This article first appeared in a recent issue of Time Out London.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics are often presented as a disaster for Nazism thanks to Jesse Owens, who won four golds and shattered Hitler’s fantasies about Aryan superiority. But the truth is a little more complex. Germany actually won the games: they had the most medals and also won more golds, more silvers and more bronzes than anybody else. They were praised for the way the tournament was held, there were no boycotts, innovations like the Olympic village and the torch relay were adopted by the Olympic organisation and the event even turned a profit. So was it really an unqualified sporting, diplomatic, economic and propaganda success for Hitler?
Toby Simpson is curator of The Nazi Games: Politics, The Media And The Body, an exhibition at the Wiener Library, London’s Holocaust library (the oldest in the world). He says, ‘The games were actually received very positively and Hitler’s standing improved as a result. On the whole it was positive for the Nazis and they were pleased with the results.’
This was much as Hitler had hoped when the Nazis inherited the games in 1933. ‘The German organisers were worried he would scrap the games because he wasn’t internationalist in the slightest,’ says Simpson. ‘But he realised that this was a huge propaganda opportunity and began putting pressure on the organisers to shape the games around Nazi interests.’
The results are displayed in a small, compelling exhibition. There are dramatic stills by Leni Riefenstahl, who also filmed the monumental Olympia using new techniques such as slow-motion and tracking shots. Much of the imagery presented the German team as perfect Aryan specimens, evoking Spartan concepts of athleticism, while a neo-Roman bombast was visible in everything from the architecture to the opening ceremony. Hitler wanted to exclude Jews from the team, but under pressure allowed one, Helene Mayer, to take part. ‘Mayer won gold in fencing for Germany in 1928,’ says Simpson. ‘Under Hitler, she had to go to the US to continue her career, but came back to Berlin to compete in the German team.’ A photograph shows Mayer on the podium giving a Nazi salute. All successful athletes were presented with an oak sapling – until 2007, one won by Harold Whitlock, a long-distance walker, grew in the grounds of a school in Hendon.
Mayer’s presence was a sop to a small but persistent anti-Nazi campaign. ‘This was the first Olympics with a boycott movement,’ says Simpson. ‘America was criticised for participating because it was believed they could influence the International Olympics Committee to withdraw the games from Berlin.’
The exhibition features an American pamphlet called Preserve the Olympic Ideal, which made the case against American participation. There’s also an extraordinary camouflaged pamphlet produced by resistance movements in Germany. It looks like an Olympic souvenir but ‘inside talks about soldiers bleeding to death on the fields of Spain. Germany was not yet involved in the Spanish Civil War, but this was being distributed to inform people about what was going on.’
The exhibition has a range of bona fide souvenirs produced to cash in on the games, often incorporating Nazi imagery, and there’s also material produced by travel agents like Thomas Cook, hoping to persuade reluctant tourists to make the journey. ‘Ticket sales were slow at first,’ says Simpson. ‘The Nazis had come to power on a wave of mass unemployment and people worried the country was unstable. Companies offered huge reductions in an unprecedented advertising campaign.’
The public had fewer concerns politically. ‘The Nuremberg Laws had turned Jews into second-class citizens, but public consciousness was slow to catch up with reality,’ says Simpson. During the games, the Nazis removed anti-Semitic signs in a ‘conscious attempt to cover up the truth.’ At the same time they put 800 Sinti and Roma into camps. The Wiener Library has a game on permanent display in which stereotypically Jewish-looking characters are chased around a board – it was made in 1936. ‘Even as the Olympics were taking place, this game was being produced and people were being put in concentration camps because of their race,’ says Simpson.
The exhibition ends on a positive note. ‘We highlight the story of Dr Guttman, a German-Jewish refugee who came to Britain in 1939 and set up a spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville hospital for veterans. There he introduced a sporting contest that eventually became the Paralympics.’ Some of Guttman’s documents are on display, including call-up papers from the First World War. ‘He volunteered in 1914 to serve in a medical capacity. Like many Jewish Germans he was incredibly patriotic but still exiled.’ It was an exile from which the Olympic movement would eventually profit.
The Nazi Games: Politics, The Media And The Body at the Wiener Library until October 3. Free.