Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936
By David Clay Large
W.W. Norton & Company, 416 pages, $27.95.
Next year, the Summer Olympic Games will take place in Beijing. This choice of location was a controversial decision by the International Olympic Committee, owing to concerns in the West that China could use the Olympics as a way to divert international attention from its grim record on human rights and as an excuse to crack down on internal political dissent for the purpose of protecting foreign visitors. Didn’t something similar happen in Nazi Germany during the 1936 winter and summer Olympic games, both of which the Nazis hosted? The question so engaged Steve Forman, an editor and vice president of W.W. Norton, that he asked David Clay Large, a scholar of modern Germany and a marathoner, to tackle this in a book.
Large turned in “Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936,” a study so deeply researched that it verges on being fact-proud. Its reporting of both the cultural and political contexts of the games and the athletic actions in the fields and pools is fair to the point of gallantry, yet the author’s disgust over what he has unearthed is also unmistakable. He does acknowledge many longstanding protestations that, the Nazi location notwithstanding, the ’36 games were conducted purely in the interest of sportsmanship and Olympic ideals: This was the position of the imperious president of the American Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage; of some participating athletes from the United States, as well as those from Germany; and of such attending celebrities as The New Yorker’s Janet Flanner, novelist Thomas Wolfe and IBM president Thomas J. Watson — not to speak of German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, whose documentary on the summer games of ’36, “Olympia,” is probably the single-most well-known and idealizing description of them.
Still, it is Large’s conclusion, based on a mountain of evidence, not only that the Nazis duped these apologists but also that Hitler and his cohorts in effect supplanted the IOC as the games’ producers. Sparing no expense, they turned a substantial portion of the country into a spectacular and elaborate theater of illusion, where the seductive simulacra of prosperity, high culture, exactitude and contentment played to the Olympic athletes and wealthy foreign visitors around the clock in service of what was one of the greatest snow jobs of the 20th century. (The Nazis’ thoroughness extended, for instance, to some of the road signage between Munich and the twin villages of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria, where the winter games were sited. As Large writes, by the mid-1930s, “the speed limit markers on dangerous turns included explicit exemptions for Jews, thereby encouraging them to kill themselves”: For the period of the games, apparently, these exemptions were temporarily removed.)
As “Nazi Games” meticulously demonstrates, the Nazis’ power grab and intensive theatricality had several purposes. An obvious one was to market Nazi Germany worldwide as a peace-loving society of high moral principles and technological efficiency, even as its leaders were preparing to embark on an unimaginably brutal adventure in empire-building. In addition, Large explains, through their handling of the ’36 Olympics the Nazis expected to soothe the damage to Germany’s national pride occasioned by World War I (Berlin was to have been the site of the 1916 Olympics, which were canceled entirely after Germany’s use of poison weapons in France in 1915; furthermore, owing to its conduct in the war, Germany had been excluded from participating in the Olympiads of 1920 and 1924).
By suppressing explicitly antisemitic actions in Bavaria and Berlin for the duration of the games, and by cunningly acknowledging (while evading) international calls for Jewish athletes to be included on German teams, the Nazis also sought to counteract protests in the United States over Germany’s increasingly ferocious treatment of Jews and other minorities. Through a variety of means — Hitler’s attendance at many of the competitions, extensive daily reports of the Olympics on German radio and even on (primitive) television, the subsidizing of documentary films about the games and, perhaps most brilliant and chilling, the massed ritual ceremonies surrounding the Olympics — the Nazis worked to focus and reinforce the loyalty of the home population, which it would require once it began sending its sons into the battlefield and depleting the country’s material and economic resources for war. Finally, the Olympics served as an excellent pretext for the Nazis to build massive structures that not only could be immediately converted to militaristic purposes following the games but also were in fact, covertly serving such purposes while the competitions were going on.
Large does not prophesize that governmental deceit and betrayal of the Olympic mission will occur in Beijing, nor does he counsel a boycott of the Beijing games: In fact, he questions the effectiveness of America’s boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, which President Jimmy Carter and his vice president, Walter Mondale, initiated in protest of the USSR’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, a boycott that had no effect whatsoever on the Soviet army. What Large suggests instead is that it is impossible under any conditions to separate the Olympics — whose modern incarnation was founded to rise above the passions of nationalism — from world politics. Rhetoric to the contrary is necessarily hypocritical.
And yet, in writing “Nazi Games” the author has managed to suspend his own impulse to sarcasm at many points when relating the stories of individuals. His account of the games, themselves — from alpine skiing to fencing, boxing and the “demonstration sports” of gliding and baseball — is thorough and generous to all athletic endeavor, from the star achievements of Jesse Owens in track-and-field to the flawless performance of Freiherr von Wangenheim, the German hero of the arduous (and, it would seem, partially fixed on behalf of the German competitors) three-day equestrian event, who earned his gold medal despite his having suffered a broken collarbone from a fall midway through. Women athletes from all countries are carefully chronicled, and the various indignities and outrages suffered by Jewish and African American athletes are clearly discussed. The underlying tragedy of Theodor Lewald, the ineluctably corrupted German liaison between the IOC and the Nazis, is unfolded with marvelous understatement. The antisemitism and racism in the athletic organizations of the United States are remorselessly analyzed, yet even the most invidious hatemongers are treated without extraneous editorial comment: Their reported actions and words are sufficient to speak for them. Furthermore, Large makes it clear that the Nazis initiated practices and technology — such as the relay run of the Olympic torch from Greece to the host country, and the electronic measurement of track-and-field events — that continue to characterize the Olympics today.
Mindy Aloff is the author of “Dance Anecdotes” (Oxford University Press, 2006) and is at work on “Hippo in a Tutu,” a study of the dance sources of historic Disney animated films.