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"The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games"

Book Essay on:
Christopher Hilton,
Hitler’s Olympics: The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games
(London: Sutton, 2006), 256 pages

by Jonathan O'Connell
March 19, 2007

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course Germany, 1900-1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2007

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning
$11 at amazon

About Jonathan O'Connell

Jonathan O’Connell is a third-year student at the University of California Santa Barbara where he studies history and law and society. He is of German descent and still has some family in Germany. He chose to write about the 1936 Berlin Olympics because of his interest in sports, especially on the international level. After graduating from UCSB he hopes to travel to Germany and other European nations. His long term plans are to attend law school and become a practicing lawyer.

Abstract (back to top)

Christopher Hilton’s Hitler’s Olympics describes the 1936 Berlin games in full detail. The book describes the individual outcomes of specific events and their significance, focusing on the successes of African-Americans like Jesse Owens. Hilton argues that the Nazi party was willing to go to extreme lengths in order to succeed in Berlin. One such example is how they forced a man (Dora Ratjen) to compete as a woman. Propaganda also played a prominent role during the 1936 games because the Nazis wanted to portray their Germany as racially friendly, when in reality anti-Semitism was growing at a rapid pace. The Nazis attempted to include a few “token” Jews on their Olympic team to appease those who claimed the process of selection had discriminated against the Jews, when in fact those critics were right. One such token Jew was Gretel Bergmann, who was lead along in the belief that she would be able to high jump for Germany. Her inclusion ended up being a farce and she was not allowed to participate even though she was arguably the best female high jumper in Germany. Overall, this paper traces how the Nazis utilized such scam tactics like the false inclusion of Jews in order to present themselves as racially friendly on the world scene and how they forced men like Dora Ratjen to compete as women in a feeble attempt to secure gold medals. After all, in order for the world to view Germany as the supreme Aryan nation, they would have to dominate the games while using only “Aryan” athletes.

Essay (back to top)

Christopher Hilton’s account of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games is comprehensive in the breadth of detail it provides about the athletes who participated in the games, as well as certain scandals that surrounded the games. Berlin was allotted the 1916 games, but World War I prevented the games from being held (Hilton, 5). In an effort to promote peace and harmony in Europe, Berlin would be awarded the 1936 games in 1931, before Hitler and the Nazis came to power. Hilton argues that Hitler and the Nazis understood the significant opportunity the games provided to demonstrate Aryan athletic supremacy and the farcical notion that Germany was a peaceful country looking to avoid future altercations. Hilton cites examples of the treatment and exploitation of specific athletes to show how the Nazis remained anti-Semitic while at the same time presenting Germany as a non-discriminatory country. Hilton also attempts to show the lengths Hitler and the Nazis were willing to go to in order to win medals and exclude Jews.

Hitler’s initial response to the Olympic Games differed from how he would present and propagandize the significance of the games. At first he described the games as “an invention of Jews and Freemasons” which could not “possibly be put on in a Reich ruled by National Socialists” (Hilton, 11). Hitler’s initial reluctance to the games would change with the aid of his notorious master of propaganda Josef Goebbels. Goebbels informed Hitler that “we can make this the greatest advertisement for you and your Germany” (Hilton, 11). Hilton argues Hitler attempted to use the games along with Germany’s extreme organizing ability to confer international legitimacy on the Third Reich, and if possible, to make him seem benevolent. To earn this kind of international legitimacy Germany would have to run the games smoothly and win as much gold as possible (even by sidestepping certain rules) all while hiding the rampant anti-Semitism of the Nazis.

To be credible on the international scene Germany would have to hide the prevalent anti-Semitism displayed throughout the county in various media. Contrary to what was found in papers prior to the Olympics the press was ordered to tone down its anti-Semitism and race based rhetoric. Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda ordered that “the racial point of view should not be used in any way in reporting sports results” (Hilton, 79). Germany could not appear to be so openly racist while the athletes of the world were in Berlin.

Objectionable signs and posters would be removed prior to the start of the Olympics. Signs in front of training facilities that read “no Jews or dogs allowed” would have to be taken down but Jews were still forbidden to train at and use the same athletic facilities as Aryans (Hilton, 33). Controlling state supported and public anti-Semitism remained important because visiting countries had already brought up the possibility of a boycott if such material remained. Hitler was willing to put forward a new though false, peaceful face for Germany during the Berlin Olympics.

As the games progressed the media would not remain under complete control. During the second week of the games the Völkischer Beobachter ran an article stating that “people fundamentally differed from each other because of race.” Der Angriff would also claim that “fair competition with blacks was impossible because they were an entirely different race” (Hilton, 167f). This backlash against the successes of participants of African descent was due largely in part to the victories of the American runner and jumper Jesse Owens. Clearly Goebbels did not have as tight a grip on the media as he would have liked while the visiting countries were present.

Hitler did not want German Jews participating on the German Olympic team but in order to maintain the games and prevent other countries from boycotting them he would be forced to agree to a compromise. The German Olympic Committee declared that “German Jews shall not be excluded from German teams at the Games” under pressure from the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Hitler was forced to acknowledge the ruling because the IOC, though hesitant to intervene with regard to a country’s domestic policies, is the governing body for the Olympic Games (Hilton, 15). Hitler and the Nazis would find a way around this ruling by exploiting the German high jumper Gretel Bergmann.

Bergmann came from a prosperous Jewish family and she would leave Germany to study in London because of the anti-Semitism in Germany. In 1934 her father was notified that she was wanted back in Germany to try out for the German Olympic team. It was less of an invite for Bergmann to come back than a threat that if she did not return damage would be done to her family and other Jewish athletes (Hilton, 22). Bergmann, though reluctant to represent Nazi Germany, stated that she “wanted to show what a Jew could do” and that she “wanted to use her talent as a weapon against Nazi ideology” (Hilton, 22). What Bergmann did not know, as Hilton deduces from his interview with Bergmann, is how the Nazis were simply presenting her as a façade, so that they could say that the Olympic team was not selected in an anti-Semitic manner.

Upon Bergmann’s return she was not invited to participate in the German championships, which served as the trials to decide who would be selected for the Olympic team even, though at the previous meet in Stuttgart she out jumped the nearest competitors by .06 meters. She also tied the German record of 1.60 meters at Stuttgart and the Olympics were only four weeks away (Hilton, 53). After Stuttgart it was clear she had earned a spot on the Olympic team or at least an invitation to the championships. Officials would say that Bergmann was “injured” and that they were keeping a place open for her on the team “in case she recovers” (Hilton, 60). This was a lie; Bergmann remained in perfectly good health. By casting Bergmann as injured German officials were able to continue to claim that they had provided ample opportunity for Jews to participate on the Olympic team, while at the same time excluding a Jewish athlete for anti-Semitic reasons.

Anti-Semitism in athletics was not something reserved to Germany. Hilton does not delve too far into the anti-Semitic atmosphere in athletics in countries outside of Germany but it is important to keep in mind that it did exist, though it was not as prevalent as that of Germany. Frederick W. Rubien, secretary of the American Olympic Committee, stated that just because Germany does not have any Jews on their Olympic team that does not mean they are discriminating against Jews. Rubien felt that Jews did not make for good athletes, and that “there are not a dozen Jews in the world of Olympic caliber” (Hilton, 31). Hilton’s account of Bergmann’s story shows that there certainly were Olympic caliber Jewish athletes in Germany and that they were excluded for anti-Semitic reason.

Bergmann received an official letter from the German Olympic Committee regarding her non-selection to the Olympic team. The letter informed Bergmann that “due to your recent performances you yourself probably did not reckon being selected” (Hilton, 65). By pretending to have given Bergmann a chance to make the Olympic team German officials could claim to have obeyed the policy of not excluding Jews. They had given Jews a chance, and none made the team because of inferior athletic ability or injury. Bergmann understood that she had not been selected because she was a Jew. At the time Bergmann was the joint holder of the German high jump record and only two participants had been selected for the high jump, when three was the usual number. Dora Ratjen, a man, would be selected to participate in one of the spots that should have been Bergmann’s.

Counter to Hilton’s argument that Hitler and the Nazis meant to tactically exclude all Jews from the German team while at the same time presenting the pretext that they had given Jews plenty of opportunities to participate in the games is the case of Helen Mayer. Mayer was a fencer and a “half-Jew” who exhibited stereotypical Aryan features such as blonde hair and light skin. Mayer was even described by Goebbels’ propaganda machine as a perfect Aryan before it was discovered that she was Jewish (Hilton, 66). Mayer’s inclusion shows that Hitler and the Nazis were fine with including Jews who did not look distinctly Jewish. As long as the press kept quite about Mayer’s Jewish ancestry no one would ever suspect her of being Jewish.

Hilton demonstrates the lengths that the Nazi party was willing to go to for the chance to win gold with the story of Ratjen. Ratjen was a member of the Hitler Youth and was threatened with “consequences” if he did not agree to compete as a woman. Ratjen’s genitals were bound and he was assigned to room with Bergmann during training because the Nazis felt that an Aryan man would not be tempted to touch a Jewish girl and that if Bergmann discovered Ratjen’s identity she would be too scared to expose him (Hilton, 66). Hilton presumes that the Nazis reasoned that any man would be able to beat a woman. Ratjen fourth place finish would prove that theory to be false (Hilton, 159). The exclusion of the champion jumper Bergmann further revealed the lengths Nazis were willing to go to in order to exclude Jews and win medals when it was discovered that Ratjen was a man.

Hilton’s Hitler’s Olympics provides a useful account of the events that transpired during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but I found it too full of description and not enough analysis. Hilton spends far too much time describing who placed where in practically every event and on the perspectives of the athletes from the visiting countries. Hilton wastes time describing in detail things like what countries and athletes saluted Hitler but fails to explain the importance behind this. I think it would be interesting to know more about what the German athletes who participated thought of the games. Hilton also does not spend enough time analyzing what Hitler thought and how he felt about the games. With the title of the book being “Hitler’s Olympics” I felt that I was going to get an in depth look at how Hitler and other top Nazi officials manipulated the Olympic Games and the international community, but it seems that Hilton really only scratched the surface on the topic of Nazi propaganda and manipulation.

An area where the book is strong is the sources that it relies upon. Hilton relies mostly on primary sources, accounts given by the athletes of the day like Gretel Bergmann, Jesse Owens, and Olympic officials. The primary sources provide the best account because they come from those who experienced the games first hand, but I feel as if they could have been used in a more effective way. It would be more interesting to find out in depth what athletes like Jesse Owens really thought about Hitler and anti-Semitism in Germany, instead of what Owens did and experienced on the voyage overseas.

Hilton successfully traces the story of individual athletes like Bergmann, and the book contains many interesting anecdotes but the book does not do the tense international atmosphere of 1936 justice. Pivotal anti-Semitic policy like the Nuremberg Laws are described only briefly and not much mention is made of Hitler’s ascent to power. I would recommend the book to someone interested in a descriptive account of the sporting results of the 1936 Olympics, but not to someone who was interested in an in depth look at official Nazi policy and propaganda or the sentiment of the German people at the time.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/07)

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

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