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Olympic Games of 1936

Olympic Games of 1936









Commonly referred to as the “Nazi Olympics” (Mandell 1971, Krüger and Murray 2003, Rippon 2006), the Olympic Games of 1936 in Berlin changed the Olympic movement in scope and political awareness. Asan“Aryan” festival it demonstrated German superiority, yet the star of the Nazi Olympics was Jesse Owens, the African American sprinter who won four Olympic Gold medals. The Nazi Olympics highlighted race relations in sports on a world scale.

Organized since 1896, the Olympic Summer Games had become ever more important, developing into the focal point of amateur sports and its specialized press worldwide (Young and Wamsley 2005). Every four years the Olympic Games drew the attention of the sports world. With more than 4,000 athletes from forty-nine nations, participation in Berlin in 1936 was one-third larger than ever before. The games were attended by 3.77 million spectators, more than three times the previous record set at the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932. More spectators attended the opening ceremony of the 1936 Olympic Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen than had attended all events at the 1932 Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York, combined. More than 300 million people on all continents followed the Nazi Olympics over the radio, by far the largest radio audience of any event up to that date. Early television transmitted the Berlin Olympics into the center of town and brought even more people into contact with the games.

When the young French educator Pierre de Coubertin (1863–1937) revived the Olympic Games, he had the ancient Greek Olympic Games (776 BCE–393 CE) in mind and was looking for a sporting event that would bring the best youth together in something like a world exhibition of sports. Early Olympic Games were therefore often staged as sideshows of world exhibits. Coubertin, having a paternalistic attitude toward Africans, never questioned the superiority of the “white” race. The 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis, Missouri, even contained Anthropological Days in which “natives” were to demonstrate their “sports” and prove white physical superiority.

The Olympic Games of 1936 had been granted to Germany in 1931, and everyone would have been happy with the grandiose staging of the games had the liberal German government persisted. In 1933, however, the National Socialist Party (NSDAP), the Nazis, with its long history of fundamental racism, came to power in Germany. The Nazis had previously questioned the legitimacy of such international events as the Olympics, as so noble a sporting event should be for “whites” only. After all, the ancient Greek Olympics had been one of the key features of the cradle of “Aryan” civilization. Now that the Nazis had the chance to organize the games themselves, they went about it in a far more sophisticated manner to impress world public opinion with their idea of “Aryan” supremacy (Krüger 2004).


Like many French, Coubertin followed the pre-Darwinist racial ideas of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829), who insisted on the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Physical training and sport were therefore supposed to have direct benefits not only for the generation practicing them but also for their children, who were supposed to become fitter by birth. To be French was, therefore, defined by culture. If people spoke French and soaked up French culture, they and their offspring were supposed to become culturally improved. By contrast, Germany was influenced by Gregor Mendel (1822–1884), whose theory had been developed using peas, but it became the dominant genetic theory for all living beings in the twentieth century. To be German was defined by blood. Just as with a racehorse, a person had to have a long lineage of German blood to be a “pure” German. The Nazis, aware of the German melting pot since the Middle Ages, called themselves “Aryan,” thus claiming a long line of Germanic tradition that went back into Greek antiquity, the cradle of European civilization.

From the very beginning, the modern Olympic Games were a forum for international comparison of national strength, which was interpreted as a sign of national vitality and the dominance of a certain race. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) kept an official medal count to demonstrate the national ranking of nations. At the height of nationalism prior to World War I, Sweden used the Olympics of 1912 to demonstrate the superiority of its system, kicking off an international surge for national superiority at the 1916 Olympics, later canceled because of World War I. The use of sports to demonstrate national superiority was later used by Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the communist Soviet Union. In the case of Germany, the demonstration of the superior system went hand in hand with the superior “Aryan” race, as German law started to exclude all non-Germans from the public sphere following the Nazi takeover.


Long before the Nazis came to power in Germany, Germans had been used to their government involving itself in areas that elsewhere were the province of the private sphere. This Sonderweg, the way in which Germany took a radically different course from other European countries, could be seen in the German interpretation of Social Darwinism: Whereas countries such as Great Britain and the United States saw it as survival of the fittest individual, in Germany it was interpreted as the survival of the fittest race. The selection and preparation of Olympic athletes had been paid for by German governments since 1914 (Krüger 1998) to demonstrate national—that is, racial— superiority in international sport.

The racial ideas of the party were not very consistent before Nazis came to power, as the Nazis had successfully attempted to soak up different kinds of racists in their political party. Nazi statements and publications before 1933 and private opinions even of prominent Nazi leaders after 1933 should therefore not be confused with official Nazi policy after the party gained control of the German government.

Privately, African Americans were considered “animals,” and it was regarded as unfair that the American Olympic Committee would field them against human beings. Although Germany had a minute Afro-German minority, particularly in the Rhineland, the prime racial concerns in Germany were Jews and to a much smaller extent Sinti and Roma (Gypsies). Although less than 1 percent of the German population was Jewish according to the census of 1933, faith was not what racists targeted.

German Jews on the whole were well integrated into the mainstream sports movement, although a number of sports clubs in Germany prohibited Jewish membership. The German-Austrian Deutscher Turnerbund, the smallest of the three national gymnastics associations, was even outright anti-Semitic. Only about 20,000 Jews were members of Jewish sports clubs in Germany. There was no separate organization for Sinti and Roma. Because many of them traveled continually from town to town, they were difficult to count (Krüger 2001).


During the race riots of early 1933, German clubs, including sports clubs, expelled their Jewish members of long standing. Although the German authorities closed social-democratic and communist sports clubs, Jewish sports clubs were maintained and tripled their membership in the following years, as they absorbed Jews that had been excluded elsewhere. Following the boycott of Jewish shops and the destruction of Jewish property, a worldwide boycott of Germany in cultural matters threatened to include the Olympic Games among its banned events.

At the same time, the newly appointed Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, realized the propaganda value of the games to advertise the “new” Aryan Germany and started to play by the rules of the IOC. The IOC insisted to German authorities that foreign teams could field athletes of any race and that Germany could not exclude any German athlete on the basis of race or creed. Although this was more than the IOC had asked from any previous organizer of the games, the German government accepted the terms in 1933 to avoid losing the games, although a transfer of the games would not have been feasible given the time necessary to stage them successfully.

To capitalize on the Olympic Games, the German government took a threefold approach: (1) the organizing committees for the Summer and for the Winter Games received full government support and financial backing; (2) sports organizations acquired full government support to select, train, and finance a full range of athletes for all Olympic sports beyond the scope of amateur rules customary at the time; and (3) extensive press and propaganda services were initiated worldwide to spread the word of the “new” Germany.


Craniology, the exact measurement of the human skull, was first used by Henri de Boulainvilliers (1732), who alleged that there was a link between racial origin, skull shape, and intelligence. Similar connections were alleged in the first half of the twentieth century throughout the international scientific community. Not only did such tests link IQ to racial traits, but athletic ability was also said to be genetically defined. The United States was a particularly fruitful ground for such eugenic measurements, as men and women of a multitude of racial origins were readily available.

The first International Hygiene Exhibition in Dresden in 1911, which led to the establishment of the German Hygiene Museum, provided an avenue for bringing the German notion of “racial hygiene” (a term created by Alfred Ploetz in 1895) to the attention of the majority of the population. It also brought sports into direct contact with racial hygiene, as the various athletic systems competed with each other about which would be best methods to improve the fitness of the nation.

The scientific instruments used to measure the different forms and shapes of the body, formerly applied for craniology, were now used for “scientific racism”; in Dresden they were also introduced to the sports world. Anthropometry was used to measure the outcome of training at Harvard as much as in Berlin. German scientists soon realized, however, that anthropometry could not yet be the basis for talent identification and selection. Only after World War II did young scientists of the German Democratic Republic start to use anthropometric instruments for talent identification on a national scale. During the 1920s and 1930s selection competitions were staged to find athletic talents in any country. Anthropometric measurements were also used to explain the skill of certain nations and races, beginning on an international scale at the 1928 Olympics.


African American athletes had taken part in the Olympics since 1904, winning their first gold medal in 1908. To qualify for a spot on the team that was to participate in the 1936 Olympics, Americans had to take part in a final

selection meet. To qualify for such a selection meet, the athletes had to do well in regional qualifying meets. Colleges in the American South were segregated in the 1930s. Although there were both white and black colleges, only white athletes could take part in qualifying meets in the South. If, however, the athletes or their college were sufficiently prosperous, they had the right to take part in qualifying meets in the North.

Track and field athletes such as Jesse Owens (born in Alabama) could not participate in many track meets during the college season. Whenever his Ohio State University team traveled south, Owens and other black athletes had to stay home because a northern team did not want to embarrass its southern counterparts. In Berlin in 1936, sixteen African American men and two women were part of the U.S. team, and they won fourteen of the fifty-six American medals.


On September 15, 1936, the Nuremberg Racial Laws were passed, defining what was “Aryan” (“German and racially similar”). Although German racial hygienists had hoped that their theory would get a stamp of approval in the laws, a Jew was defined culturally and racially to include persons of Jewish ancestry. Anybody who had three Jewish grandparents (no matter whether they or their children had later converted to Christianity) was by definition “Jewish”; a person having two Jewish grandparents, a “half-Jew,” had to be closely inspected. A person of Jewish faith or married to a Jew was considered Jewish; a single person or one married to an Aryan was considered “non-Jewish.” Members of the Nazi Party had to trace their Aryan linage back to the year 1800, thus showing that their ancestors four generations back had not been Jewish and had converted to Christianity at the earliest convenience.

Although the German government had guaranteed that athletes of Jewish descent could qualify for the German team, they could not. As the Jewish sports clubs were not part of the German Sports Federation, their members, Jewish athletes, could not take part in the German championships—the final selection meet. Gretel Bergmann, one of the best German high jumpers and a potential medal hopeful, was thus deprived of a place on the German team. But the decision was made to include the “half-Jews” (single, of Christian faith) Helene Mayer (foil fencing) and Rudi Ball (ice hockey) on the teams for the Summer and Winter Games as a move to placate international public opinion. Internationally, the token “half-Jews” were taken for Jews, which seemed to demonstrate that Germany played by the rules.


The Olympic Games were a successful show, demonstrating the German ability to run a gigantic event. Germany won the official medal count, clearly ahead of the United States (89 to 56). Jesse Owens and the other African Americans dominated the speed events in the Olympic stadium and were the darlings of the German crowd. Several American sports organizations had threatened to boycott the Berlin Olympics because of race relations in Germany. For many African Americans athletes this was pure hypocrisy, as they were concerned more about segregation at home than about the exclusion of Jews in Germany at events they did not witness.

During the Olympics German authorities dressed up their public relations façade and took a pause in Jew baiting. For the German stormtroopers it was, however, foreseeable: “Once the Olympics are through—we beat up the Jew” (Krüger 1999).

SEE ALSO Olympic Games of 1904; Track and Field.


Fröhlich, Elke, ed. 1987. Die Tagebücher des Joseph Goebbels. Samtliche Fragmente [The Joseph Goebbels diaries. Collected fragments]. Munich, Germany: Saur.

Krüger, Arnd. 1998. “A Horse Breeder’s Perspective: Scientific Racism in Germany. 1870–1933.” In Identity and Intolerance. Nationalism, Racism, and Xenophobia in Germany and the United States, edited by Norbert Finzsch and Dietmar Schirmer, 371–396. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

_____. 1999. “‘Once the Olympics are through, we’ll beat up the Jew.’ German Jewish Sport 1898–1938 and the AntiSemitic Discourse.” Journal of Sport History 26 (2): 353–375.

_____. 2001. “How ‘Goldhagen’ Was the German System of Physical Education, Turnen, and Sport?” In Europäische Perspektiven zur Geschichte von Sport, Kultur und Politik [European perspectives of the history of sport, culture, and politics], edited by Arnd Krüger, Angela Teja, and Else Trangbaek, 82–92. Berlin: Tischler.

_____. 2004. “‘What’s the Difference between Propaganda for Tourism or for a Political Regime?’ Was the 1936 Olympics the First Postmodern Spectacle?” In Post-Olympism? Questioning Sport in the Twenty-first Century, edited by John Bale and Mette Krogh Christensen, 33–50. Oxford: Berg.

_____, and Murray, William, eds. 2003. The Nazi Olympics:Sport, Politics and Appeasement in the 1930s. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.

Mandell, Richard D. 1971. The Nazi Olympics. New York:Macmillan.

Rippon, Anton. 2006. Hitler’s Olympics: The Story of the 1936 Nazi Games. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military.

Young, Kevin, and Kevin B. Wamsley, eds. 2005. Global Olympics: Historical and Sociological Studies of the Modern Games. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Arnd Krüger

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