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The 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics

1936 Summer Olympics Research Topic via ProQuest eLibrary

1936 Summer Olympics Research Topic via ProQuest eLibrary

For the past two weeks all eyes have been fixed on the 31st Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro‎, Brazil.  More than 11,500 athletes from 207 countries including a Refugee Olympic Team participated in 28 sports earning 306 sets of medals.  The diversity represented and celebrated at these Olympic Games harks back to an Olympiad where similar diversity was not celebrated and was almost stifled.

Eighty years ago in 1936 the Olympic Games were held in Berlin, Germany.  Three years prior the Nazis had taken control of the country under the leadership of Adolf Hitler.   The games had been awarded in 1931 to the democratic Weimar Republic government, and the Nazi government did not want to host them.  Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister, persuaded Hitler the games could be exploited to further Nazi ideology in Germany and throughout the world.

The “Nazi Olympics” as the Berlin games came to be known were surrounded by racial and political tensions.  A year before the games the Nuremberg Race Laws had stripped Jews of their German citizenship.  Citizens in the United States and Europe called for a boycott.  Hitler agreed to allow Jewish athletes to participate to appease the International Olympic Committee who threatened to move the games to Rome or Tokyo.  Jewish athletes were indeed allowed to try out, but most were disallowed to compete due to technicalities.  In the end, only one Jewish athlete, fencer Helene Mayer, reluctantly competed for Germany in the 1936 Olympics.  She was tall and blond and declared an “honorary Aryan.”

Jesse Owens Research Topic via ProQuest eLibrary

Jesse Owens Research Topic via ProQuest eLibrary

One of the stars of the Berlin games was African American track and field athlete, Jesse Owens.  Owens won four gold medals, set world records and gained international fame.  He also challenged the notion of Aryan supremacy.  A story that is often told is that Adolf Hitler was so angered by the success of Jesse Owens that he refused to shake Owens’ hand after his 100-meter victory.  However, this is a myth.  Hitler stopped inviting winners to his personal box fearing some of those winners would be black.  Instead, Owens said the Fuhrer waved to him.  Franklin D. Roosevelt, the American president, never congratulated the gold medal winner.  It was, unfortunately, still a time of racial segregation in the United States.

The Nazi propaganda machine was in full force using the Olympic games to promote “Aryan racial superiority” and physical skill.  In the end, the Nazi campaign was successful despite the accomplishments of Jesse Owens and other African American athletes.  Germany won the most medals with 89, eclipsing the United States which won 56.  The 1936 Olympic Games were the first to be televised.  Foreign visitors who attended the Olympic games came away with a positive impression of Germany and the Nazi regime.  However, these would be the last Olympic games for 12 years as World War II would start three years later with the German invasion of Poland.

 

 

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