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80 years since the Olympics gave Hitler a propaganda coup

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80 years since the Olympics gave Hitler a propaganda coup
Photo: Penn State University Libraries Architecture and Landscape Architecture Library
15:12 CEST+02:00
Eighty years ago this week Hitler opened the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. The Nazis used the occasion to portray themselves as a tolerant, modern nation.

On August 1st 1936, Hitler launched the Olympic Games before a rapturous crowd of 100,000 spectators in the capital city.

During the two-week competition, the Nazi Party endeavoured to convince the rest of the world that Germany was now a tolerant nation.

Following the First World War and the subsequent economic crisis throughout Europe, Hitler had the opportunity to present himself as a peacemaker, uniting countries in a celebration of diversity.

On the orders of Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, signs reading “Juden verboten” (“Jews forbidden”) were removed from all over the city. In addition, sales of the anti-Semitic flyer “Der Stürmer” were put on hold. From an outsider's perspective, it would have been hard to identify traces of anti-Jewish feeling in the capital.

British journalist William Shirer commented that the Games were a "huge propaganda triumph" for Hitler, observing that "all Jew baiting is officially off in Germany during the Olympics”, according to the New York Times.

But behind the façade of tolerance and equality, the Nazis were carefully hiding their virulent racism from the world.

Three years prior to the Games, an “Aryans-only” policy in sport had been implemented, leading to Germany's top-ranked tennis player Daniel Prenn (who was of Jewish origin) being removed from the Davis Cup team.

By the time the Games rolled around though, this discriminatory policy was masked by a propaganda exercise in which German Jewish fencer, Helene Mayer, was allowed to participate in the competition.

Mayer, whose father was Jewish, went on to win the silver medal in the women's individual fencing and gave the Nazi salute on the podium, providing the world with the impression that the Nazis were tolerant of Jews.

Boycott attempt

France, America, Britain, Sweden, Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands had campaigned for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to cancel the Games, suspecting that human rights were being abused in Germany. The strongest voice for boycotting the Games came from the USA, whose campaign accelerated following the introduction of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws in 1935.

However, the boycott attempt failed, and 49 nations ended up competing in Berlin. The US even brought 312 athletes, the second largest team after Germany's.

Not every country was prepared to give the Nazi regime their tacit approval, though, with Russia and Spain not sending teams to the Games at all.

In a bizarre turn of events, US coaches swapped two American Jewish runners, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, for Ralph Metcalfe and Jesse Owens, the latter of whom went on to win four gold medals and also contributed to setting the world record in four separate events.

There were suspicions that the coaches were themselves anti-Semitic and wanted to spare Hitler the shame of seeing two Jewish people on the podium. However, Stoller himself did not believe that anti-Jewish sentiment was the reason for the swap.

Other countries were not afraid to send Jewish athletes to the Games, a possible indication that the Nazis' massive propaganda effort had convinced them that anti-Jewish sentiment was not rife in the capital. Nine Jewish athletes ended up winning medals. 

Prior to the Olympics, Nazi imagery portrayed so-called “Aryans” (people with blonde hair and blue eyes) as the “master race”, the model of physical strength and fitness. African-Americans, on the other hand, were presented as racially inferior.

Jesse Owens, the superstar African-American track and field athlete, came up against Luz Long, a German with stereotypically “Aryan” features, in the long jump. When he was beaten by Owens, Long was the first person to congratulate the superstar athlete, crossing the “racial” divide and no doubt infuriating Hitler.

The reality behind the Nazis' vast propaganda exercise was that anti-Semitism still plagued Germany, despite their attempts to mask it for a two-week period. In the very same month as the Olympic Games took place, building work started on Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, to the north of Berlin. Between 1936 and 1945, this camp would see around 200,000 prisoners held captive, of which many were Jews.

Furthermore, the celebrated writers Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann had already fled Germany prior to the Olympic Games, presumably out of fear of Hitler's stringent anti-Semitic policies taking on new heights. Mann was married to a Jewish lady and Brecht himself was Jewish.

Perhaps the most significant sign of anti-Jewish sentiment in Berlin, despite the Nazis' attempts to cover it up, was the suicide of the Jewish man who built the Olympic Village.

Captain Wolfgang Fürstner, head of the Olympic Village, was demoted just before the Olympics began due to his Jewish heritage. His successor was given all the credit for the village and an extravagant banquet was held in his honour, after which Fürstner shot himself. The Nazis attempted to mask the horrific event by claiming that he had been killed in a car accident.

Following the Games, the Nazis' persecution of Jews recommenced, with Jewish people being forced to give up their businesses and to leave their jobs at German offices in early 1937.

But was the propaganda effort successful? According to Frankfurter Rundschau, at the closing ceremony of the Games, the then-President of the IOC Henri de Bailett-Latour said, “in amongst these wonderful festivities, the Olympic Games were able to take place in a supportive atmosphere, which was not tainted by any political issues”.

So perhaps Hitler's endeavours were a 'triumph'.

By Verity Middleton

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