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The Berlin Olympics of 1936 in a Political Context

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Cho, Namje
Term Paper, AP European History Class, March 2008

Table of Contents

I. Historical Background
I.1 Aftermath of WW I
I.2 The National Socialist German Workers' Party
II. The 1936 Summer Olympics
II.1 Background & Statistical Information
II.2 Hitler's Goal and Influence
II.2.1 Precautions Taken
II.2.2 Involving the Youth
II.3 Foreign Reaction
II.3.1 Boycott Movement in the U.S.
II.3.2 People's Olympiad in Spain
II.3.3 Media Portrayal
III. The Games of 1936
III.1 Results
III.2 The Heroics of Jesse Owens
IV. Aftermath
V. Conclusion

I. Historical Background

I.1 Aftermath of World War I
            Hitler had joined the German Workers Party in 1919, which was renamed the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP) in 1920. The party was largely known for its "storm troopers," anti-Semitic views, and plans for treaty revision, along with other economic and social changes. The NSDAP met new faces in the late 1920's with new leaders emerging such as Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler.
            After World War I, the Great Depression had a drastic effect on Germany economically and politically. German exports fell from 13.5 billion marks in 1929 to 5.7 billion marks in 1932 (1), and such a large fall led to a huge increase in unemployment. Such economic woes underscored the weak politics of the country at the time and this opened the door for the Nazis with new opportunities to gain power.

I.2 The National Socialist German Workers' Party Takes Power
            During the September of 1930, the Reichstag elections surprised everyone as the Nazis saw their vote count jump dramatically; they came second to only the Social Democrats. Two years later, during the presidential elections of 1932, Paul von Hindenburg's presidential term had expired, and he was convinced to run for office again in order to prevent Hitler from becoming president. Chancellor Brüning was replaced by Franz von Papen, and he, too, in efforts to prevent Hitler from gaining power, formed a government of aristocratic conservatives. Von Papen later offered Hitler the vice chancellor seat with an opportunity to join the coalition government; Hitler, however, refused and von Papen was thus politically paralyzed. He dissolved the Reichstag and resigned for Kurt von Schleicher, who took the seat as the new chancellor.
            Von Papen soon joined Hitler in an effort to undermine von Schleicher and persuaded the eighty-six-year-old von Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as chancellor, with some na?ve belief in his head that Hitler and his party could be tamed (2). Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933; the game finally began and Hitler started to draw his cards.
            After von Hindenburg signed the Enabling Act, Hitler was given the power to pass laws and treaties without legislative backing for four years. He then made a move that would turn Germany into a one-party state and monopolize the Nazi Party's power by introducing the policy of Gleichschaltung, which brought all organizations and agencies under his control. It outlawed all other political parties while it intensified campaigns against its "opponents." These opponents were removed from higher education and civil service and the Gestapo was established to deal with these opponents and operate concentration camps.
            Finally, on August 2, 1934, Hitler practically gained complete control over his own game with the death of the president, von Hindenburg. The title, Führer, was granted by Hitler to himself as he combined the offices of president and chancellor. Then, in order to ensure that he had the people's loyalty, Hitler required all civil workers and servants to take an oath to him as "Führer of the German Reich and people." The deck of cards was all for himself now, and Hitler was able to play the game in any way he pleased.

II. The 1936 Summer Olympics

II.1 Background & Statistical Information
            The International Olympic Committee chose Berlin to host the 1936 Summer Olympics, also known as the Games of the XI Olympiad, in 1931. This was, however, before the National Socialist German Workers' Party gained the immense power that made them so threatening. Since the party was finally in power by 1933, Hitler, along with the chief of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, decided to use the Olympic Games as a tool for propaganda and thus, preparation for the games started early.
            Forty-nine nations participated in the Olympics; there were 129 events and 19 different sports during the two week event, starting from the opening ceremony held by Hitler on August 1st until the closing ceremony on August 16th. It was the first time several sports (basketball, canoeing, team handball) made appearances in the Olympics.

II.2 Hitler's Goal and Influence
            Many different countries and their various, assorted media were coming to Berlin to watch the same event. With all this in mind, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels planned to show a peaceful and tolerant side of Germany and silence those who were strongly against the Nazi ideological beliefs of "Aryan supremacy". But for such a perfect opportunity to be taken advantage of and for Hitler and Goebbels to succeed, they needed to take action.

II.2.1 Precautions Taken
            The Nazis disguised and camouflaged Germany's racist and militaristic image while the countries were present during the Summer Olympics. They first decided that they had to hide any signs of anti-Semitic campaigns or plans of territorial expansion. The Nazis removed signs that stated campaigns like "Jews not wanted" and other racist slogans, especially in major tourist attractions. Hitler wanted to "clean up" Berlin, and as Germany was a police state by 1936, the chief of the Berlin Police was authorized by the German Ministry of Interior to arrest all gypsies and place them in concentration camps. On July 16th, approximately 800 Gypsies residing in and near Berlin were arrested and interned in a special camp in Marzahn (3).
            In order to promote their belief of "Aryan supremacy," Hitler only allowed members of the "Aryan race" to compete and participate in the Olympic Games for Germany. The head of the Reich Sports Office (4), Hans von Tschammer und Osten, supported Hitler's view and also believed in the benefit of sports for German pride and unity. Therefore, Jews, Gypsies, and other "undesirables" were banned from competing for Germany in the Summer Olympic Games and although they were allowed in minor training facilities, the "non-Aryan's" opportunities to compete in sporting events were very limited. Due to such unfair treatment and exclusion, some top-ranked professional players or champions that were either Gypsies or Jews even moved abroad to compete in countries like the United States. Some of these players who were excluded include Germany's top-ranked tennis player, Daniel Prenn, Jewish boxing amateur champion Erich Seelig, who resumed his career in the United States, and boxer Johann Rukelie Trollmann, who was a Gypsy..
            In order to promote the Olympics and further promote "Aryan supremacy," the Germans also skillfully used colorful posters and magazine spreads.
            On another note, Leni von Riefenstahl, a German filmmaker who supported Hitler, was commissioned to be in charge of documenting the Olympic Games. Later released in 1938, her film was titled, Olympia. This film is still admired today for its unique and aesthetic techniques, yet questioned by some due to its political content, as it is known for having subtle propaganda. Despite such discussions on whether it should be classified as a Nazi propaganda film, Olympia is mostly known for setting the precedent for future documentaries a nd films of the Olympic Games and appearing on being considered as one of the best films all-time. One example that demonstrates both von Riefenstahl¡¯s brilliance and Olympia's influence is the "Olympic Torch Run," which is now considered an ancient tradition.

II.2.2 Involving the Youth
            Another major aspect of the Olympic Games was to restore German pride and harden the spirit and unity among the younger generations in Germany. Thus, pro-Hitler organizations with German youths like the Hitler Youth played major roles in these sporting events. The German leaders encouraged participation in sports and tried to instill work ethic and drive in them.

II.3 Foreign Reaction
            In many different countries, especially the United States, there were many views that questioned the morality of supporting the Olympics and many other varying views on whether the 1936 Summer Olympic Games should be allowed to continue or not. There were several boycott efforts here and there in countries with the influence of groups who disagreed with the idea of celebrating the sports event with the Nazi regime, who were so interested in promoting their theory of "Aryan supremacy." Unfortunately, these efforts were all short-lived. Such boycott efforts emerged in countries including Great Britain, France, Sweden, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, and Spain (5). Although such efforts failed, it seemed at one point that the Olympics could have been boycotted with major movements in the United States and Spain.

II.3.1 Boycott Movement in the U.S.
            In the US, there were two major views on the morality of the Summer Olympics and the debate between the two sides in the US was greater than most of the other countries that had boycott efforts or were at least considering them; the sides were represented by Avery Brundage and Judge Jeremiah Mahoney.
            Avery Brundage, who was the President of the American Olympic Committee, was strongly against the boycott, stating that "The Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians." Brundage strongly believed that politics had nothing to do with sports and that they should be considered two different entities. The controversy got more and more intense in 1935 and Brundage believed that there was "Jewish-Communist conspiracy" to keep the US out of the Olympic Games (6).
            Brundage¡¯s rival, Jeremiah Mahoney was strongly against the Olympics being held in Berlin, and wanted a boycott of the Olympic Games. He was president of the Amateur Athletic Union (7) and argued that discrimination was against the Olympic rules and the United States' participation would show their support for Hitler.
            In the end, Avery Brundage achieved victory by manipulating the Amateur Athletic Union and maneuvering the votes. Furthermore, President Franklin D. Roosevelt supported the United States' participation in the Olympics, stating that it was always tradition that the American Olympic Committee was independent of outside influence.

II.3.2 People's Olympiad in Spain.
            In their decision to boycott the 1936 Olympic Games, the new Popular Front government in Spain decided to host their own games in July, several months before the Olympics in Berlin. They called this protest event the Olimpiada Popular, or the People's Olympiad, and a total of 6000 athletes from 22 different nations, including all the nations where boycott efforts emerged, were registered for the games. Similar to the groups and nations that supported the boycott, Spain did not like the fact that the Nazis tried to glorify the one and only "Aryan race" through the Olympics and tried to send a strong message.
            Unfortunately, the People¡¯s Olympiad, which came so close to taking place in Barcelona, was cancelled as soon as the Spanish Civil War broke out. With the cancellation of this alternate Olympics and the United States' decision to participate in the Berlin Olympics, boycott efforts eventually failed.

II.3.3 Media Portrayal
            The media, especially the press, played a large role in expressing the voices of opinions of certain sides on the matter of continuing or discontinuing the Olympics in Berlin, despite not having much of an influence on Hitler and his regime.
            African Americans' and Jewish Americans' differing views were both portrayed by the media. While the Jews supported the boycott of not only the Olympic Games, but also German goods to show how strongly against they were for American participation, newspapers like The Philadelphia Tribune and The Chicago Defender stated that African American victories would definitely undermine Hitler's beliefs of "Aryan supremacy (8).¡±
            In Europe, German Socialists and Communists that were exiled voiced their opinions also. Publications like Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung or The Workers Illustrated Newspaper, strongly expressed their opposition to the Olympic Games (9).
            Opinions against the Olympics were not only expressed in the newspapers; they were also conveyed through posters, especially posters of the boycott campaign. Some examples include the original poster that promoted the People's Olympiad in Barcelona, and a poster printed by the American League Against War and Fascism, an organization united by their concern for the rise of Nazism and fascism, that shows its support of the boycott and the fight against fascism by depicting Hitler with a bloody executioner's axe summoning visitors to come visit Germany.

III. The Games of 1936

III.1 Results (10)
Table 1 : Ranking of the Most Successful Nations at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin

Rank Nation Gold Silver Bronze Medals
1 Germany 33 26 30 89
2 U.S.A. 24 20 12 56
3 Hungary 10 1 5 16
4 Italy 8 9 5 22
5 Finland 7 6 6 19
5 France 7 6 6 19

III.2 The Heroics of Jesse Owens
            An African American sprinter and long jumper, Jesse Owens who was "racially inferior," according to the Nazi theory of "Aryan supremacy," won four gold medals and broke 11 Olympic records. He also defeated Lutz Lang, who was a German Olympic athlete at the time. Owens' tremendous victories were stunning blows to the Aryan myths and proved that the ideologies that Hitler had been trying to promote for so long were flawed. Through Owens' heroics, no one fell for the card trick and Hitler's game didn't go as he had wanted.

IV. Aftermath
            Although Hitler¡¯s attempt in proving his theory of "Aryan supremacy" failed, the Nazis were not stopped from the horrors they would commit in the upcoming years, before and during World War II. However, Hitler and his Nazis still succeeded in showing a "clean and safe" image of Berlin, and while many people were into the action and events of the 1936 Summer Olympics, plans for territorial expansion still existed and they were carried out once the games were over. The people and the media were distracted by the disguised version of Berlin, and they soon got a taste of the truth.

V. Conclusion
            For Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, the Berlin Olympic Games event was the perfect scenario to show the entire world what Nazi Germany was not. In this sense, Hitler's propaganda was effective in that it successfully painted a misleading picture of a peaceful, non-violent, tolerant Germany. Through the heroics of Jesse Owens, however, Hitler failed in his attempt to glorify the "Aryan race" and show their "supremacy." Things did not result in the way that Hitler exactly had planned; however, no one, at that point, was able to stop Hitler in his own political game.
            Before the 1936 Olympics ever started, there was a chance for the democratic nations, where many thought that the Nazis were trying to use these Olympics with evil intent, to boycott the games. Abroad, the Olympics had an effect of trickery and deception, and in Germany, they instilled strong drive and work ethic into the youth, who soon played a major role on the battlefield. Normally, the host of the Olympics has the honor of hosting the international event where nations come together to share their bonds and connections through sports; Hitler, on the other hand, took advantage of this opportunity and politically manipulated this event, as the "non-violent" and "tolerant" Germany invaded Poland and started World War II three years later..


(1)      Benz 2006 p. 19
(2)      ibid. p. 22
(3)      The Nazi Olympics Berlin 1936, from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
(4)      The Reich Sports Office was in charge of all sports bodies and clubs and oversaw these organizations, including the German Olympic Committee.
(5)      The Nazi Olympics, from Jewish Virtual Library
(6)      ibid.
(7)      ibid.; The Amateur Athletic Union was a non-profit, volunteer, sports organization in the United States that worked closely with the Olympic movement to prepare athletes for the Olympics.
(8)      The Nazi Olympics, from Jewish Virtual Library
(9)      ibid.
(10)      Article: 1936 Summer Olympics, from Wikipedia


Note : websites listed below were visited in March 2008.
1.      Spielvogel, Jackson, Hitler and Nazi Germany: A History, New Jersey : Prentice Hall, 2001
2.      Ganse, Alexander, KMLA Handbook Modern European History, Sosa-ri : KMLA, 5th Edition 2007
3.      Benz, Wolfgang, A Concise History of the Third Reich, Los Angeles : University of California Press, 2006
4.      Article : Paul von Hindenburg, from Wikipedia,, last revised 18 April 2008
5.      Article : 1936 Summer Olympics, from Wikipedia,, last revised 19 November 2008
6.      Article : Nazism, from Wikipedia,, last revised 13 March 2008
7.      Article : Hitler, from Wikipedia,, last revised 21 April 2008
8.      Article : Joseph Goebbels, from Wikipedia,, last revised 17 April 2008
9.      Article: Gleichschaltung, from Wikipedia,, last revised 8 April 2008
10.      The Nazi Olympics Berlin 1936, from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,, no revision date
11.      Berlin Games, from Guy Walters,, no revision date
12.      The Nazi Olympics, from Jewish Virtual Library,, no revision date

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