest and tersest speech of his entire Führer-career – “I announce as opened the Games of Berlin, celebrating the eleventh Olympiad of the modern era.”
Suddenly a hundred Nuremberg-rally quality things were happening at once on the field and around the stadium – Hitler Youths opened cages and the 20,000 doves took flight, 3,000 white-clad members of the chorus bellowed out the new Olympic Hymn again, a new, gigantic Olympic Flag was raised on a tall flag pole in the center of the field, a hundred sailors along the entire skyline around the stadium simultaneously raised all the national banners around the rim of the giant bowl, trumpeters trumpeted, aircraft flew over, the Hindenberg hinenberged, batteries of guns fired off a 21-gun salute and then – as the chorus voices and spectators’ cheers silenced – a single, beautiful youth trotted through the Marathon Gate and into the stadium carrying the sacred flame ignited by the Greek sun, the flame carried by 3,000 runners across Europe from the altar at ancient Olympia. The boy handed the Torch of the Sacred Flame off to the next runner and he to the next until the last runner climbed the steps to the high, waiting cauldron. There he rose to his toes, hesitated a breathless second – 110,000 people waited without breathing – and then the Youth dipped the torch into the cauldron, igniting the Olympic Flame.
As Strauss conducted an orchestra playing the “Hallelujuah Chorus” from Messiah, the audience went nuts. They had never seen anything like this before. But we have, in all of the Olympics since 1936.
There were more festivities then and later that night, of course. At 9 p.m. the 110,000 seats filled up again for a “Pageant of Youth” devised by the indefatigable Dr. Carl Diem. Here 10,000 gymnastic participants – row after row of beautiful boys and girls – swayed and stretched and furled and unfurled banners like “animate tulips” and leaped and jumped and frolicked. This sort of mass gymnastics ritual was big in Germany at the time – they called it Turnerschaften (after its inventor, named . . . Turner) – and I confess that it’s led me to devise a minor principle that goes, more or less – “If you find yourself in a nation that can turn out tens of thousands of boys and girls on a weekend for mass gymnastics demonstrations, you’re in the wrong country.”
Perhaps the biggest and most enchanted fan of all this pageantry was the Führer. Having been installed under the new and bogus title of “Patron of the Games,” Adolf Hitler behaved with decorum and restraint throughout the entire Olympics. Hundreds of thousands of Germans turned out just to see and adore him. Foreign kings, members of Europe’s royal houses, representatives from democracies and police states, and sober men from the world’s diplomatic corps – many of whom had previously expressed some anxiety about Nazi ambitions -- now scrambled to be seen in Hitler’s presence.
And so the daily games and nightly parties began.
The Games of the 1936 Nazi Summer Olympics:
As for the games themselves. . . well, who cares? The athletes did, of course – I’ve spoken to at least one old man who competed that year and was proud of his medal – and the nations who sent and supported those athletes cared, but within a very few years many of those young men would be dead, killed on battlefields or in bombed cities around the world, and many of the nations themselves would be laid waste and devastated, some actually ceasing to exist as political entities.
Do you really want to know who won the gold medal in bobsledding in the winter of 1936 or for gliding or tennis or volleyball or rowing in the summer of 1936?
For most Americans today, perhaps for most of the world, the condensed, 12-second, TV-anchorman, brain-damaged summary of the 1936 Olympic Games might go something like this – “Although the Nazis tried to show that they were a Master Race, American black track-and-field star Jesse Owens (and a few of his African-American teammates) showed them all up, winning the important gold medals. Owen’s performance silenced the Nazi fans in the stands and so infuriated Hitler that der Führer stalked off rather than shake the winner’s black hand.”
Well . . . not quite.
Jesse Owens was the “hero” of the XIth Olympic Games, all right, appearing to compete 12 times in track and field events and winning four gold medals. In those final four events, Owens either equaled old Olympic records (in the 100-meter dash) or set new ones (in the broad jump, 200-meter dash, and 400-meter relay.)
Long before Owens appeared in Berlin, the German illustrated magazines had played up his athletic prowess and the German fans at the games cheered him on, chanting “Yes-sa Ov-enss! Yes-sa Ov-enss!” To her credit, Leni Riefenstahl made Owens the hero of her film of the games, “Olympia,” which still remains one of the greatest and most beautifully edited sports documentaries ever filmed.
As for Hitler’s snub . . . .
The Führer and patron of the games was in his place on August 2, the first day of competition, when Hans Wöllke broke the Olympic record for shot put (and incidentally became the first German ever to win a gold medal for an Olympic track and field competition.) Wöllke and the third place winner, a German named Gerhard Stöck, were – at Hitler’s request – led to his box for personal congratulations. Shortly after that, Hitler went out of his way to congratulate the entire team of three Finns who’d taken the “grand slam” in the 10,000-meter run. He then greeted Tilly Fleischer and Luise Krüger, Germans who’d taken the gold and silver in the women’s javelin throw. This was while Owens, Metcalfe, and other Americans were competing in the 100-meter dash. The only remaining German competitors were in the high-jump, which was running behind schedule and when the last German was eliminated, Hitler and his entourage left under darkness and threatening rain and thus he wasn’t on hand to shake hands with medalists Cornelius Johnson, David Albritton, and third-place Delos Thurber. The first two were black.
Did Hitler deliberately snub the two black Americans? Our excitable friend Count Baillet-Latour, president of the IOC, thought so and went storming in to see Hitler yet again, reminding the Führer that he was merely a guest at the Olympics and demanding that Hitler congratulate all winners – or none. Hitler merely shrugged and said that he would congratulate none (although he continued to meet with German winners in private to warmly congratulate them.)
Later, Hitler said to Baldur von Schirach – “The Americans ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting their medals be won by Negroes. I myself would never even shake hands with one of them.”
So did Jesse Owens feel snubbed? Not at the time. As a recipient of more cheers, publicity, and adulation ever offered any athlete in the history of the Olympic games, Owens enjoyed it all and told the press that he’d caught sight of Hitler one day and, “When I passed the Chancellor he arose, waved his hand at me, and I waved back at him. I think the writers showed bad taste in criticizing the man of the hour in Germany.”
Owens himself showed more bad judgment in the Berlin games than bad taste. In his last track event, Owens was leading by two meters when – by his own admission, “on a whim” – he slowed to let his pal Ralph Metcalfe pass him. Metcalf’s time was 10.3, Owens’s 10.4, and Jesse later realized that in slowing down he’d let the chance of a lifetime slip away in not setting the world record of 10.2. Immediately after the games, Owens was paid to take part in some exhibitions in Scandinavia and the A.A.U. promptly suspended his amateur status. Upon arriving in New York, Jesse Owens received his own private ticker tape parade up Broadway. The rest of the U.S. Olympic Team arrived home later.
Opinions and Conclusions:
You may have picked up that I do not believe the eternally repeated profession by AOC and then IOC president Avery Brundage and so many other Olympics officials, fans, and atheletes, of – “Sports are above politics.” This is twaddle. In both the 20th and now our 21st Century, sports frequently are politics – as witnessed first by the nationalizing and politicization of sports for regime purposes by Germany and Japan, then by the USSR and eastern European nations. To say that athletes are above politics is nonsense. Even scientists, who so frequently proclaim their allegiance to ideals far above politics, have shown us over and over how those ethics change rapidly – as when the great minds in Germany, Japan, the USA, and elsewhere worked on atomic bombs – when international and national politics inevitably intrude on the private sphere.
In my opinion, sports and politics both are fields that offer almost infinite chances for their participants to prostitute themselves. Whoring in sports can be tragic for the individual and fans. Whoring in politics is . . . well . . . considered business as usual. But combining politics and sports – which every Olympics does – can have epically tragic consequences.
With all of the talk about Jesse Owens, one fact about the 1936 Nazi Olympics is often forgotten . . . German athletes there had an amazing showing of medals and record-breaking performances. Never before in the history of the Olympics had one nation come out of nowhere to shine so brilliantly for only one Olympic Games. The Nazi athletes who outdid themselves during those Olympics – much like the Nazi mountain climbers who were planting the Swastika on every unclimbed summit in the Alps and elsewhere – literally outdid themselves, rose to the occasion in almost literally superhuman efforts, Sig Heiled their Führer from the award stands, and then just blended back into the masses of mediocre athletes with Swastika armbands. If Leni Riefenstahl hadn’t already used the title on her first film, she could have justly named her Olympiad movie “Triumph of the Will.”
The most outspoken advocate of “Sports is above politics,” Avery Brundage, was President of the International Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972. He opposed women in sports – saying in 1936, “"I am fed up to the ears with women as track and field competitors... her charms sink to something less than zero. As swimmers and divers, girls are [as] beautiful and adroit as they are ineffective and unpleasing on the track." Even after the decades of revelations of how Hitler and the Nazis had used the XIth Olympiad for their own propaganda purposes, Brundage continued to insist as late as 1971 – “"The Berlin Games were the finest in modern history...I will accept no dispute over that fact."
They certainly were, as the phrase goes . . . seminal. With each succeeding Olympics, the host nation tries to outdo all previous hosts in terms of the hyperbolic pageantry and constantly evolving “traditions” in the Nuremberg sense of bigger, louder, and more pagan. In a real sense, all of the Olympics pageantry we’ve watched since – and will watch again – is the 1936 Olympics.
A German newspaper in 1936 summed up the Nazis’ and majority of German people’s opinion about their Olympics –
“The preparations rested on the totality of the nationalist art of government and
its fundamental idea of the community of the whole people. The world stands in
admiration before this work because it has totalitarian character. Without unitary
will, that which today has astonished the world would have been impossible. It is
the supreme achievement of the totalitarian state.”
Endings and Aftermaths:
The actual 1936 Olympics ended on Sunday, August 16. The closing ceremonies were . . . elaborate.
As the Sacred Olympic Fire dimmed, dimmed, dimmed into the darkness, a voice over the loudspeaker system cried out – “I summon the youth of the world to Tokyo!” The three flags now flying in the stadium were the blue and white flag of Greece – the originator of the Games, the red, white, and black Swastika flag of Germany, and the Rising Sun of Japan.
In the darkness, more than 100,000 people rose to their feet and began singing a new farewell hymn – one of more than a dozen composed for the Nazi Olympics – “The Games Are Ended.”
Even if the sun should sink for us,
Others will beckon.
And then it was dark.
Foreign spectators started to file out, but the majority of the 100,000 or so Germans remained standing silently in the stadium darkness. And then the silence turned to scattered shouts which transformed into a cadenced, disciplined screaming that rose up and again filled the stadium with noise –
Unser Führer Adolf Hitler!
In the spring of 1937, Albert Speer – Hitler’s pet architect at the time who was given the job of planning an entire New Berlin, built on an inhuman scale so colossal that nothing like it has been seen on Earth since the time of the pharaohs – showed Hitler the plans and models for the new Olympic Stadium that Hitler had ordered. This new stadium would hold more than 400,000 people – four times what the giant Berlin stadium had held – and would be the largest single facility ever built for sports or any other public spectacle.
Speer felt that he should point out to the Führer that the proposed structure would meet neither the specifications of the International Olympic Committee nor the requirements of any athletic events ever conceived.
Hitler brushed this aside and said, “No matter. In 1940 the Olympic Games will take place in Tokyo. But thereafter they will take place in Germany for all time to come, in this stadium. And then we will determine the measurements of the athletic field.”
Projected completion date for the new stadium was spring of 1945.