The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany
|The saga of the 1936 Olympic games began on 26 May 1930. This was when the German Olympic Committee met with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Berlin to petition for the hosting rights to XI Olympic games; other applicant cities were Barcelona, Istanbul, Frankfurt am Main, and Nürnberg. Of note is that Berlin was supposed to host the games in 1916, but these were canceled due to WWI.
The German Olympic Committee organizers and planners did their homework well. When it was their turn to address the IOC, the Germans made an excellent case for showing that Berlin was in the heart of Europe – the city was accessible to everyone by air, by land, and even by sea (via a number of German and other European port cities). To further increase their chances of being awarded the games, the German Olympic Committee showed the IOC preliminary development and construction plans as to how Berlin intended to host the games and how Germany would have regulation sports facilities available for all competitions.
On 25 April 1931, almost a year later, the IOC met in Barcelona, Spain, to render its decision. German Olympic committee members were there too. To further increase their chances, the German delegates in Barcelona made a few last-minute pitches as well; one of them being that Germany would like another chance to host the games because the 1916 games in Berlin were canceled.
By a vote of 43:16, Berlin beat out Barcelona as the next host city (no Spanish delegates in fact showed up to the meeting and there were approximately 80 abstentions). The IOC regrouped a bit as it tried to figure out what to do next in the light of so many no-votes. It conducted a straw poll from the available delegates and on 13 May 1931, announced to the world that the XI Summer Olympic games would be held in Berlin, Germany.
By awarding the XI 1936 Olympic games to Berlin, one can say that this was the IOC’s way of showing the world that Germany was once again a member of good standing in the global community of nations. But therein also lay a problem for the future. The IOC decision to award the 1936 Olympic games was made when Germany was a democracy, a republic (Weimar Germany). But in 1933, German experienced a change of political leadership – democracy was out and Nationalist Socialism was in. Many of the political and sporting conditions existing in 1931 would be radically different in 1936.
The 13 May 1931 IOC announcement was the decision that Hitler was essentially waiting for. It would in fact be a double coup. In 1931, Germany won the right to host not only the XI 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin from 01 August to 16 August 1936. In 1933, Germany also won the right to host the IV1936 Winter Olympic Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen from 02 February to 16 February 1936. Hitler could not have asked for a better propaganda opportunity. Of note is that in 1933, Garmisch was its own city. In 1935, Garmisch and Partenkirchen merged to form Garmisch-Partenkirchen. This merger did not affect the IOC award in any way.
Shortly, Hitler and the German Nationalist Socialist Party would be in power in Germany. The 1936 Olympic games would be Hitler’s opportunity to showcase his vision of a new and powerful Germany to everyone. He could now extol his vision of the virtues of German Nationalist Socialism to the world – that Germany was now once more a leading economic engine of the world, that Germany was a militarily powerful nation and growing in strength every day, that Germany had shaken off the despair and misery of the Great Depression faster than anyone else, and most Germans were happier with their standard of living than anyone else in the world.
Preparations for the 1936 Olympic games ran into problems as soon as they left the proverbial starting block. In 1931, Germany’s unemployment figures topped the 5 million mark. Money and needed funds to cover a myriad of issues could not be raised. Germany was in near economic and financial ruins. The German Olympic Committee wanted to collect not only enough money to start building for the Olympic games in 1936, but they also wanted to participate in the 1932 Olympic games in Los Angeles. A key contributor to the German Olympic effort was the German Reichspost. They provided the German Olympic Committee with a grant of 1 million Reichsmarks (RM); in addition, they also issued postage stamps with contained an Olympic game surcharge. A national lottery was established in Germany and a one Pfennig surcharge was levied on all German sporting events tickets. In addition to attending the games in Los Angeles, German Olympic planners were especially keen to study how America organized its Olympic village for the attending athletes – an Olympic first.
That was 1932. In 1933, the political landscape of Germany would change for the worse. After Hitler and the German Nationalist Socialists came to power, the marks of violence and racial intolerance quickly escalated to the point where they would soon become the norm in Germany. On 27 February 1933, the German Reichstag (Parliament) was burned to the ground – allegedly by the communists. On 23 March 1933, Hitler was able to get the now dysfunctional Reichstag to pass his Enabling Act. From this point on, the Reichstag was essentially a rubber-stamp parliament for Hitler’s wishes.
One of the first international political tests for Germany, which could have an impact on the 1936 Olympic games, came in 1933. Specifically, in May of 1933, Germany had to respond to charges of racial and religious discrimination in Silesia before the League of Nations. Germany tried skillfully to bluff its way through this mess, but in the end, she failed. To avoid further similar problems in international courts and forums, in April of 1933, Germany withdrew from the League of Nations – but after Germany was censured for human rights violations in Silesia.
There was another sinister component to the 1936 Olympic season – religious persecution. It was no secret that German Nationalist Socialists intended to push forward their agenda of hate and intolerance against all adherents of the Jewish faith. By December of 1933, all sports organizations for adherents of the Jewish faith were officially disbanded in Germany. Only a token representation of the Samuel K. Macabee and Schild organizations were allowed to continue operating. According to enacted laws and enforced regulations, adherents of the Jewish faith were proscribed from attending any facility in Germany, which would aid them in their efforts to compete in sports activities or which would help them to remain physically fit. While Hitler did have his own political agenda in effect, he was also quite pragmatic at the time. To make sure that the IOC would not pull the games from under his feet, he had to make some political concessions in Germany. On 01 January 1936, a number of anti-Jewish laws were temporarily lifted to placate the IOC and foreign participants. In reality, this had no effect on the actual racial and religious exclusion policies and practices of the Third Reich. They continued without missing a beat.
Of note is that there were two exceptions to the German sports exclusion policies. Rudi Ball was an ice-hockey player living outside of Germany – he was a believer of the Jewish faith, but he was specifically requested to return to Germany by the German Olympic Committee to participate on the German ice-hockey team. Rudi Ball agreed to return – but only to play during the Winter Olympic Games. As soon as the winter games were over with, he would leave Germany. Helene Mayer was a German of Jewish heritage residing in California, USA, but she was also a world-class fencing champion. Germany wanted and needed her. She was persuaded to return to Germany as well and in fact, she went on to win the silver medal for Germany in women’s individual fencing. From the German perspective, these two individuals were however far more prized for their propaganda value than for their sportsmanship contributions.
On 16 March 1933, the head of the German Olympic Committee had his first formal interview with Hitler. Hitler was most enthusiastic and promised Dr. Lewald his full support. On 28 March 1933, Dr. Lewald met with J. Goebbels, and he too was very supportive. The German Propagandaministerium would do all it could to help promote the Olympic games in Germany. On 05 October 1933, Hitler, Dr. Lewald, and Wilhelm Frick (Interior Minister) toured some of the proposed Olympic sites in and around the city of Berlin.
Hitler quickly altered all of the current architectural visions – Hitler’s Olympic dream was far more grandiose in scope, far more opulent in-depth than what was first proposed back in 1931 to the IOC in Barcelona. It would not be an Olympic Stadium – it would be a German Stadium! Germany’s unemployed would be immediately directed to help build Hitler’s Olympic game dreams become a reality.
Germany also was able to persuade the IOC regarding the Olympic national anthem. In 1933, the IOC elected to make Bradley Keeler’s musical composition the official Olympic anthem for perpetuity. Dr. Lewald proposed that Germany be allowed to use its own Olympic anthem for the Berlin games because of the great contributions Germans have historically made in the fields of art and music. The IOC relented and agreed. Richard Strauss composed the anthem with Hitler’s approval.
The famous poster of the 1936 Berlin Olympic games, showing an Olympic athlete in the background and the Brandenburg Gate in the foreground, was conceived by Max Würbel.
The German organizers and planners who had visited the Olympic village in Los Angeles had done their homework well. Political considerations aside, the German efforts at satisfying the comforts and needs of all of the participants were a marvel of German efficiency.
Germany’s initial housing consideration was to use the Wehrmacht Kaserne at Doberitz as an ersatz Olympic village. Certainly, the logistical infrastructure already existed there and the barracks were very nice and clean. But it quickly became evident in both official and unofficial conversations that most athletes would prefer to be housed in an Olympic village-type environment (they were spoiled to the nines in Los Angeles). Enter General von Reichenau.
General von Reichenau was an avid sports enthusiast who was involved with the Olympic movement for many years already. He was able to locate a suitable location in Berlin, which had some gently sloping grounds and was well populated with flora and fauna. Architectural plans were rendered and the Wehrmacht’s best construction crews were ordered to build the Olympic village. Hitler ordered that cost concerns were not an issue.
The main section of the Olympic village was in the shape of a downward pointing horseshoe or large semi-circle. Close to the apex of the horseshoe design was a main hall, the general services building. A smaller annex was located above the apex of the horseshoe and a second smaller village was located to the bottom of the horseshoe.
To house the athletes, the Wehrmacht constructed 140 houses. Each house was named after a German city and the interior decorations were representative of the namesake city. The double-bed rooms were spacious, elegantly designed, and lavishly decorated and furnished. Each team was also assigned its own office, where the team could take care of administrative issues; discuss strategies, etc., as required.
The Olympic village contained a movie theater, a small shopping area, a well-staffed and stocked hospital specializing in sports medicine, postal facilities, recreational swimming and exercise areas, back-woods walking trails, and plenty of dining facilities. Animals, such as squirrels and swans were imported into the village to enhance the ambiance. Mosquito breeding grounds were destroyed. A British official once joked that the only thing missing from this picturesque scene was a few storks. The next day, 200 storks were imported from Berlin to the village.
The Norddeutscher Lloyd shipping line provided catering; they probably had the best experience in Germany in catering to a large number of foreign clientele on their ships. For each visiting team, the caterers prepared a comprehensive list of their gastronomic likes and dislikes. Specialty food items were imported in large quantities so that every (reasonable) wish of every athlete could be accommodated. The dining facilities could accommodate 24.000 guests from 0500 h to 2400 h.
General Blomberg ordered that a German Army officer be assigned to each visiting team. His primary duties were to act as an advisor, host, and liaison officer with the German Olympic Committee and the Olympic Village. Every effort was made to have the Army officer fully qualified to speak to his team in their native language. Hitlerjugend members served as errand boys; and they were well behaved and courteous to all Olympic Village visitors, regardless of race or religious preference.
While the Olympiastadion was within walking distance of the Olympic village, a well-planned transportation system of busses and smaller cars ensured that each team could get to wherever it needed to go in a timely and safe fashion.
Of note is that the much smaller-scaled Olympic village and the Olympic facilities in Garmisch-Partenkirchen were also constructed primarily by Wehrmacht construction crews thinly disguised as civilian workers.
Shortly prior to the opening of the winter games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Hitler ordered all anti-Jewish signs to be removed from the southern Bavarian region. The newspaper Der Stürmer was not to be circulated in the greater Garmisch region. Even the Stürmerkasten, the newspaper vending machines, were to be removed from public view. Military uniforms were not to be worn unless required – the winter games in Garmisch were a sporting event and sports clothing was the appropriate form of attire. Despite the order not to be in military dress, foreign press reports still ran stories, which likened Garmisch to military barracks.
Hotels in the region were ordered to show extreme tolerance to all visiting foreigners, regardless of race or religious affiliation. The German press was advised to refrain from printing any potentially embarrassing materials and to comment on the racial and religious compositions of foreign competing teams. Hitler was acutely aware of the international scrutiny his Germany and his Olympic games would undergo during this period – he did not want to take any chances on negative publicity.
This did not mean that the Nationalist Socialists stopped with their racial and religious intolerance practices, especially against adherents of the Jewish faith. During this period, it was business as usual for most of the NSDAP, the SA, and the SS, only now their actions were now conducted more discretely, out of public sight. German planners had to take special care to prevent harm from falling on to Spanish athletes, who because of their darker skin complexions, were often singled out for insult, ridicule, or even physical injury.
Germany also had a second major propaganda effort underway during the Summer Olympic games. From 18 July to 16 August 1936, Berlin hosted a German national exhibition focusing on German cultural issues. Free transportation was offered to any visitor who wished to go to the exhibition or who wished to visit other, approved showcase facilities.
Many of the special dress, propaganda, and business edicts in force during the winter games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen were also in force in Berlin during the summer games.
After the German Nationalist Socialists came to power in Germany in 1933, there were indeed many efforts undertaken to move both of the 1936 Olympic Games (winter and summer) from Berlin to other, more politically acceptable locations. However, to maintain a separation of politics from sports, the IOC met in a number of emergency sessions and elected to stand by its original decision to have the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. Hitler’s Germany had to make a number of guarantees to the IOC regarding Germany’s racial policies and the participation of athletes from all walks of life from all around the world. Germany guaranteed that German citizens who were adherents of the Jewish faith would be allowed to join the German Olympic team – in reality, they were largely excluded.
There were many efforts underway in many corners of the world to hold alternate Olympic-type games. In 1935, the Jewish Olympics were held in Tel Aviv, Palestine. Prague, Czechoslovakia, was supposed to host a rival Olympic game – these games were never held there. An International Worker Olympic games were also to be held in Antwerp, Belgium – they too were never held.
However, a Peoples’ Olympiad was held in Barcelona, Spain, from 19 July to 26 July 1936. This effort had the most promise from all of the alternate games, as many labor unions, as well as communist and socialist parties from around the world, backed it. Free room and board were promised in Barcelona – but each athlete was on his/her own in terms of getting there. Sports, chess, musical and theatrical events were advertised. Despite the ongoing Spanish civil war, despite the fact that there were shots fired by republican and nationalist forces all over town, the Barcelona games did attract a number of teams; the U.S. sent representation, as did the British and the French. So did German and Italian teams (they were almost exclusively comprised of exiled communists and socialists).
The Czechoslovakians felt very uncomfortable about the Berlin games right from the start. They often publicly stated that they would not send a team to Germany in 1936 (in the end they did). The Swedes also protested. They intended to boycott the Berlin games in 1936 (there were strong anti-German Nationalist Socialist sentiments circulating in Sweden – in the end, Sweden sent a team). Yugoslavia also protested, it would not send a team to Berlin (in the end, it did). Many South American nations elected not to send teams to Berlin (this puzzled the Germans a bit since many South American nations were overtly or covertly quite pro-German in orientation). Brazil sent two teams to the 1936 Berlin Olympic games. Unfortunately, both were later disqualified because no one could decide which was the official Brazilian Olympic team.
The French were early protestors as well, especially after 07 March 1936, when the German Wehrmacht re-entered the demilitarized Rheinland. France first adamantly said it would not send a team to Berlin. Then France changed its mind; it would send a team after all. After still more conditions had changed, France again decided it would not send a team! In the end, France did send a team to Berlin.
Great Britain was invited to attend in 1933, but she did not respond to the German invitation until December of 1934. The Germans were advised that Great Britain would send a team to the 1936 Berlin Olympic games. In 1935, political pressures in Great Britain caused the British Olympic Committee and the government to review the situation. The end result was that Great Britain would indeed participate; although there were strong feelings for a boycott of the Berlin Olympic games evident in many British spheres of influence up until the last minute.
As soon as the invitation arrived, the United States found itself in a major quandary. To boycott or not, that was the question. Avery Brundage made a special trip to Germany to ascertain just how Germany was practicing racial and religious intolerance in athletic and sports competitions. He returned with a somewhat favorable view of Germany and its treatment of peoples of all walks of life. He further stated that African-American athletes and American athletes of Jewish heritage would not be discriminated against while they were in Germany. The mayor of New York, Fiorella La Guardia, was strongly opposed to sending an American team to Berlin; he did not really believe the spin doctors of the German Propagandaministerium. A number of influential state governors and members of congress were also vehemently opposed to sending a U.S. team to Berlin in 1936. On the flip side of the coin, the State of Massachusetts donated USD 10.000 to the U.S. Olympic team so that it could go to Berlin. In the end, a U.S. team went and played an instrumental part in knocking off more than just a few ego chips of Hitler’s shoulders.
The Soviet Union had boycotted all of the past Olympic games – why ruin a perfect record in 1936? It did not send a team to the Berlin games.
Despite political posturing and international cat-fighting efforts by many nations in the world, in the end, very few nations boycotted the 1936 Berlin Olympic games. All of the traditional powerhouses attended the summer games (Germany, Japan, France, Great Britain, the United States, etc.); the final number of participating nations being over 50. 4.500.000 tickets were sold to Germans and to foreign visitors and the games brought in close to USD 3 million for Germany.
Of note is that Australia, Bermuda, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa competed as independent nations. The Philippine team was separate from the American team.
German preparations for press and mass media reporting efforts for both the winter and summer games began back in 1935. Deutsche Welle began broadcasting German language classes on many short-wave bands. A number of Berlin radio stations began transmitting short programs in foreign languages, focusing on sports and leisure activities in and around Europe. A special sports and event magazine called Olympia Dienst was published in four languages for the benefit of foreign press correspondents and visitors in Berlin. Many of the lessons learned in Garmisch were corrected for the summer games in Berlin.
Foreign press correspondents and technical support staffers were given access to over 300 microphones, 200 amplifiers, and over 20 wireless transmitter vans. The latest German wireless transmission and television technology from such giants as Siemens and Telefunken was put on display. Over 150.000 Germans followed the Olympic games via television at 21 television centers in Germany. German radio reporters were made available to the news and press organizations of nations, which did not have the resources to send their people to Berlin.
Of note is that at both the winter and summer games, only German photographers were permitted to cover the events. Foreign media representatives had to obtain their photographs from German sources. Germany wanted to make sure that no unflattering pictures of Germany or of the Olympic games would be published abroad.
The participating nations of the IV Winter Olympic Games in Garmisch were:
In many respects, the winter games were very much of a test scenario for the summer games in Berlin just a short five months away.
Controversy appeared as scheduled right away at the opening ceremony. How do the athletes march past the reviewing stand and salute the officials? The official Olympic salute, extending the right arm to one’s side, was almost exactly like the Hitler-era Hitlergruss or Deutschlandgruss. The British team elected to use the official Olympic salute when they entered the stadium. They were immediately criticized for using a German salute. The U.S. team took the conservative approach. They elected not to use the Olympic salute and instead, passed the reviewing stand with a simple eyes right gesture. The U.S. team also did not dip its flag as it passed the reviewing stand.
Estonia and Finland also refused to use the official Olympic salute because they too did not wish to use a gesture, which could be interpreted as saluting Hitler and Germany. Estonia and Finland gave a simple eye right as they passed the Führer and the IOC officials on the reviewing stand.
As a whole, German officials and referees were very even-handed in all of their decisions. Few complaints were made regarding bad calls. The Canadian and British ice-hockey teams did get into a large fight, which had to be broken up and there was a serious question lingering as to why eight of eleven British hockey players actually lived in Canada (they were however all born in Britain and that was their legal out). The American bobsled team insisted on racing its own U.S.-built bobsleds instead of using the German-provided ones (the U.S. won that argument and they won the gold medal in the two-man bobsled event as well). Sonia Henje of Norway was one of the darlings of the winter games as she won her third gold medal in ice dancing in what was her third consecutive Olympic games.
On a separate note, price gouging at stores and restaurants was eliminated through the introduction of a universal price code, which all German commercial establishments had to adhere to.
The participating nations of the XI Summer Olympic games were:
Most of the traditional athletic events were held in facilities in and around Berlin while the sailing events were held in Kiel. At the 1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen winter games, Germany was criticized in foreign press reviews for being a nation of too many soldiers, too many uniforms. To counter this perception, Hitler ordered that Berlin and Kiel should be as free of military uniforms as possible.
In the 8-man rowing competition held at the Gruenau course, the Dawgs were as they (almost) always are, second to none (the University of Washington Huskies (Dawgs) in Seattle, WA, USA). In Berlin, they came home with the gold. Germany however had a near clean sweep of the other rowing events (gold in double sculls went to Great Britain).
Basketball apparently made its debut at the Berlin games (I have located one source which states that B-Ball was first played as a medals competition sport at the Los Angeles games in 1932, another source stating that B-Ball was first introduced as a medals game at the 1936 Berlin games). In any case, the U.S. basically shellacked all of the other potential medal contenders (the dream team of their day); the U.S. men’s basketball team came home with the gold. The U.S. men’s high jump team also caused the German racial propaganda machine some difficulties. Two African-Americans won gold and silver, Kotkas of Finland won the bronze medal in that event. Of interest is that two amateur U.S. baseball teams held an exhibition game in the Olympia station during an off evening. Over 100.000 German sports fans came to see a game the overwhelming majority of whom had never even heard of.
On the whole, Germany did exceptionally well during the 1936 Berlin Olympic games. Although the U.S. did best Germany in track and field events, in the end, Germany did wind up with more medals.
Estonia’s K. Palusalu had a number of impressive wins in Berlin. He received the gold medal in two wrestling classes: Freestyle Wrestling – heavyweight category; Gold – K. Palusalu (Estonia); Silver – Josef Klapuch (Czechoslovakia); Bronze – Hjalmar Kyström (Finland) and Greco-Roman Wrestling – heavyweight category; Gold – K. Palusalu (Estonia); Silver – John Nyman (Sweden); Bronze – Kurt Hornfischer (Germany).
August Neo also won a silver medal in Freestyle Wrestling – Light Heavyweight category and in Greco-Roman Wrestling – Light Heavyweight category – – and there were other Estonian medal recipients as well. Estonia earned seven medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympic games, not bad for a nation of only 1.2 million.
Estonia’s sister Baltic nation of Latvia, with nearly twice the population bases, regretfully did not do quite as well at the Berlin games of 1936 (one highlight being that Edvins Bietags did win silver in Greco-Roman Wrestling, Light Heavyweight category).
Unfortunately, financial and political considerations prevented Lithuania from sending a team to Los Angeles in 1932 or to Berlin in 1936 (Lithuania did participate at the 1924 and 1928 games, though she did not win any medals at those events). Lithuania was preparing to send a team to Helsinki in 1940, but the Soviet occupation and annexation of Lithuania in 1940 plus the war situation made that a moot point.
The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat by Jesse Owens and Luz Long are well known. A genuine friendship developed quickly between the two athletes. Luz Long was regretfully killed in Italy during the war, but Jesse Ownes continued to remain close to the Long family until his death in 1980.
Taking some of the opening ceremony marching criticisms of the Garmisch winter games to heart, many more nations elected to only give the eyes right salute to Hitler and the IOC Committee in the reviewing stand versus giving the official Olympic salute.
No story of the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympic games would be complete without a short discussion of Leni Riefenstahl’s epic motion picture production Olympia. Leni Riefenstahl was born in 1902 and quickly became interested in filming and making films. In her early years, Riefenstahl had in fact a very fast growth path in the German film industry. In 1933, she filmed the Nürnberg party rally and did an exceptional job in editing the final version. Hitler was so impressed with her efforts that he made her the motion picture specialist of the NSDAP. In 1934, she outdid herself and produced the film Triumph of the Will, the story of the September Nürnberg party rally.
Her filming expertise not only impressed Hitler, but it also impressed the IOC. They commissioned Leni Riefenstahl to produce a documentary about the 1936 Berlin Olympic games. The film was released in 1938 (it took her over 18 months to edit the final version) and when it was released, Olympia became a definitive standard for all future sports documentaries for a long time.
To produce Olympia, Riefenstahl experimented with anything and everything available to her. Camera operators were placed into foxholes and trenches so they could film the Olympic athletes and thus minimize the disruptions to their levels of concentration. She used miniature cameras in situations where a human camera operator was not a practical solution. Camera units were placed on rails and they followed the athletes around the track as they ran. Additional camera operators were allowed to roam around in the audience to get good emotional and crowd reaction shots. During diving meets a camera operator dove alongside the diver both above and below the water. This was quite a feat since the diver had to not only dive and swim, he had to keep the camera steady and maintain a good focus on the subject (only a token percentage of that footage was of any use).
It need be noted that Riefenstahl did not have an easy time making the film. Although Hitler gave her permission to film Olympia in any way she chose – Goebbels and his spin-doctors were far less accommodating. They kept pressuring her to film Olympia in a pro-German view. But Riefenstahl stuck to her position and filmed both Luz Long and Jesse Owens with the same degree of professionalism and care. Because of her close political association with Hitler and the Third Reich, Riefenstahl was essentially blackballed outside of Germany for most of her remaining life.