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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‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

Germans have an international reputation for enjoying functional clothing. A top German fashion expert told The Local whether the stereotypes of German fashion are really true - and what Angela Merkel has to do with modern style.

‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

‘Comfortable and practical’

“It’s pretty easy to define German style,” says Bernhard Roetzel, the author of books on men’s fashion such as ‘Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion’. “Nowadays the basic dress of a grown-up man is mainly blue jeans, some kind of sweatshirt and an anorak. The shoes are usually comfortable sneakers. This is the basic German fashion that everyone from workers to doctors wears, and it is suitable for 90 percent of occasions.”

The basic theme, he says, is comfort and practicality. “That is very important.”

According to Roetzel, this love for the practical stretches all the way back into the 19th century when most other Europeans still had strict public dress codes.

“It began with a movement called Lebensreform, which valued things like vegetarianism and woollen clothes, which were supposed to be healthy,” he says.

“Even if Germans at the time didn’t like political freedom, they loved the freedom to wear sandals. Freedom for Germans is to wear sandals in places where it is not appropriate!”

A woman lies on the shore of the Schwarzachtalsee in Baden-Württemberg still wearing her sandals. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Thomas Warnack

Dressing down became even more acceptable after the First World War, when Germany became a republic and the aristocracy, with its formal sense of dress, lost its importance. “The Nazis also propagated being active outdoors,” Roetzel notes. “Fashion was seen as something awful created by the French and the Jews to bring about the downfall of German culture.”

When the craze for casual wear crossed the pond from the US in the 1960s, Germans were slow to adopt it. But now jeans are even standard clothing for septuagenarians, he says. “Twenty years after jeans arrived people started to realise that they are great for all occasions – and now everyone wears them. This was the last blow to formal German clothing.”

Dress down for work

The German love for all-purpose clothes means that it is perfectly appropriate to wear jeans to work, according to Roetzel. 

“If you don’t work in a bank or law firm you can probably wear jeans in most offices. A non-iron, short sleeve shirt is also very important. German men love these shirts, despite the fact that you get hot in them.”

You can even wear sneakers in the office. Or, if you have to look a bit smarter “some very cheap, comfortable leather shoes” will make you fit right in.

“In business, it is very important that you don’t stand out,” Roetzel advises. “If you are smartly dressed people will ask if you have an important meeting or will think you are looking for a pay rise. For everyday business, you dress as casually as possible.”

A woman cycles to work in jeans and a simple jacket in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Christin Klose

Nothing too sexy

Meanwhile, women’s workplace style, perhaps even more than men’s, is based on the principle of ‘the more forgettable the better.’

“Women in German business must not look too sexy,” says the fashion writer. “If you wear a skirt, for example, it should not be too short and heels should not be too high.” A “boxy, mouse grey suit” including a jacket that doesn’t complement one’s figure completes the look.

“Whereas in Italy, businesswomen carry Chanel bags, in Germany they usually carry a laptop bag or something very practical. Makeup is also rather reduced, not too much lipstick, nothing that is too obvious,” he says.

No door policy

Ties are basically a redundant piece of apparel in modern Germany, meaning wearing one really is a matter of choice in most settings.

“There are very few places where you are not allowed in if you don’t wear a tie,” says Roetzel. “I don’t know a single restaurant that wouldn’t admit you if you don’t wear a tie. You might not be allowed into Cologne Cathedral if your shorts are too short, but basically, you can wear everything everywhere and Germans love this!”

Funerals and weddings

Even the most formal occasions, such as weddings, funerals and important birthdays are much more informal events than they once were.

“At funerals, people will wear black but they rarely wear a black suit, most people will wear a black sweatshirt and jeans,” says Roetzel.

Copy Merkel

Angela Merkel’s unpretentious style appealed to Germans. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Fabian Sommer

Anyone looking for inspiration need look no further than recently retired German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who famously wore variations on the same trouser suit for most of her career.

“She had different colours and fabrics but that was her uniform and she also found her hairstyle and that was it. I don’t think she had a stylist,” Roetzel says. “That’s what Germans love. It’s recognizable and it doesn’t look expensive.”


“In Germany, one thing you should never admit to is wearing expensive, tailor-made clothes,” he explains. “As a politician, you can admit that you like drinking but you should never admit to having an expensive wardrobe.”

In fact, the cheaper the better. “Olaf Scholz has always earned a lot of money but his clothes are awful, his suits are awful – this is just perfect for Germany,” says Roetzel.

Splash the cash subtly (or on outdoor clothes)

This is not to say that all Germans wear cheap clothes, but they don’t make a big fuss about the brands that they do wear.

“People want to express status by wearing certain brands,” Roetzel points out. “But in Germany, this is done in a very subtle way. You will see small details in the clothes and glasses of a professor or doctor that will tell you a lot. Class exists but people hide their status because it is negative to show it off. This can be hard for foreigners to detect.”

There is one major exemption thought to the rule of not flaunting your wealth – outdoor apparel.

“Outdoor clothes are really a big thing here,” Roetzel says. “It gives people a sense of freedom and healthiness. Spending €800 on an outdoor jacket is perfectly okay. But it is a sin to spend the same amount on a tailor-made suit – you will destroy your image if you admit to doing this.”

Moreover, anyone who wants to impress Germans through their possessions would be better advised to buy a good car or modern kitchen, the fashion expert says. “It is perfectly normal to have a very expensive kitchen, but your clothes should still be cheap.”

Focus on inner beauty

The German (dis)interest in fashion can actually tell us a lot about deeper German values.

“There is an old Prussian saying of mehr sein als schein (content is better than appearance). Germans feel that if something is too beautiful there must be something fishy about it. Anyone who is too smartly dressed could be a conman,” says Roetzel.

“Germans are very honest, they like to be very direct. They say “what’s the point in not wearing sandals if it’s hot?’”