Few Olympics are as famous as the 1936 Berlin Games, whose 75th anniversary falls this month. The publicity that accompanied the competition, held under the watchful eye of Adolf Hitler, supposedly tamed the Nazi regime, if only temporarily — a story that has since justified awarding the Games to places like Soviet Moscow, Beijing and Sochi, Russia, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
But much of that story is myth. Indeed, the Olympics gave the Nazis a lesson in how to hide their vicious racism and anti-Semitism, and should offer today’s International Olympic Committee a cautionary tale when considering the location of future events.
When the committee awarded the Olympics to Berlin in 1931, Hitler was not yet in power. But by 1936 there was little question that anti-Semitism and racism lay at the heart of the Nazi ideology: the so-called Nuremberg Laws, which codified policies to isolate Jews and other minorities from German life, had been approved the year before.
The committee soon came under pressure from Jewish and leftist groups, which threatened to boycott the Games if they remained in Germany. The committee held firm, but promised that the Games would “open up” the Third Reich, that international attention would force it to tone down its repressive measures.
While it’s clear that the Games failed to “open up” the Third Reich, it remains widely believed that, to placate visitors, Hitler’s government cut back its persecution of Jews during the summer — in other words, that the Games achieved some of what the committee promised.
But the truth is more nuanced. Although the regime did discourage open anti-Semitism, this directive pertained only to Berlin. Outside the capital, the Nuremberg Laws remained in full effect.
The Games were even counterproductive in this respect: not only did such cosmetic steps assuage criticism of the Nazis, but they taught the regime how easy it was to mislead the global public.
Perhaps the most famous myth involves Jesse Owens, the black American track-and-field athlete. In popular mythology, the impressive performances of America’s blacks, especially Owens, so infuriated Hitler that he refused to shake Owens’s hand after his victory in the 100-meter dash.
It’s a good story, and one widely disseminated at the time to show that the Olympic spirit had triumphed over Nazi racism. The problem is, it never happened. Before Owens even stepped onto the track, the Olympic committee president, Henri de Baillet-Latour, had told Hitler to stop congratulating victors in the stadium, something he had been doing repeatedly, unless he congratulated every winner. Fearing that Owens might be one of those winners, and determined never to press the flesh with a black man, Hitler stopped inviting athletes to his box for a public handshake.
But Owens didn’t mind — he claimed that Hitler, whom he called “a man of dignity,” treated him to a friendly wave. In fact, Owens said it was not Hitler but President Franklin D. Roosevelt who had snubbed him by neglecting to send him a congratulatory telegram.
Of more lasting importance than the Owens fable is the contention, still widely propagated today, that the African-American victories in 1936 forced people everywhere to rethink their assumptions about black inferiority in high-level track-and-field athletics. Supposedly even German commentators conceded the superiority of America’s “black auxiliaries” on the athletic field.
In reality, the publicity surrounding black athletes’ success simply taught the Nazis how to refine existing stereotypes. Instead of arguing that those athletes were physically inferior, they disparaged them as freaks who, because of their “jungle inheritance,” were able to jump high and run fast.
But it was not just the Nazis who held such views. Many American commentators put forth similar explanations. While certain “inherited physical advantages” might make blacks good sprinters and jumpers, the thinking went, they could never compete successfully with whites in disciplines requiring strategy, teamwork or stamina. Thus, the experts assured America, blacks could never play quarterback, or excel in sports like long-distance running or basketball.
The truth behind the 1936 Games casts a harsh light on the notion that the Olympics can have a salutary effect on repressive regimes. Indeed, there is little evidence so far that the 2008 Beijing Olympics did anything but show the Chinese government how to maintain its clamp on freedom while supposedly opening its doors to the world.
This is not to say that the Games should be held only in politically “clean” countries. But instead of blindly celebrating the alleged openness of repressive regimes that host the event, the international community should use it as an opportunity to hold them to the values that the Olympics claim to represent.
By David Clay Large, a professor of history at Montana State University and the author of Nazi Games and the forthcoming Munich 1972.