1936  Berlin Summer Olympics

1936 Summer Olympics - Controversies


Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler saw the Games as an opportunity to promote his government and ideals of racial supremacy. The official Nazi party paper, the Völkischer Beobachter, wrote in the strongest terms that Jewish people and Black people should not be allowed to participate in the Games. However, when threatened with a boycott of the Games by other nations, he relented and allowed Black people and Jewish people to participate, and added one token participant to the German team—a German woman, Helene Mayer, who had a Jewish father. At the same time, the party removed signs stating "Jews not wanted" and similar slogans from the city's main tourist attractions. In an attempt to "clean up" the host city, the German Ministry of the Interior authorized the chief of police to arrest all Romani (Gypsies) and keep them in a "special camp," the Berlin-Marzahn concentration camp

Political aspects

United States Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage became a main supporter of the Games being held in Germany, arguing that "politics has no place in sport", despite having initial doubts. Later Brundage requested that a system be established to examine female athletes for what Time magazine called "sex ambiguities" after observing the performance of Czechoslovak runner and jumper Zdenka Koubkova and English shotputter and javelin thrower Mary Edith Louise Weston (both individuals later had sex change surgery and legally changed their names to Zdenek Koubek and Mark Weston).

French Olympians gave a Roman salute at the opening ceremony: known as the salut de Joinville per the battalion Bataillon de Joinville, the Olympic salute was part of the Olympic traditions since the 1924 games. However, due to the different context this action was mistaken by the crowd for a support to fascism (the Olympic salute was discarded after 1946).

Although Haiti attended only the opening ceremony, an interesting vexillological fact was noticed: its flag and the flag of Liechtenstein were coincidentally identical, and this was not discovered until then. The following year, a crown was added to Liechtenstein's to distinguish one flag from the other.

American sprinters Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman, the only two Jews on the U.S. Olympic team, were pulled from the 4 × 100 relay team on the day of the competition, leading to speculation that U.S. Olympic committee leader Brundage did not want to add to Hitler's embarrassment by having two Jews win gold medals.

In 1937, Hollywood released the film Charlie Chan at the Olympics. The plot concerned members of the Berlin police force helping the Chinese detective apprehend a group of spies (of unnamed nationality) trying to steal a new aerial guidance system. Despite pertaining to the Berlin Olympics, actual Games' footage used by the filmmakers was edited to remove any Nazi symbols.

After the Olympics, Jewish participation in German sports was further limited, and persecution of Jews started to become ever more lethal. The Olympic Games had provided a nine-month period of relative calmness.


The German Olympic committee, in accordance with Nazi directives, virtually barred Germans who were Jewish or Roma or had such an ancestry from participating in the Games (Helene Mayer, who had one Jewish parent, was the only German Jew to compete at the Berlin Games). This decision meant exclusion for many of the country's top athletes such as shotputter and discus thrower Lilli Henoch, who was a four-time world record holder and 10-time German national champion, and Gretel Bergmann who was suspended from the German team just days after she set a record of 1.60 meters in the high jump.

Individual Jewish athletes from a number of countries chose to boycott the Berlin Olympics, including South African Sid Kiel, and Americans Milton Green and Norman Cahners. In the United States, the American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Labor Committee supported a boycott

Nazi persecution of Jews during the 1936 Olympic Games

The 1936 Summer Olympic Games were hosted in Germany, as determined by voting of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) between May 1930 and April 1931, two years prior to the rise of the Nazi Party to power. Nazi influence in Germany grew exponentially after the German Federal Elections in 1932 and 1933, coinciding with the appointment of Adolf Hitler, the head of the Nazi Party, as Chancellor in November 1932. The strict racial policies of the Nazis began to take effect after Adolf Hitler gained power though the Enabling Act, passed by the German Parliament in March 1933. The Games were seen by Hitler as a time to show the strength of the new Nazi Germany to the world; not only would the festivities be exciting and bold, but the Germans would dominate in every aspect of athletic competition. The Nazis used the Olympics to their political advantage, promoting a peaceful German state, and hiding their anti-Semitism.

Nazi Party views on sports and athletics

1933 marked the beginning of Hitler's consolidation of power. He was the Führer of the Third Reich, seeing himself as the destined leader of the German people. This consolidation meant that every aspect of the Nazi government would lead to him. However, when it came to hosting the Olympics, there were no separate Nazi sports organizations. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda Minister, was of the opinion that simply gaining power was only part of the process in creating the new German state; the Nazis needed to win the heart of the people. Sports were crucial to this success, as according to him it would "strengthen the character of the German people, imbuing it with the fighting spirit and steadfast camaraderie necessary in the struggle for its existence". Eventually Goebbels' ministry had eleven sections dedicated to athletics. Jewish athletes were expelled from all organized athletics, as mandated by the German Olympic Committee.

Organization and propaganda

Invitations to the Games were sent out to the Olympic Committees of various countries. Publicly, in sports and athletics Hitler had no stated policies about athletes and competitors, but his racism had caused worry among members of the IOC. Finland and Italy were the first to accept. Support for the Games within Germany was heavily sought after by Joseph Goebbels. He believed that every German should share in the responsibility of presenting the Games to the rest of the world. Goebbels' Ministry promoted the Olympics with colorful posters and athletic imagery, drawing a link between Nazi Germany and ancient Greece. Leni Reifenstahl, the film maker behind Triumph of the Will (1934), was employed and created a controversial documentary titled Olympia (1938) about the Summer Games. Elaborate plans were created and constructed, including a new stadium as well as a state-of-the-art Olympic Village. Hitler placed the full resources of the state behind the Olympic preparations. Goebbels and the Nazi regime covered up their violent, racist policies throughout the Games by removing anti-Semitic signs and toning back rhetoric of newspapers. Orders were made to allow foreign visitors to bypass certain laws and not be subjugated to Nazi homophobic laws. Tourists were mainly unaware of the change in the political atmosphere, thus the Nazi regime was successful in bypassing foreign scrutiny of their racial policies. The Games were exploited by Hitler and his Party, and spectators and journalists from around the world were presented with the fraudulent image of a tolerant and peaceful Germany.

Foreign appeasement

The International Olympic Committee as well the Committees of several countries, attempted to rectify the racial issues in Germany. Henri de Baillet-Latour, the President of the IOC, was aware of the German sports authorities and the restrictive training possibilities for 'non-Aryans'. Boycott movements around the world surfaced in the United States, Great Britain, France, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and the Netherlands, as rumors of Nazi racism spread. Fierce debate occurred in the United States, causing some worry to the Nazis. The United States traditionally sends one of the largest teams to the games, generating interest and tourism. Many individual Jewish athletes boycotted the games or their country's qualifying trials. However, Baillet-Latour continued to support the German Olympic Committee, and reassured foreign visitors to the Nazi Games that they would, "receive a cordial welcome without the risk of experiencing anything which might offend their principles". The boycott movement eventually failed.

Jewish athletes excluded from participation

The 'Aryans only' policies in Nazi Germany caused many world-class athletes to be left out of competitions. Jews or individuals with Jewish parents were systematically excluded from German sports facilities and associations. What follows is a short list of specific athletes banned from representing their country in world events. [9]

  • Erich Seelig, Boxer, expelled from the German Boxing Association
  • Daniel Prenn, Tennis, removed from Germany's Davis Cup Team, and banned from international competition
  • Gretel Bergmann, High Jump, expelled from her German Club in 1933, and from the National Team in 1936

German placation

Helene Mayer, a fencer, was allowed on the German National team in order to appease international opinion. She herself was not Jewish, but she was viewed as 'non-Aryan' because her father was Jewish. She went on to win a silver medal, and on the podium, proceeded to give the Nazi salute

Boycott debate

Prior to and during the Games, there was considerable debate outside Germany over whether the competition should be allowed or discontinued. Berlin had been selected by the IOC as the host city in 1931, but after Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933, observers in many countries began to question the morality of going ahead with an Olympic Games hosted by the Nazi regime. A number of brief campaigns to boycott or relocate the Games emerged in the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands. Exiled German political opponents of Hitler's regime also campaigned against the Berlin Olympics through pro-Communist newspapers such as the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung.

Countries not participating in the 1936

Games are shaded red

The protests were ultimately unsuccessful; in 1935 the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States voted to compete in the Berlin Games and other countries followed suit. Forty-nine teams from around the world participated in the 1936 Games, the largest number of participating nations of any Olympics to that point


The Spanish government led by the newly elected left-wing Popular Front boycotted the Games and organized the People's Olympiad as a parallel event in Barcelona. Some 6,000 athletes from 49 countries registered. However, the People's Olympiad was aborted because of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War just one day before the event was due to start

People's Olympiad

The People's Olympiad (Catalan: Olimpíada Popular, Spanish: Olimpiada Popular) was a planned international multi-sport event that was intended to take place in Barcelona, the capital of the autonomous region of Catalonia within the Spanish Republic. It was conceived as a protest event against the 1936 Summer Olympics being held in Berlin, which was then under control of the Nazi Party.

Despite gaining the support from some athletes; and most significantly Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union and the Communist International organization; the People's Olympiad was never held, as a result of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Fifty-two years later, Barcelona hosted the 1992 Summer Olympics.

The Soviet Union did not participate in the Olympics until 1952 considering them a "bourgeois" event. However, the Communist government later used the Olympics to further its political agenda
ALBA 033 program


In 1931, the International Olympic Committee had selected Berlin, then the capital of the Weimar Republic, to host the 1936 Summer Olympics at the 29th IOC Session in Barcelona. Berlin had defeated Barcelona, which was also vying to host the games, by 43 votes to 16. During the same year, Spain had adopted a republican constitution, with King Alfonso XIII going into exile, and Catalonia was declared an autonomous region inside the new Spanish Republic.

Following the 1936 general election in Spain, the newly elected Popular Front government (which included the Communist Party of Spain) decided that Spain would boycott the Berlin Olympics in Germany, which was now under Adolf Hitler's NSDAP government, and host its own games. Invitations were made to many different countries, and it was planned to use the hotels built for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition as an Olympic-style Village. The games were scheduled to be held from July 19 to 26 and would have therefore ended six days prior to the start of the Berlin games. In addition to the usual sporting events, the Barcelona games would also have featured chess, folkdancing, music and theatre.

A total of 6,000 athletes from 22 nations registered for the games. The largest contingents of athletes came from the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and French Algeria. There were also teams from Germany and Italy made up of political exiles from those countries. Teams representing Jewish exiles, Alsace, Galicia, Catalonia and the Basque Country also registered. The Soviet Union, under the rule of Joseph Stalin, had been holding its own version of the Olympics, known as the Spartakiad, organised by Red Sport International. Despite this, the Soviets agreed to attend the Barcelona competition.

Many of the athletes were sent by trade unions, workers' clubs and associations, socialist and communist parties, and left-wing groups, rather than by state-sponsored committees.

With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War just as the games were to begin, the alternate games were hastily cancelled. Some athletes never made it to Barcelona as the borders had been closed, while many who were in the city for the beginning of the games made a hasty exit. However, at least 200 of the athletes, such as Clara Thalmann, remained in Spain and joined workers' militias that were organized to defend the Second Spanish Republic against the nationalists

Soviet Union

The Soviet Union did not participate in international sporting events since the 1920 Olympics. The Soviet government was not invited to the 1920 Games, with the Russian Civil War still raging, and they did not participate in the 1924 Olympics and forward on ideological grounds. Instead, through the auspices of the Red Sport International, it had participated in a left-wing workers' alternative, the Spartakiad, since 1928. The USSR had intended to attend the People's Olympiad in Barcelona until it was cancelled; the Soviets did attend the Spartakiad-sponsored 1937 Workers' Summer Olympiad in Antwerp, Belgium


Halet Çambel and Suat Fetgeri Așani, the first Turkish and Muslim women athletes to participate in the Olympics (fencing), refused an offer by their guide to be formally introduced to Adolf Hitler, saying they would not shake hands with him due to his approach to Jews, as stated by Ms. Çambel in a Milliyet newspaper interview in 2000.

United States

Traditionally the US sent one of the largest teams to the Olympics, and there was a considerable debate over whether the United States should participate in the 1936 Games.

Those involved in the debate on whether to boycott the Olympics included Ernest Lee Jahncke, Judge Jeremiah Mahoney, and future IOC President Avery Brundage. Some within the United States considered requesting a boycott of the Games, as to participate in the festivity might be considered a sign of support for the Nazi regime and its anti-Semitic policies. However, others such as Brundage (see below) argued that the Olympic Games should not reflect political views, but rather should be strictly a contest of the greatest athletes.

Avery Brundage, then of the United States Olympic Committee, opposed the boycott, stating that Jewish athletes were being treated fairly and that the Games should continue. Brundage asserted that politics played no role in sports, and that they should never be entwined. Brundage also believed that there was a "Jewish-Communist conspiracy" that existed to keep the United States from competing in the Olympic Games. Somewhat ironically, Brundage would be later accused of being a Soviet dupe for his controversial stance on the Soviet sports system that allowed them to circumvent the amateur rules. On the subject of Jewish discrimination, he stated, "The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed, or race."

During a fact-finding trip that Brundage went on to Germany in 1934 to ascertain whether German Jews were being treated fairly, Brundage found no discrimination when he interviewed Jews and his Nazi handlers translated for him, and Brundage commiserated with his hosts that he belonged to a sports club in Chicago that did not allow Jews entry, either.

Unlike Brundage, Jeremiah Mahoney supported a boycott of the Games. Mahoney, the president of the Amateur Athletic Union, led newspaper editors and anti-Nazi groups to protest against American participation in the Berlin Olympics. He contested that racial discrimination was a violation of Olympic rules and that participation in the Games was tantamount to support for the Third Reich.

Most African-American newspapers supported participation in the Olympics. The Philadelphia Tribune and the Chicago Defender both agreed that black victories would undermine Nazi views of Aryan supremacy and spark renewed African-American pride. American Jewish organizations, meanwhile, largely opposed the Olympics. The American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Labor Committee staged rallies and supported the boycott of German goods to show their disdain for American participation. The JLC organized the World Labor Athletic Carnival, held on August 15 and 16 at New York's Randall's Island, to protest the holding of the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany.

Eventually, Brundage won the debate, convincing the Amateur Athletic Union to close a vote in favor of sending an American team to the Berlin Olympics. Mahoney's efforts to incite a boycott of the Olympic games in the United States failed.

US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his administration did not become involved in the debate due to a tradition of allowing the US Olympic Committee to operate independently of government influence. However, several American diplomats including William E. Dodd, the American ambassador to Berlin, and George Messersmith, head of the US legation in Vienna, deplored the US Olympic Committee's decision to participate in the games.

Fencer Albert Wolff qualified for the French Olympic Team but boycotted the 1936 Summer Olympics, withdrawing from France's national team on principle because he was a Jew. He said: "I cannot participate in anything sponsored by Adolf Hitler, even for France."


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