Professor of History, Frank McDonough, of LJMU’s School of Humanities and Social Science, explains the instant impact that the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games had on the world – and outlines some of the lasting effects it has had on today’s society.
The most controversial Olympiad the world has seen took place in Berlin in 1936, while Germany was under Nazi control. Hitler’s regime thought the event was an ideal place to showcase Nazi ideals of ‘racial superiority’ which thankfully have no place in today’s society, but in several ways the 1936 Games became the blueprint for the modern Olympics, with a new purpose-built stadium, an athletes’ village and the first ever Olympic flame highlighting the opening ceremony.
The Nazis inaugurated a new Olympic ritual at the opening ceremony. A lone runner arrived bearing a torch carried by relay from the site of the ancient Games in Olympia, Greece. This Nazi innovation has been followed ever since.
Hitler actually disliked the idea of the Olympic Games as it emphasised international co-operation and the idea of young people mixing together from a wide variety of backgrounds. It was Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, who convinced him that the Games could be exploited to showcase the efficiency of the Nazi regime and the supposed superiority of his ‘Master Race.’ This was the moment sport entered politics.
Hitler viewed sport as central to his drive to strengthen the ‘Aryan Race,’ and to prepare German youth for war. The Hitler Youth laid enormous emphasis on sport and games. Adults were encouraged to attain high levels of fitness through a programme called ‘Strength through Joy’ and hundreds of fitness clubs at workplaces were built. Goebbels said in 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.”
In the run up to the 1936 Games many people, especially in the Western democratic nations, questioned the morality of participating. Many felt by going they would offer an endorsement of the Nazi regime. Avery Brundage, the President of the US Olympic Committee, warned that the modern Olympic revival would be ruined if the Nazis restricted participation by any athlete, including Germans, by reason of “class, creed, or race.” Only after receiving an assurance from the Nazi regime that no-one, Jewish people included, would be prevented from participating, did the International Olympic Committee decide to allow the Berlin Games to go ahead.
In the end, there was no boycott of the Nazi Olympics. The US Olympic Committee allowed individual Jewish and Black athletes to make their own decisions about attending. One of the start athletes on the US team, Milton Green, who took first place in the 110-metre high hurdles in the Olympic trials, decided he could not attend due to the anti-Semitism of the regime. Other Jewish athletes from a number of European countries also boycotted the Berlin Olympics. In the USA, African- American athletes discussed non-attendance. Jesse Owens, the star of the US team, felt victories by Black athletes would undermine the Nazi racial views of Aryan supremacy and encourage a new sense of Black pride in the USA and so they agreed to go.
The Nazis promoted the Olympics with striking poster and magazine spreads which compared Nazi Germany with Ancient Greece. This propaganda used the image of ‘the body beautiful’ to promote the myth of Aryan racial superiority and physical power. The stereotypes pushed were of tall men, with blonde hair, blue eyes and chiselled features and blonde, slender, beautiful women. These images reflected the high importance the Nazi regime placed on physical fitness and the message was clear - Nazi Germany was the rightful heir of an Aryan culture. In a cynical move, designed to appease international opinion, Hitler ordered that all anti- Semitic propaganda posters be removed from Berlin for the duration of the Games.
In a lavish opening ceremony on 1 August 1936 Adolf Hitler opened the 11th Olympic Games of the modern era. A total of 49 teams competed – a higher total than at any previous Olympics. The two largest teams were Nazi Germany, with 348 athletes, and the USA with 312. The Soviet Union did not participate at the Berlin Games or at any other Olympiad until the 1952 Helsinki Games.
The Nazis inaugurated a new Olympic ritual at the opening ceremony. A lone runner arrived bearing a torch carried by relay from the site of the ancient Games in Olympia, Greece. This Nazi innovation has been followed ever since. Hundreds of athletes marched into the stadium, team by team, in alphabetical order. The most tense moments came when athletes from the USA, Britain and France marched passed Hitler. The British and US athletes refused to give Hitler the Nazi salute but the French team gave the salute in one of the most shameful acts of appeasement in the run up to the Second World War.
The Nazi idea of racial superiority also suffered a massive psychological blow. The undoubted star of the Berlin Olympics was not a blonde, blue-eyed German, but Jesse Owens, the US athlete who won four gold medals in the 100 and 200 metres sprint, the long jump and the 4×100 metres relay.
Yet in most other respects Hitler’s regime did make huge propaganda capital from the 1936 Olympic Games. German athletes topped the medal table and the Western press heaped lavish praise on the organisation of the Games. The New York Times claimed the Games had “put Germany back in the fold of nations,” and some even thought the Games heralded a German desire for peace.
The US correspondent William Shirer wrote: “I’m afraid the Nazis have succeeded with their propaganda. First, the Nazis have run the Games on a lavish scale never before experienced, and this has appealed to the athletes. Second, the Nazis have put up a very good front for the general visitors, especially the big businessmen.”
Another of Hitler’s lasting legacies from the 1936 Olympics is the prevailing concept of the ‘body beautiful’ and the myth that the body is more important than the mind, two themes which continue to permeate today’s media and society.
Professor Frank McDonough is responsible for organising LJMU’s National Identity Lecture Series.
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