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The Nazi Olympics: Sport, Politics, and Appeasement in the 1930's

The Nazi Olympics: Sport, Politics, and Appeasement in the 1930's

by Anrd Kruger (Editor), William Murray (Editor)

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The 1936 Olympic Games played a key role in the development of both Hitler’s Third Reich and international sporting competition. This volume gathers original essays by modern scholars from the Games’ most prominent participating countries and lays out the issues -- sporting as well as political -- surrounding individual nations’ involvement.


The 1936 Olympic Games played a key role in the development of both Hitler’s Third Reich and international sporting competition. This volume gathers original essays by modern scholars from the Games’ most prominent participating countries and lays out the issues -- sporting as well as political -- surrounding individual nations’ involvement.

The Nazi Olympics opens with an analysis of Germany’s preparations for the Games and the attempts by the Nazi regime to allay the international concerns about Hitler’s racist ideals and expansionist ambitions.

Essays follow on the United States, Great Britain, and France -- three first-class Olympian nations with misgivings about participation -- as well as German ally Italy and future ally Japan. Other essays examine the issues at stake in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands, which opposed Hitler’s politics, despite embodying his Aryan ideal.

Challenging the view of sport as a trivial pursuit, this collection reveals exactly how high the political stakes were in 1936 and how the Nazi Olympics distilled many of the critical geopolitical issues of the time into a contest that was anything but trivial. 

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University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
Sport and Society
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6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.90(d)

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The Nazi Olympics

Sport, Politics, and Appeasement in the 1930s

By Arnd Krüger, William Murray


Copyright © 2003 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-02815-1


Germany: The Propaganda Machine

Arnd Krüger

The Olympic Games of 1936 are best known as the Nazi Olympics, yet many of the features that distinguished these Games were well established at that time and would become even more familiar in the future. Long before the Nazis came to power in Germany in January 1933, Germans had been used to their government involving itself in areas that elsewhere were the province of the private sphere. This Sonderweg, the way in which Germany took a radically different course from other European countries, could be seen in the German interpretation of Social Darwinism: while countries like Great Britain and the United States saw this as survival of the fittest individual, in Germany it was interpreted as the survival of the fittest race.

The German state also determined the form of physical education that would apply in Germany. Through the Prussian army and the Prussian school system, this was taken up directly by the Prussian Parliament. German Turnen won the day in 1863 against Swedish gymnastics, and thus physical education, Turnen, and sport were taught in the context of national education, not health education as in other Central European countries.

Germany had taken part in each Olympics since 1896, and when Berlin was awarded the 1916 Games, the national government undertook not only the financial guarantees to underwrite the cost of the event, as was done in other countries, but went even further and paid for the selection and preparation of the athletes, a path the United States would not take until 1978.

The intervention of the state was wholeheartedly approved by two individuals who became prominent as organizers of the 1936 Olympics: Theodor Lewald and Carl Diem. Lewald, the government official responsible to the minister of the interior in Parliament, persuaded the government to take an active interest in the preparations for the Berlin Games of 1916, urging that in spite of its intrusion on state rights, the greater interest of the nation as a whole to be properly represented internationally was at stake. He showed that international sport ought to be treated like a world trade exhibition and thus should be heavily subsidized by the Reich. National coaches were hired, including a prominent track and field coach from the United States. Selection trials were held and intensive training camps were organized to prepare the best athletes under the best coaches to present the best possible image of the regime. The young Carl Diem was the press secretary of the national Olympic Committee at the time. A high school dropout who was trained in commerce, he became the full-time administrator in charge of the preparation of the athletes and later of the Olympic Games of 1916. Twenty years later the team of Lewald and Diem was again in charge.

The First World War put an end to the preparation of the athletes, but the ground rules were in place for a government-sponsored elite sport system. The Swedes invented the state amateur when they called their able-bodied athletes into national service, thus staying within the rules and giving their athletes a chance to prepare full-time for the Games. Germany followed that example.

Setting the Stage

Germany was awarded the Olympic Games of 1936 in a showdown vote against Barcelona in 1931. Lewald had duly impressed the IOC when it had met in Berlin in 1930 and had used his far-reaching connections to influence IOC members. Even Diem, who was not known to be modest when it came to claiming his own glory, had to confess that it was Lewald and Lewald alone who had brought the Games to Germany. In fact, Diem had advised not to apply for the Games yet, as Germany had been excluded from the Olympic family after World War I and was permitted to participate for the first time after the war in 1928. Lewald knew better. One year after becoming an IOC member, he was elected to the executive board. From this inside position he applied and won.

The German Olympic movement was firmly in the hands of representatives of the bourgeois sports movement at that time, most notably Lewald and Diem. Lewald—who was undersecretary of state when he retired from government service in 1921—became the president of the German Sports Federation and the national Olympic Committee, and from 1926 onward he was a member of the IOC, while Carl Diem was the full-time administrator and acting director of the German Academy of Physical Education (with an honorary doctorate in medicine). There were others: men like Karl Ritter von Halt, a member of the IOC and the president of the German Track and Field Federation, a former Olympian and a banker by profession. There was no separate Nazi sport organization. Although the Nazis used sport for their paramilitary storm troopers to get them fit, no Nazi had built himself up as a "natural" choice as a national sports leader. Physical education and sport seemed to serve too many conflicting purposes. There were, however, separate Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Social-Democratic, and Communist sport movements. As the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter carried the news services of the Deutscher Turnerbund, an anti-Semitic Turner organization that had left the mainstream Turner movement, the impression was created that the Nazis were following that organization, one that was firmly opposed to competitive sport and resented athletic meets with "non-Aryans." During the 1932 Olympics, the IOC executive board asked Ritter von Halt to inquire from Hitler whether the Olympic Games could properly take place should the Nazis be in power by 1936. Von Halt, who was close to some of Hitler's best friends and later became a high-ranking Nazi himself, talked to the Nazi leader and got Hitler's approval that if he was in power by then he would not interfere with the Olympic Games or take action against Negro or Jewish competitors on other teams.

This was a hypothetical question in the summer of 1932, as the Nazis, while by far the largest party in the Reichstag, were well short of a majority; this changed dramatically by the end of the year when, on January 30, 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor of a Nazi-conservative coalition government. Lewald, a Protestant of Jewish decent on his father's side, was worried, however, that the Nazis might soon win complete power. As a smart lawyer he formed an Organizing Committee (OC) for the 1936 Olympics as a separate nonprofit society three days before Hitler's appointment by the president of the Republic, Hindenburg. Although the registration of such a nonprofit organization would normally take six weeks, Lewald was well-enough connected to achieve this in an hour. He created this independent entity with personal members so that if the Nazis won the elections, he and Diem might be dismissed from other elective sports functions but not from their "private" organizing committee. He registered the new society immediately in the belief that any new government would respect the German legal system, as had happened in the German Revolution of 1918, in which Lewald had been at the center. He had personally written the declaration of abdication of the last imperial government and handled the transaction from an imperial to a democratic government. As it turned out, Lewald had been correct in his assumptions.

That no one really knew the Nazi position in sports is best exemplified by the interviews published in Forum, the journal of the students of the Berlin Physical Education Academy, in the winter of 1932--33. They asked several prominent sport leaders what they expected for 1933. Many foresaw a Nazi government, but everyone expected a different sport system. Carl Krümmel, Ritter von Halt, and others close to the old Munich ranks of the Nazi party expected a Nazi government to follow the lead of the Italian Fascists with their strong state support for sport, centralized and geared toward successful international competition to show not only pride and commitment to the Fatherland but also fitness and ability. The surprising success of the Italian athletes at the Los Angeles Olympics, coming second, with Germany seventh, led to them being called "Mussolini's Boys" by the American press. The Turner leadership expected to have a powerful role under a Nazi government and so backed them in their bid for power, but the Nazis wanted a strong organization that stayed away from the old quarrels between the physical exercise systems.

One of the first acts of the Nazis was to install for the first time a Minister for Volksaufklärung und Propaganda, (popular enlightenment and propaganda) better known as Promi, and later a national sports leader, the Reichssportführer, to guarantee the influence of the Nazi state. Krümmel, who became responsible for school and university sport within the new government, was proven correct: the Nazis at first followed the Italian model in sport, cooperating with the international sports organization. Augusto Turati, the general secretary of the Fascist party of Italy and an ardent fencer, had even been a member of the IOC. Hans von Tschammer und Osten, a brutal regional leader in the Brown Shirts, better known as the SA (Sturmabteilung) and an elected member of Parliament for the central German district of Anhalt, whose storm troopers had killed several workers' sportsmen and children, was made responsible for all sports in the newly created office of Reichssportführer. At the same time he was made a government official in the Ministry of the Interior—where elite sport was traditionally located in Germany. He eventually rose to become undersecretary of state.

Joseph Goebbels, a Ph.D. in German studies, had only been minister of the Promi for five days when he received Theodor Lewald, who explained to him the propaganda potential of the Olympic Games. The seventy-three-year-old had influential friends in all ministries, as he had been responsible for the selection and training of most of the young lawyers in government service for a ten-year period, and as a result he was admitted to the new ministry—although Goebbels seemed to have more pressing things to do than to look after a sport meet. Lewald convinced Goebbels that the Olympic Games should have first priority in his young and growing ministry. This was surprising, as neither Goebbels nor Hitler were known to be interested in sports, in contrast to Mussolini, their idol, who was a true all-round athlete.

But Goebbels understood well that having power was only half of the problem: you also had to win the heart of the people. Sport was one way to achieve this, and eventually his ministry had eleven sections dealing with sport. In assuring Nazi hegemony, a culture of consent was reached to offset the more brutal and coercive elements of the regime: a growing movie industry, cheap holidays, successful sports for national pride, and other forms of popular entertainment. But the Nazis also manipulated language, resorting to euphemism to conceal harsh realities. The law to expel all Jews (and those who were married to Jews and refused to get a divorce) from government service was called the "Law to Re-establish Professionalism in the Civil Service." In the context of the Olympic Games it was obvious that the Olympic Village for men consisted partially of existing army barracks and partially of new ones: these became the northern section of the Olympic Village. Goebbels set about controlling the thinking of the people, insisting on mass participation in actions that underscored the power of the new system. Sport played a key role in his attempt to secure hegemony: it provided a sense of self-sacrifice, of courage, while displaying the elitism of a natural order according to physical traits. Sport in this way was a secular cult of physical strength and endurance. For the French sociologist Jean-Marie Brohm, the Olympic elite sport system contains so many protofascist elements that the Olympic Games of 1936 were not perverted by the Nazis—they merely built on the inherent elements of the Olympic Games. The cult of the winner and the contempt for weakness and the loser are inherent in the celebration of elite sports and much of Fascist ideology.

From the start, the Nazis developed two main strategies in conjunction with the Olympic Games: to assure propaganda within Germany and to break the cultural isolation of the Reich's government by propaganda abroad. To achieve these functions a Propaganda Committee was formed under the chairmanship of a Promi official called Haegert. He had easy access to Goebbels and kept his boss informed of all matters related to the Olympic Games. This committee functioned as part of the Organizing Committee that was chaired by Lewald and for which Diem as secretary general took central responsibility. In the OC, the city of Berlin, the German Railway Office, and all other official German institutions that might be affected by the Olympics were represented. The Propaganda Committee of the OC, chaired by Haegert, became most influential in the struggle for the soul of the German people at home and the image of nazism abroad. It was this concerted propaganda effort that made the Olympic Games of Berlin the first truly modern Games. The Games also broke all spectator records. While the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1932 were the first to have more than one million spectators, Berlin attracted over 3.7 million. The opening ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936 had more spectators than those attending the entire Winter Games at Lake Placid in 1932.

The Promi was not against Nazi terror, but it had to make it palatable at home and abroad. The Nazi government wasted no time in showing that its hatred of Jews was not merely an abstract theory, and following some brutal outrages the IOC feared that it would threaten the holding of the Games in Germany. This was therefore a matter of extreme importance at the annual meeting of the IOC in Vienna in May 1933. Chosing the site of the Winter Games was normally a formality for the host nation, but the IOC could veto this: it could thus have indicated its dislike of Nazi racial theories and apparent practices. As Germany was still represented by Lewald, von Halt, and von Mecklemburg as IOC members, with Carl Diem as their secretary, it was relatively easy for them to convince the IOC that everything in Germany was normal. Although they had given up their offices in the sport federations—with the exception of von Halt, who was still a Nazi and president of the Track and Field Federation—they were still the core of the OC. They readily reached a deal with the IOC that was in their mutual interest: the IOC demanded that its German members and friends maintain responsibility for the Olympics and that the Olympic rules be upheld. This included the acceptance of Jews and "Negroes" on foreign teams. In exchange the IOC guaranteed that the Olympics would not be moved from Germany and that the Winter Games would be staged in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. In this way the IOC strengthened the position of its German members.

This deal would have satisfied everybody had it not been for General Charles H. Sherrill, an IOC member for the United States, the former American ambassador to Turkey, Italy, and Argentina, and a former Ivy League sprint champion from Yale who was one of the inventors of the crouch start. Although from his publications—such as his biographies of Mussolini and Atatürk—one can safely assume that he favored many elements of fascism, this New York Republican insisted that "in principle German Jews are part of the German team" (italics added). This demand was unheard of, as it clearly interfered with the rights of a national Olympic Committee to be represented by whom it pleased. No one had demanded previously that African Americans be allowed to qualify for the American team, and those from the South had to travel to the North at their own expense to be permitted to compete in the Olympic selection meets in 1936. Lewald was so hard-pressed from both sides that he accepted this demand, and after some negotiations he came up with a statement by the undersecretary of state, Pfundtner, who was in charge of national representation through sport on a governmental level. As Lewald had held the same post until ten years before, many important officials—including Lammers, Hitler's chief of the chancellery office—were still on friendly terms with him and helped him to get a cleverly worded paper that insisted "that in principle German Jews could be part of the German team" (italics added). This paper was celebrated in the United States as an American success, but it was not published by the state-controlled German press. Many German government officials, including Hitler, were therefore unaware that such a paper existed.


Excerpted from The Nazi Olympics by Arnd Krüger, William Murray. Copyright © 2003 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Arnd Krüger, a professor of sport science and head of the Sport and Society Section at Georg-August Universität in Göttingen, is the author of more than twenty books.  He is also a former Olympian and has served as president of the European Committee for the History of Sports. William Murray, a Reader in History at La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia, is the author of The World's Game: A History of Soccer and The Old Firm: Sectarianism, Sport, and Society in Scotland, as well as several articles on sport and politics in the 1930s.

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