1936 Olympic Games

Held in Nazi Germany

Olympic torch bearer running through Berlin for the 1936 Nazi Olympics.
The Olympic torch bearer running through Berlin, passing by the Brandenburg Gate. (August 1, 1936). (Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

In August 1936, the world came together for the quadrennial Summer Olympics in Berlin, the capital of Nazi Germany. Although several countries had threatened to boycott the Summer Olympics that year due to Adolf Hitler’s controversial regime, in the end they put their differences aside and sent their athletes to Germany. The 1936 Olympics would see the first Olympic torch relay and the historic performance of Jesse Owens.

The Rise of Nazi Germany

In early 1931, the decision was made by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to award the 1936 Olympics to Germany. Considering that a Germany had been viewed as a pariah in the international community since World War I, the IOC rationalized that being awarded the Olympics might help Germany return to the international arena in a more positive light. Two years later, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, leading to the rise of a Nazi controlled government. In August 1934, after the death of President Paul Von Hindenburg, Hitler became the supreme leader (Führer) of Germany.

With Hitler’s rise to power, it became increasingly obvious to the international community that Nazi Germany was a police state that perpetrated acts of racism particularly against the Jews and Gypsies within German borders. One of the most widely known actions was a boycott against Jewish-owned business on April 1, 1933. Hitler intended the boycott to go on indefinitely; however, a rise in criticism led him to officially suspend the boycott after one day. Many German communities continued the boycott at a local level.

Antisemitic propaganda was also widespread throughout Germany. Pieces of legislation that specifically targeted Jews became commonplace. In September 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were passed, which identified specifically who was considered Jewish in Germany. Antisemitic provisions were also applied in the athletic realm and Jewish athletes were unable to participate in sports programs throughout Germany.

The International Olympic Committee Reconsiders

It did not take long for members of the Olympic community to raise doubts about the suitability of Germany, led by Hitler, to host the Olympics. Within a few months of Hitler’s rise to power and the implementation of antisemitic policies, the American Olympic Committee (AOC) began to question the IOCs decision. The International Olympic Committee responded with a German facilities inspection in 1934 and declared that the treatment of Jewish athletes in Germany was just. The 1936 Olympics would remain in Germany, as initially scheduled.

Americans Attempt to Boycott

The Amateur Athletic Union in the U.S., led by its president (Jeremiah Mahoney), still questioned Hitler’s treatment of Jewish athletes. Mahoney felt that Hitler’s regime went against Olympic values; therefore, in his eyes, a boycott was necessary. These beliefs were also supported by major news outlets such as the New York Times.

American Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage, who had been part of the 1934 inspection and strongly believed that the Olympics should be unhindered by politics, encouraged the members of the AAU to honor the findings of the IOC. Brundage asked them to vote in favor of sending a team to the Berlin Olympics. By a narrow vote, the AAU acquiesced and thus ended their American boycott attempts.

Despite the vote, other calls for a boycott continued. In July 1936, in an unprecedented action, the International Olympic Committee expelled American Ernest Lee Jahncke from the Committee for his strong protest of the Berlin Olympics. It was the first and only time in the 100 year history of the IOC that a member was expelled. Brundage, who had been vociferous against a boycott, was appointed to fill the seat, a move that solidified America’s participation in the Games.

Additional Boycott Attempts

Several prominent American athletes and athletic organizations chose to boycott the Olympic Trials and the Olympics despite an official decision to move forward. Many, but not all, of these athletes were Jewish. The list includes:

  • Sprinter Herman Neugass
  • The Long Island University Basketball Team
  • Hurdlers Milton Green and Norman Cahners (both had qualified to compete)

Other countries, including Czechoslovakia, France and Great Britain, also had fleeting effort to boycott the Games. Some opponents even tried to organize an alternative Olympics to be held in Barcelona, Spain; however, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War that year led to its cancellation.

The Winter Olympics Are Held in Bavaria

From February 6th through the 16th, 1936, the Winter Olympics were held in the Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The Germans’ initial foray into the modern Olympic realm was successful on a variety of levels. In addition to an event that ran smoothly, the German Olympic Committee attempted to counter criticism by including a half-Jewish man, Rudi Ball, on the German ice hockey team. The German government constantly cited this as an example of their willingness to accept qualified Jews.

During the Winter Olympics, antisemitic propaganda was removed from the surrounding area. Most participants spoke of their experiences in a positive fashion and the press reported similar results; however, some journalists also reported visible military movements that were occurring in surrounding areas. (The Rhineland, a demilitarized zone between Germany and France that resulted from the Treaty of Versailles, was entered by German troops less than two weeks prior to the Winter Games.)

The 1936 Summer Olympics Commence

There were 4,069 athletes representing 49 countries at the 1936 Summer Olympics, which were held from August 1-16, 1936. The largest team hailed from Germany and consisted of 348 athletes; while the United States sent 312 athletes to the Games, making it the second-largest team in competition.

In the weeks leading up to the Summer Olympics, the German government removed most of the glaring antisemitic propaganda from the streets. They prepared the ultimate propaganda spectacle to show the world the strength and success of the Nazi regime. Unbeknownst to most attendees, Gypsies were also removed from the surrounding area and placed in an internment camp in Marzahn, a suburban area of Berlin.

Berlin was wholly decorated with large Nazi banners and Olympic flags. Most participants were swept up into the outpouring of German hospitality that permeated their experience. The Games officially began on August 1 with a grand opening ceremony led by Hitler. The capstone of the regal ceremony was the lone runner entering the stadium with the Olympic torch -- the beginning of a long-standing Olympic tradition.

German-Jewish Athletes in the Summer Olympics

The only Jewish athlete to represent Germany in the Summer Olympics was the half-Jewish fencer, Helene Mayer. Many viewed this as an attempt to dispel criticism of Germany’s Jewish policies. Mayer was studying in California at the time of her selection and won the silver medal. (During the war, she remained in the United States and was not a direct victim of the Nazi regime.)

The German government also denied the opportunity to participate in the Games for record-holding women’s high jumper, Gretel Bergmann, a German-Jew. The decision regarding Bergmann was the most blatant discrimination towards an athlete since Bergmann was indisputably the best in her sport at that time.

Preventing Bergmann’s participation in the Games could not be explained for any other reason except for her label as a “Jew.” The government told Bergmann of their decision only two weeks before the Games and attempted to compensate her for this decision by giving her “standing-room only” tickets to the event.

Jesse Owens

Track and field athlete Jesse Owens was one of 18 African Americans on the United States Olympic team. Owens and his peers were dominant in the track and field events of this Olympics and Nazi opponents took great joy in their success. In the end, African Americans won 14 medals for the United States.

The German government did manage to downplay their public criticism of these accomplishments; however, many German officials were later noted to have made disparaging comments in private settings. Hitler, himself, chose not to shake the hands of any winning athletes and it has been purported that this was because of his reluctance to acknowledge the victories of these African American winners.

Although Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels ordered German newspapers to report devoid of racism, some disobeyed his orders and levied criticism against the success of these individuals.

American Controversy

In a rather surprising move by the U.S. track and field coach Dean Cromwell, two American Jews, Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman, were replaced by Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe for the 4x100 meter relay only a day before the race took place. Some believed the actions of Cromwell were antisemitically motivated; however, no evidence exists to support this claim. Still, it placed a bit of a cloud over the American success in this event.

The Olympics Draws to a Close

Despite Germany’s attempts to limit the success of Jewish athletes, 13 won medals during the Berlin Games, nine of which were gold. Among the Jewish athletes, both winners and participants, several of them would fall under the net of Nazi persecution as the Germans invaded surrounding countries during World War II. Despite their athletic prowess, these European Jews would not be exempt from the genocidal policies that accompanied the German assault on Europe. At least 16 known Olympians perished during the Holocaust.

The vast majority of participants and press that were involved in the 1936 Berlin Olympics left with the vision of a revitalized Germany, just as Hitler had hoped. The 1936 Olympics had solidified Hitler’s position on the world stage, letting him dream and plan for Nazi Germany’s conquest of Europe. When German forces invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and embroiled the world in another world war, Hitler was on his way to fulfilling his dream of having all future Olympic Games held in Germany.