New film tells story of Olympic gender trick in Nazi Germany

A new film soon to hit screens in Germany tells the true story of a female Jewish high-jumper whom the Nazis excluded from the 1936 Berlin Olympics, picking instead a man in drag - who came fourth.

New film tells story of Olympic gender trick in Nazi Germany
Photo: DPA

By a quirk of the calendar, the film – “Berlin 36” – premiered just days after a row over the gender of Caster Semenya, a South African 800m runner, marred the World Athletics Championships held in the very same stadium.

“Berlin 36” tells the story of Gretel Bergmann, a record-breaking German high-jumper who fled Nazi Germany but was forced to return to “prove” Hitler was allowing Jewish athletes to compete in the 1936 Games.

Exiled in Britain, Bergmann became national high-jump champion there in 1934 but soon found herself a pawn in Hitler’s bid for international respectability.

Concerned the United States might boycott the Olympics, the Nazis pressured Bergmann to compete, making it clear her family left behind in Germany would suffer the consequences if she refused.

She returned from Britain and duly broke the German high-jump record in the run-up to the 1936 Games.

But when the Nazis were sure the ship bearing the US athletes had already left dock, Bergmann was spectacularly dropped from the team, with so-called “Aryans” Elfriede Kaun and Dora Ratjen chosen instead.

Bergmann received a letter from Germany’s Athletics Association saying: “Based on your recent performances, you will yourself not have thought you were going to be selected.” Ending the letter “Heil Hitler,” the association offered her a place in the stands at the Olympic Stadium – scant reward for years of training.

Elfriede Kaun and Dora Ratjen came third and fourth respectively in the high jump. Only one problem: “Dora” Ratjen later turned out to be “Heinrich,” who had grown his hair long and shaved his legs for the occasion.

In 1938, his performances were expunged from the records and he was eventually packed off to the front as a soldier.

It is not clear whether the Nazis knew Ratjen was in fact male. Bergmann, now 95 and living in the United States, said she herself had had no idea.

“I never suspected anything,” she told Der Spiegel news weekly. “We all wondered why she never appeared naked in the shower. To be so shy at the age of 17 seemed grotesque. But we just thought: well, she’s weird, she’s strange.”

“There was a door to a private bathroom but we were not allowed in there. Only Dora could go in. But for years, I never had any suspicions,” she said.

But she is in no doubt that Hitler stole from her an Olympic gold medal.

“I would have won gold, nothing else,” she said. “I wanted to show to the Germans and to the world that Jews were not these terrible people, not fat, ugly and disgusting as we were portrayed. I wanted to show that a Jewish girl could beat the Germans in front of 100,000 people.”

While she was livid at her exclusion, she was not surprised.

“I knew from the beginning, from 1934, that they would find a way to exclude me, to shut me out and I was scared day and night,” she told the Der Tagesspiegel daily. “Would they break my legs? Murder me?”

The only consolation to her exclusion was that she was released from the agony of deciding whether to perform the Nazi straight-arm salute on the podium, she said.

Eventually, she emigrated to New York in 1937 with the equivalent of four dollars in her pocket.

As poverty loomed, she postponed her athletics career and took a job doing odd jobs. That year, she met and married Bruno Lambert and became Margaret Bergmann-Lambert.

She was not long out of the athletics vest, though, and she scooped the United States shot put and high-jump championships in 1937, winning the latter event again the following year.

She swore never to return to Germany again, nor to speak the language. Only more than 60 years later did she step on German soil, to attend the inauguration of a stadium named after her in her southern hometown of Laupheim.

She said she was a fan of the film, in which her story is played by German actress Karoline Herfurth, praising both her acting and sporting skills.

“I enjoyed the film. I hope it shows that such a thing should never, ever happen again.”

And she is not slow to note the ultimate irony of the story. The gold was eventually won by a Hungarian athlete, Ibolya Csak.

“A Jew,” she pointed out.

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What’s behind Germany’s obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

Forget the Bundestag. If you want to understand German politics - and see how lively it can really be - turn on your (almost nightly) talk show.

What's behind Germany's obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

It may well be one of the most German things imaginable – a roundtable discussion designed to give a fair amount of time to a wide range of viewpoints before (maybe) achieving some sort of consensus.

Failing that, viewers – theoretically anyway – walk away better informed and open to changing some of their opinions after a, again theoretically, respectful discussion.

Welcome to the German political talk show circuit – a collection of moderated roundtable discussions.

Whether its Anne Will on Sunday nights, “Hart aber fair” or “tough but fair” on Mondays, or Maybrit Illner on Thursdays and Markus Lanz on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays – you can tune into several political panels a week if you fancy.

If you have politically-minded German friends or co-workers, you might ask: “Did you watch Lanz last night?” Anecdotally, at least as many people who watch will have strong opinions about why they don’t.

Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk makes a video appearance (left video) on the Markus Lanz show on 10 March 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Cornelia Lehmann

“Lanz is a disgrace!” and “I don’t watch Anne Will out of principle!” are both phrases I’ve heard myself more than a few times over the years.

But if you are a fan and you miss an episode, don’t worry – many news outlets will run summaries of what happened during said roundtable the next morning.

“Newspapers regularly publish these recaps almost as if they were relevant parliamentary meetings,” says Peter Littger, a columnist on language and culture in Germany. “It’s super relevant politically. It can increase your voting base and certainly your book sales if you appear there.”

READ ALSO: Tatort to Temptation Island: What do Germans like to watch on TV?

‘Consensus-oriented political culture’

If the nationally-focused ones aren’t enough for you, there’s a good chance you can find a show on a regional broadcaster focusing on issues in your federal state, again in – you guessed it – roundtable format.

As you might have gathered, the show’s name is often the same as its host, who functions first and foremost as a moderator there to facilitate and mediate a discussion between guests who are chosen specifically to balance a panel.

For a discussion on Ukraine, for example, you’ll regularly have people from every political party, from ministers and high-ranking parliamentarians who chair important Bundestag committees to pro-Russian voices from the German Left Party and far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

And no one is too high-ranking not to make at least the occasional appearance. Chancellor Olaf Scholz himself joined a Maybrit Illner roundtable on July 7th this year.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears on the Maybrit Illner show on 7 July 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Svea Pietschmann

Both European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba have also made appearances on Anne Will this year.

In characteristically German fashion, state broadcasters have extensive written regulations to ensure a panel also has a balance of people from relevant expert disciplines. For instance, a coronavirus panel may well feature a notable doctor alongside a civil liberties lawyer.

“Germany has a more consensus-oriented political culture than you might see in a country like the UK, for example, which is more confrontational and even adversarial,” says Sebastian Ludwicki-Ziegler a PhD researcher at the University of Stirling’s Department of Communications, Media, and Culture.

“You’ll still get some invited guests who are very contrarian and even aggressive – like Thilo Sarrazin (a former politician who wrote a controversial book in 2010 about Muslim immigration to Germany) for example. But even then, the moderator often tries to maintain a softer, more civil tone.”

Ludwicki-Ziegler says that while the roundtable format reflects German political culture, it also reflects its institutional setup. A show producer can simply get more obvious ranges of political opinion in a country with Germany’s proportional representation, which has seven parties in parliament.

Historic roundtables

Unlike the often subdued German Bundestag though, German talk shows can certainly get lively, or even historic.

Perhaps the most notable TV roundtable happened right after the 2005 federal election. With then incumbent Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder having finished only one percent behind Christian Democrat Angela Merkel when all the votes were counted, party leaders gathered in the traditional “Elefantenrunde,” or yes, the “Elephant’s round,” to discuss the results.

READ ALSO: Talking elephants and grumpy politicians: Four things that will happen after the German elections

With the final election result having been so close, observers still discuss whether Schröder lost his chancellorship at the ballot box or during the 2005 Elefantenrunde. In contrast to a calm Merkel, Schröder insisted he would stay on as Chancellor.

Brash and arrogant, some observers have asked whether he was drunk at the time. German media outlets ran anniversary pieces looking back at his disastrous roundtable performance 5, 10, and 15 years later. One such anniversary piece from 2020 called the roundtable “Schröder’s embarrassing end.”

The 2005 post-election roundtable, or “Elefantenrunde,” is considered by many German political observers to be the disastrous end to former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder;s political career. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | ZDF/Jürgen_Detmers

Mastering the roundtable appearance is a big plus for a German politician, or anyone else looking to move the needle of German public opinion.

Satisfying a particularly German impulse, you can certainly also walk away feeling like you’ve considered all sides. But are there drawbacks?

On 8 May 2022’s edition of Anne Will, social psychologist Harald Welzer appeared to lecture Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk that 45 percent of Germans were against delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine because of German war history. Many observers criticised Welzer for patronising the Ambassador of a country at war about the need to have weapons for its own self-defense.

The exchange, and a fair few others, lead some experts to wonder whether the roundtable format so many German political talk shows seem to love gives too big a platform to pro-Russian voices or to controversial writers like the aforementioned Thilo Sarrazin.

“If we take Germany and Ukraine as one example, you can get some great guests who come on and really set things straight with facts, data, and plain talk,” says Benjamin Tallis, a Fellow in German Security Policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“But you can get false balance. You’ll get people on with rather fringe opinions given a platform against people who have a lot more experience and evidence. That’s true in a lot of places now, sure, but this talk show format really lends itself to that because of the amount of guests you need on a nightly basis,” says Tallis.

“Unfortunately in Germany, many guests are invited on based on their opinions about an issue rather than the level of their expertise, in order to try and achieve balance,” says Minna Alander, a specialist in German foreign policy who recently joined the Finnish Institute of International Affairs after more than a decade working in Berlin.

“When you start equating opinion with knowledge, it makes it way more difficult to have a fact-based debate. On matters of life and death, like in Ukraine, that can have a polarising effect.”