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Stealing Hitler's Show.

At the 1936 Olympic Games, an American demolishes Nazi racial theories

Put yourself in the shoes of history's most notorious racist dictator, Adolf Hitler. You've spent a ton of your country's money to host the biggest, gaudiest Olympic Games ever, and you want them to prove that your white countrymen are the world's master race. If one athlete is to win a record number of medals, what color would you like that athlete to be?

This September, when men and women from around the world meet in Sydney, Australia, to compete in the 27th Olympic Games, the pride of many countries will be running high. But almost certainly the Games will lack the bitter prejudice at play in 1936, when Germany's Chancellor Adolf Hitler welcomed the world to his capital, Berlin.

The Olympics had long been a peaceful outlet for competitive national feelings, and Hitler spared no expense in trying to make the Games a propaganda coup for his three-year-old National Socialist (Nazi) regime. For the Nazis, nationalism was tied up with bigotry. They blamed Jews for many of Germany's problems, and believed "Aryans"--non-Jewish white Europeans--were superior to all other racial groups and should therefore win international athletic competitions. But the superstar of that year's Olympics turned out to be a black American, Jesse Owens.

In 1936, people did not yet know that Hitler's aggression would plunge the world into its most destructive war (World War II, 1939-1945). But they knew he had come to power advocating racism and an all-powerful Germany. In his 1925 book Mein Kampf (My Struggle), Hitler had set forth with remarkable candor his plans for ruling his nation and conquering the world in its name. He had also made clear that, while reserving his bitterest hatred for Jews, he had extreme contempt for blacks too:

From time to time illustrated papers [report] .. that some place or other a Negro has for the first time become a lawyer ... or something of the sort ... the Jew shrewdly draws from [this] a new proof for the soundness of his theory about the equality of men that he is trying to funnel into the minds of nations.... It is criminal lunacy to keep on drilling a born half-ape until people think they have made a lawyer out of him, while millions of members of the highest culture-race must remain in entirely unworthy positions.

When Hitler came to power in January 1933, his policies quickly proved that the book was no bluff. In the Nazis' first year, Jews in Germany were excluded from many leading professions. Soon they were deprived of citizenship, and eventually some 6 million would be killed.

At first the Nazis had mixed feelings about the Olympics, which Berlin had already been chosen to host. A Nazi Party newspaper demanded that the Games be limited to whites only--a policy clearly at odds with International Olympic Committee rules. But Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, apparently persuaded him that hosting the Olympics could win prestige for the Fatherland. So Germany promised to welcome Olympic athletes of every color, and even vowed --with the equivalent of fingers crossed behind its back--to let its own Jewish athletes have a fair chance to compete. Unconvinced, U.S. and European critics of the Nazis called for moving the Games to another city--or boycotting them. But Olympic officials overruled them.

The Germans spruced up Berlin and built a colossal, 110,000-seat Olympic Stadium. Writes William L. Shirer, then a reporter in Berlin:

The signs "Juden unerwuenscht" (Jews Not Welcome) were quietly hauled down from the shops, hotels, beer gardens, and places of public entertainment, the persecution of the Jews and of the two Christian churches temporarily halted, and the country put on its best behavior. Ho previous games had seen such a spectacular organization nor such a lavish display of entertainment.

To put on a false face of tolerance, the Germans put two athletes of partly Jewish background on their team for show--while barring other Jews. And when a Nazi paper sneered about the "black auxiliaries"--that is, African-American athletes--the U.S. team was bringing to the Olympics, the paper was officially rebuked. But everyone knew that Hitler wanted Germany's white, non-Jewish athletes to prove their racial superiority on the field.

On August 1, more than 100,000 people cheered Hitler at the opening ceremonies (although U.S. athletes declined to give him the straight-armed "Heil Hitler!" salute). For the dictator it was "a day of triumph, exceeding perhaps any that have gone before," The New York Times reported. But the triumph soon went sour. Though Germany did win the most medals, the 1936 Olympics had one big hero, and he was 22-year-old Jesse Owens of Cleveland, Ohio--a black.

On August 3, Owens won a gold medal by finishing the 100-meter run in a world-record 10.3 seconds. The next day he took a second gold with an 8.06-meter long jump, another world mark, and the day after that he won a third gold medal by running 200 meters in 20,7 seconds. No one had ever won four gold medals in an Olympics before, but Owens did so when he led the U.S. team to victory August 8 in the 400-meter relay. Even the Germans cheered, and The Times called him "the world's fastest human."

Press reports created an enduring myth by claiming that Hitler snubbed Owens, refusing to congratulate him after his first victory because he was black. Actually, Hitler had left the stadium before the event. But the myth symbolized a larger truth: a black man had left Hitler's claims of Aryan superiority in the dust.

Owens returned home to reminders that the Nazis had no monopoly on racism. Years later he recalled:

After all those stories about Hitler and his snub, I came back to my native country, and I couldn't ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. Now what's the difference?

Indeed, racial discrimination was still the law in much of the U.S. in 1936. It wouldn't end till nearly 30 years later --after a war for freedom against Hitler's Germany had helped to shine a moral spotlight on racism at home.

Politics Happens

The Summer Olympics without politics would be like a picnic without time there were clouds. Consider:

* 1916, 1940, and 1944 saw no Olympics at all; the world was at war.

* In 1968 in Mexico City, two U.S. medal winners raised fists during the national anthem to protest racism.

* In 1972 in Munich, West Germany, Palestinian terrorists attacked the Israeli dormitory, causing 17 deaths.

* The Games were boycotted in 1976 by 20 African nations, in 1980 by the U.S. and 54 Others, and in 1984 by the Soviet Union and 12 allies.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Germany, Olympics, 1936
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Sep 4, 2000
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