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The Olympics and the Nazis
by Blaine Taylor

Photo: Hitler arrives at the opening of the 1936 Winter Olympics at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Note the iconic Olympic five joined rings at rear, flanked by Nazi swastika banners. (Heinrich Hoffmann Albums, US National Archives.)


Following the 1936 Olympics, Hitler told Albert Speer, “In 1940, the Games will take place in Tokyo, but thereafter they will take place in Germany for all time to come, in this stadium”

On Apr. 23, 1933, Nazi German Minister of Propaganda Dr. Josef Goebbels asserted that “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.”

Initially, before Nazi Party Fuhrer (Leader) Adolf Hitler was appointed German Reich Chancellor on Jan. 30, 1933, he was not interested at all in having the Olympic Games in his new Third Reich. According to reporter Michael Ollove of The Baltimore Sun on July 28, 1996, however, “It was…Goebbels…who awakened the Fuhrer to the potentials of playing host to the Olympics. Thanks to his intervention, the Third Reich put on the grandest, most impressive, best-attended Olympic Games ever before staged.”

According to Time-Life Books’ series The Third Reich (for which this writer was once a consultant), “The right to stage the…Games was an honor that Hitler did nothing to earn and everything to exploit. As the accused aggressors in the Great War, Germans had been barred from the quadriennial competition in 1920 and 1924, but early in 1931, two years before the Nazis took power, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 1936 summer games to Berlin as a signal that Germany was once again considered a responsible player in the diplomatic arena.

“At the time, Hitler denounced the proposed Olympics as a charade and said they ‘Cannot possibly be put on in a Reich ruled by National Socialists (Nazis.)’…By 1935, the British Ambassador to Germany noted that Hitler was growing obsessed with the coming event: ‘He is beginning to regard political questions very much from the angle of their effect on the games.’”

Notes Andrew Hollinger—Assistant Director of Media Relations for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC—“Nazi ideology viewed sports as essential to the strength and purity of the German ‘Aryan’ race. It was used as a means of indoctrinating youth and preparing a generation (of Germans) for war. A Reich Sports Office was formed to coordinate all sports groups, including planning for the 1936 Olympic Games…In violation of the Olympic spirit espousing the separation of sports and politics and the doctrine of ‘fair play,’ Reich Sports Minister Hans von Tschammer und Osten was personally involved in selecting athletes for the German team.”

As I wrote in The Games of ’36 (Pictorial Histories Publishing, Inc.), “Despite all the publicity given in the Third Reich before, during and after the events, one of the least known of the top Nazi leaders was the Reich Sports Leader Hans von Tschammer und Osten.

“Possibly this is because he died more than two years before the end of World War II, and thus did not figure in the lists of those tried before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg during 1945-46; on the other hand, it is doubtful that he would have been indicted by the Allies as a war criminal, other than the fact that he headed a large Nazi organization throughout most of the regime’s 12-year reign.”

Besides being Reich Sports Leader, he was also Secretary of State—or the number two man—in Dr. Wilhelm Frick’s Ministry of the Interior.

Von Tschammer und Osten was born in Dresden on Oct. 25, 1887 and joined the Nazi Party in 1929, becoming an SA Stormtroop colonel in January, 1931. In March, 1932, he was promoted to SA major general and leader of SA Group Center as well.

In March, 1933, he was elected as a member of the German Reichstag (National Parliament) for the electoral district of Magdeburg, and on July 19th was appointed by Reich Chancellor Hitler as Reich Sports Leader. In January, 1934, he was also named head of the Sports Section of the Strength Through Joy movement, the Nazi recreational group designated to improve the morale of German workers and stimulate their productivity.

As RSL, von Tschammer und Osten “Implemented the Nazi policy of boosting German prestige abroad and maintaining public enthusiasm for the regime at home through the promotion of sports,” according to Robert Wistrich.

“From 1933 onwards, all sports were ‘coordinated,’ and great attention was given to physical training and active participation in sports and endurance tests at the expense of academic education. Sporting prowess was made a criterion for entrance to schools, for school-leaving” (graduation) “certificates and even for certain jobs.”

Under von Tschammer und Osten, German Jewish athletes were hindered by being denied adequate facilities and the chance to compete. Indeed, Jewish sport was first “ghettoized” and then “Totally eliminated by the pressure of the police state and its propaganda policies,” asserts Wistrich.

Asserts Mr. Hollinger, “The Nazification of German sports included efforts to exclude Jews and other ‘non-Aryans’ from German sports and recreational facilities. Nazi officials expelled top-ranked Jewish and Roma and Sinti athletes from clubs and competition, and this trend forced Jewish athletes to continue their training in separate Jewish sports associations.”

Meanwhile, during 1935 as the year of the Olympiad approached, worldwide controversy was being expressed at the coming German Games in newspapers. According to the New York-based Committee on Fair Play in Sports on Nov. 15th, “Sport is prostituted when sport loses its independent and democratic character and becomes a political institution…Nazi Germany is endeavoring to use the 11th Olympiad to serve the necessities and interests of the Nazi regime rather than the Olympic ideals.”

Stated Ernest Lee Jahnke, an American member of the IOC on the 25th, “Neither Americans nor the representatives of other countries can take part in the Games in Nazi Germany without at least acquiescing in the contempt of the Nazis for fair play and their sordid exploitation of the Games.”

On Dec. 19th, noting domestic racism in the United States, The Philadelphia Tribune editorialized, “The AAU shouts against the cruelties of other nations and the brutalities in foreign climates, but conveniently forgets the things on its own doorstep.”

Adds Mr. Hollinger, “Growing international criticism of Germany’s repressive measures and increasing awareness of the exclusion of Jews from Olympic training facilities fueled concern over the prospect of holding the 1936 Games in Berlin. Despite Nazi efforts to deflect international criticism by promising equal treatment for Jewish athletes, many American newspapers and anti-Nazi groups, including the Amateur Athletic Union, urged a boycott of the Games.”

AOC President Avery Brundage had alleged German sympathies and was also purportedly anti-Semitic, thus giving him a double commitment to the Berlin Olympics, and he voted for it in December, 1935.

Asserts Mr. Ollove, “Brundage was rewarded for his role in getting the American team to Berlin. In 1936, when an American of German descent named Ernest Jahncke was kicked off the IOC for opposing the Games in Berlin (the only person ever dumped…) his place was taken by Brundage, who later served for two decades as the IOC’s chairman He also forever after blamed the boycott movement on a ‘Jewish-Communist conspiracy.’”

Ironically, American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt—for many decades viewed (not least by the Nazis themselves) as a friend of the Jews—remained neutral in the controversy as to whether the US should participate.

States Mr. Hollinger, “The Olympics were poised between propaganda imagery and the reality of a dictatorship rearming for war. Nazi deception was key: anti-Semitic signs were temporarily moved from public view during the 1936 Winter Games held at Garmisch-Partenkirchen. By the Summer Games in Berlin, the propaganda machine was in full force.

“Despite Nazi Germany’s reoccupation of the Rhineland only a few months earlier—an act of aggression violating two major peace treaties—posters, magazines and exhibits promoting the Summer Games celebrated a nation committed to peace,” a term also used in virtually all of Hitler’s speeches of the same period.

Noted Dr. Walter Funk, Goebbels’ State Secretary in the Propaganda Ministry, in July, 1936, “There has never before been developed a propaganda campaign equal to that of the Olympic Games…The foreigner who comes to us shall see the German people united under its Fuhrer, Hitler. Tourism is an important weapon in the struggle for the reestablishment of Germany’s world rank.”

Noted American correspondent and radio announcer William L. Shirer on Aug. 16, 1936, “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 big businessmen.”

Continues Mr. Hollinger, “Athletes and spectators alike were swept up in the festive, dramatic ceremonies, opened by Hitler himself, at the 11th Olympiad…Goebbels’…Ministry exercised stringent control over the press coverage of the Games, even as a new major concentration camp was under construction just outside Berlin in Sachsenhausen.

“In poster art, Germany was represented as the modern heir to the Greece of classical antiquity—the Aryan ideal. The 1936 Olympics are often best remembered as the Games of Jesse Owens and other African-American athletes…but their success at the Games, while perceived as destroying the Nazi myth of ‘Aryan superiority,’ should be seen as a marginal victory, since the segregation codes of ‘Jim Crow’ (in the US) continued for decades after the 1936 Games.”

Then there was the ironic situation of German-Jewish fencer Helene Mayer—tall, slim and blonde, the very personification , it would seem, of the Nazi Nordic female— who got to compete in Berlin and won the Silver Medal. Notes Mr. Ollove, “One of the…most poignant photographs shows Mayer standing on the medals platform, her right arm outstretched giving the Nazi salute to Adolf Hitler. One is left wondering what could have been going through her mind at that moment. She returned to the United States soon after the Games, but died at a young age of cancer.”

One of the things that we today take as a regular feature of the Games—and that initially harkened back to the ancient Greeks—was first started in Berlin: the Olympic Torch relay, run from Athens to the host state. The 110,000-seat Olympic Stadium—especially built for the Games—also hosted joint speeches in September, 1937 by Hitler and his fellow dictator, Italian Fascist Duce (Leader) Benito Mussolini, another milestone on the path to the Second World War.

Surprisingly, the Stadium was not bombed by the Allies during the war and can still be visited in its intact state today.

In the end, what has become known in both sports history and that of World War II as the “Nazi Olympics” and “Hitler’s Games” were, indeed, just that, as the Third Reich garnered a harvest of 33 Gold Medals and 89 in all, to lead in both categories. The runner-up was the United States, with a total of 56 medals, 24 of them gold.

Notes The Third Reich, “Germany’s champions were a diverse lot, ranging from Karl Hein, a carpenter who won the hammer throw, to the elite cavalrymen who swept the gold in all of the individual and team equestrian events.

“Whatever their specialties, the Reich’s medallists benefited from a training program of radical intensity, designed not only to impress the world, but to inspire millions of German youngsters who were preparing in schoolyards and campgrounds to compete for Hitler in a more hazardous arena.”

Ironically, according to Hollinger, “The progression of events leading to World War II and the Holocaust—the reoccupation of the Rhineland, the German-Italian Axis Pact, Nazi military support of the fascist regime in the Spanish Civil War; the German-Japanese alliance and the continuing persecution of non-Aryans—was absolutely unaffected by the glimpse of Germany afforded the world community during the 1936 Games.”

Nor did the Nazis intend that that epochal glimpse should ever fade from the world’s consciousness, either, thus commissioning German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to do a two-part epic sports film, Olympia, that is still the greatest such documentary ever made.

As she noted in 1937, “The uniqueness of these pictures lies in the fact that never before had cameramen been allowed to work so close to the athletes. There were great struggles before the IOC finally gave its permission. Even then, there were daily arguments with the competition judges.

“A downright war had to be fought in order to get the shots, but it was worth the fight.These images are more beautiful than reality, for who but the cameraman could be there, in the midst of it all and everywhere at once ?” Her book was published that year in still photos as Beauty in the Olympic Struggle, and was recently reprinted. The two-part film is also available in VHS videocassette format.

States Mr. Ollove, “In the summer of 1939, after Hitler had gobbled up Austria, after he had bitten off a chunk of Czechoslovakia, after he had murdered political prisoners and further persecuted the Jews, the International Olympic Committee awarded Germany the honor of playing host to the 1940 Winter Games. Hitler proclaimed that the Olympics would remain in Germany for as long as the Third Reich existed, for a thousand years,” and commissioned architect Albert Speer to design and build a stadium to hold 400,000 spectators.

It didn’t work out that way however. As for Reich Sports Fuhrer Hans von Tschammer und Osten, he died on March 25, 1943, a short time after the surrender of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad, but still at the apex of his own power and that of the Third Reich as well. He was given one of Nazi Germany’s last impressive State Funerals of the war.

© 2017 International Historic Films, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


* The Olympics and the Nazis


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