Although the major events of World War II are commonly known, there are many aspects of this historical event that people know very little about. One example of this is the Nazi Olympics. Very few people have heard about this event, and even fewer know what it is. However, this topic is very important to the war. At the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the Nazis managed to convince the world that the “new Germany” had recovered from World War I and was a perfectly safe, peaceful place, with no intentions of starting another world war in just a few short years. They managed to hide excluded “non-Aryan” athletes well enough that, despite several protests to boycott the Games, many countries still sent teams. The Nazi Olympics achieved its goal to make Nazi Germany look good.
Berlin is Chosen
Despite the fact that Germany had just fought the Allies in World War I, Berlin, its capital, was actually a surprisingly logical choice to host the 1936 Olympic Games. First, the 1916 Games were supposed to be held in Berlin, but were cancelled due to the worldwide conflict of World War I. Second, the 1936 Games were meant to celebrate the world’s acceptance of Germany after this same war. Third, the selection of Berlin showed the respect the International Olympic Committee had for the German sports leaders who helped plan the 1916 Olympic Games (Bachrach 13). With so many valid reasons to choose Berlin, it is not surprising that the 1936 Games took place in Germany.
Nazi Germany and Sports
When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, he changed Germany dramatically. Hitler promised security and return to power for Germany, and because of this, he and his National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) Party were able to take control of the German government, arresting all opposition and taking away the rights of citizens. Interestingly, even sports were affected strongly by Nazi rule. Hitler himself said, “I want an athletic youth. That’s the first and most important thing” (Bachrach 28). Athletics became very important in school, and activities like soccer were played often because they were believed to make participants feel superior and ready to attack. Across the country, German children joined Hitler Youth groups, where they built a sense of national community while training for war with drills, military games, and other activities.
The Approach of the Olympics
Surprisingly, despite the Nazi emphasis on sports, Hitler originally did not support the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. The Games were a symbol of international peace and cooperation, unlike many Nazi ideas. A Nazi writer even called the Games an “infamous festival organized by Jews” (Bachrach 32). However, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, who was in charge of making the Nazis look good, managed to convince Hitler that the Games would be a perfect way to show the world the “new Germany,” as well as to bring in foreign money, after which Hitler viewed the Games as immensely important.
Nazi Racism at the Olympic Games
One idea upon which the Nazi Party was founded was that they were the “Aryan master race,” and that Jews, Roma (gypsies), people of African descent, and others, were not human. Because of this, all “non-Aryans” were subtly and systematically removed from German sports. Many of the world’s greatest athletes had their careers halted. These athletes were not formally excluded from participation in the Olympics, but they were barred from all the best German sports clubs, which effectively barred them from the Olympics. Some tried to train in small, Jewish clubs, but these could not compare. Others moved to different countries to train, but sports would never be the same for them. Ironically, two of the people strongly involved in earning Germany the right to host the Olympics lost their prominent positions in German sports because they had Jewish ties.
Opposition to the Games
Hitler’s harsh treatment of “non-Aryans” did not go unnoticed by the world, and the topic of boycotting the Games was debated around the world. Many nations saw Nazi discrimination against Jews as good reason not to send a team to the Games. The United States was one such country, and there was great controversy over whether or not to send a team. The United States had won the most medals in every Summer Olympics from 1920 to 1932, such that boycotting the Olympics would have been a huge sacrifice. Support for sending an American team grew when the Nazis attempted to make it appear as though Jews were being treated equally. Ultimately, the United States sent a team. However, President Roosevelt did not give the ceremonial send-off to the team and also did not greet them at the White House upon their return, as was tradition. In the end, most countries sent teams, but many individual athletes chose to boycott.
The Winter Olympics
Prior to the Summer Olympics in Berlin, the smaller, less prestigious Winter Olympics occurred in the small mountain town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen and went perfectly. Then, just twelve days later, Hitler made his first move to rebuild the vast German empire. On March 7, 1936, Nazi soldiers marched into the Rhineland, a former part of Germany, which had been demilitarized after World War I to separate Germany from Western Europe. This was risky, but, as Hitler had hoped, the world did not want another war and left the Nazi forces alone in order to avoid one.
The Summer Olympics
Despite this sudden invasion, the Berlin Summer Olympics would take place, and this event was an overwhelming success. The city was hospitable, clean, and beautiful, with all anti-Jewish signs carefully removed: the exact image Nazi leaders wanted to portray as the “new Germany.” The Nazis so wanted to impress the world that they conducted, in the words of an AOC official, “the greatest and most glorious athletic festival ever” (ushmm.org). In the opening ceremony, athletes carried an Olympic torch by relay from Athens, Greece, for the first time, starting a lasting tradition. Berlin, the picture of “hospitality, order, and patriotism,” was praised for a successful display of Olympic festivities (nationalww2museum.org).
The Olympics went exactly as the Nazis had hoped. The German team earned the most medals and Germany was publicly praised. However, there were “non-Aryan” victories in the Games as well. The “non-Aryan” hero of the Summer Olympics was African-American track star Jesse Owens, who infuriated Nazis by winning four gold medals. Despite this, the Nazi Party achieved its ultimate goal of displaying their power to the world in a “spectacular and colossal” fashion, as stated in a post-Olympic report (Bachrach 107). Just three years after the Olympics, Nazis began forcefully building an empire. They invaded much of Europe between 1939 and 1945, eventually losing World War II to the Allied forces. During this time, over six million Jews, including many athletes who participated in the Berlin Olympics, were killed in the Holocaust.
The Nazi Olympics was a tool used by the Nazi “propaganda machine.” The Nazis convinced the world of the power of the “new Germany,” as well as the safety and order of their country. They hid all Nazi racism from spectators, and their intentions of starting another world war were masked. This helped them in World War II, because the world trusted them again after their spectacular display at the Games. Other countries were more eager to join them because they again seemed powerful. Thus, Germany emerged victorious after the Games, exactly as they hoped.
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