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Nazi Olympics Tangled Politics and Sport
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Nazi Olympics Tangled Politics and Sport

Remembrances

Nazi Olympics Tangled Politics and Sport
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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Thirty-six years before the Olympics in Munich, there were the Olympics in Berlin. The host of the Games Adolf Hitler and he used the event to promote the Nazi ideology. The propaganda that surrounded the 1936 Games is all the more haunting in retrospect. And so the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is hosting an exhibition on the so-called Nazi Olympics.

NPR's Howard Berkes paid a visit.

The sounds and voices in the Holocaust Museum's Olympics collection cut right to the heart. This is Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in 1933:

Mr. JOSEPH GOEBBELS (Nazi Propaganda Minister): (Through translator) One must govern well and a good government needs good propaganda.

BERKES: And this is Adolf Hitler a year later at a Nazi youth rally.

Mr. ADOLF HITLER (Dictator): (Through translator) In our eyes, the ideal German boy should be slim and trim, quick as a greyhound, tough as leather and as hard as Krupp steel.

BERKES: That Aryan image and potential for propaganda were two of the reasons Hitler embraced the Games, says museum curator Susan Bachrach.

Ms. SUSAN BACHRACH (Curator, Holocaust Memorial Museum): Berlin was awarded the Summer Games before Hitler took power. And even though it was a dictatorship, it was very important to build this popular support, especially among young people who had so important to the growth of the Nazi movement, and of course, sports and the Olympics were a good was to do that.

BERKES: Mass murder was years away but mass mayhem already targeted political opponents, gypsies and Jews.

(Soundbite of chanting)

BERKES: Brown-shirted Hitler youth marched in the streets chanting Germans, defend yourself. Don't buy from the Jews. Jewish books were burned, inner marriage was banned and Jewish athletes were purged.

Margaret Lambert was known as Gretel Bergmann then. She was Germany's best high jumper and she's among several athletes interviewed by the Holocaust museum.

Ms. MARGARET LAMBERT (Former High Jumper): In the spring of 1933, I got a letter from my sports club - you are no welcome here because you're Jewish. Heil Hitler. They just threw me out of the club and that was the end of my sports career as far as that was concerned.

BERKES: None of this was secret, notes exhibition curator Susan Bachrach.

Ms. BACHRACH: We have a New York Times headline dated April 18, 1933 - that was a few months after Hitler took power - 1936 Olympics may be cancelled due to Germany's campaign against the Jews.

BERKES: Diplomats sworn that the Games would give Hitler a propaganda boost, and rallies were held, including this one in New York featuring Major General John O'Ryan.

Mr. JOHN O'RYAN (Major General): Mr. Hitler's violation of these common rights in their application to the Jewish citizens of Germany is a challenge to civilization.

(Soundbite of applause)

BERKES: Even some athletes and Olympic officials joined the call for a boycott. They cited Germany's purge of Jewish athletes, a clear violation of Olympic rules. So, the Nazis seemed to relent, inviting Jewish high jumper Gretel Bergmann to join the German team.

Ms. LAMBERT: The only reason I was supposed to be on that Olympic team was because the Americans and the English and the French and a lot of the other nations threatened not to come to the 1936 Olympics due to discrimination of the Jews.

BERKES: Nazi Olympic invited Olympic officials for sanitized visits, where they witnessed no strife and were promised that the games open to all.

Avery Brundage led the American Olympic Committee, and the anti-boycott forces. And his carefully-worded assessment prevailed.

Mr. AVERY BRUNDAGE (Head, American Olympic Committee): Participation in these games must not be construed to be an endorsement of the policies and practices of the Nazi government. Measures have been adopted to ensure that there will be no violation of the fundamental principles of fair play and good sportsmanship, or the Olympic standards of freedom and equality to all.

: Up goes the official flag on the liner Manhattan, carrying 334 athletes.

BERKES: Among those on the American ship to Berlin was African-American John Woodruff, the gold medal favorite in the 800-meter run, who was also interviewed by the Holocaust museum.

Mr. JOHN WOODRUFF (Olympic Team Member): There was some talk about the Olympics being boycotted because of what Hitler was doing to the Jewish people in Germany, but it was never discussed amongst the team members. We weren't interested in politics, you see, at all. We were only interested in going to Germany and winning.

BERKES: Some American Jewish athletes were aboard the ship, but hurdler Milton Green was not. Rabbis convinced him and teammate Norman Cahners to stay home.

Mr. MILTON GREEN (Olympic Team Member): They told us about the terrible things that were going on in Germany. And it was a shocker to me and Norman, and they tried to explain not us that we would never regret if we did take that action to boycott the Olympics.

Ms. BACHRACH: The story gets a little more complicated when we start presenting the question of the boycott debate in the U.S. against the backdrop of what's happening in our very own country.

BERKES: Blacks and Jews in the 1930s were banned from athletic facilities and hotels, racism and anti-Semitism were rampant. Competing and wining in Berlin would send messages to Nazis and Americans.

(Soundbite of music)

BERKES: So, on August 1, 1936, the Olympic flame arrived in a packed stadium in Berlin after the first modern torch relay ever. The relay was a product of the Nazi Olympics, which Hitler himself officially opened.

Mr. HITLER: (Through translator) I declare the Berlin Games open, celebrating the 11th Olympiad of the modern era.

BERKES: The Olympic five rings mixed with the Nazi swastika Sieg Heil chants and stiff-arm Nazi salutes.

African-American Jesse Owens defied the Aryan ideal by winning four track and field gold medals. Runner John Woodruff also won gold.

Mr. JOHN WOODRUFF (Olympic Gold Medalist): It was very definitely a special feeling in winning the gold medal and being a black man. We destroyed his master race theory whenever we started winning those gold medals.

BERKES: But there was disappointment for others. Gretel Bergmann was kicked off the German team, supposedly for poor performance.

Ms. LAMBERT: The high jump in the Olympics was won with a height of 5'3". The height I had reached four weeks earlier, I would have been a loser either way. Because had I won, there would have been such an insult against the German psyche - how can a Jew be good enough to win the Olympics - that I would have had to be afraid for my life, I'm sure. And had I lost, I would have been made as a joke - see; we knew the Jew couldn't do this.

BERKES: Off the field of play, signs banning Jews from public places had disappeared. Orders went out to be nice to everyone. African-American athletes told stories about warmth and hospitality. And in Germany, one said, he didn't have to sit in the back of the bus.

At the time, the Games weren't noted for Jesse Owens' victories and Hitler's defeat, says Susan Bachrach of the Holocaust museum. These observations were reported instead:

Ms. BACHRACH: That the Nazis succeeded with their propaganda, that Hitler was really a big winner. Even a political reporter for the New York Times, Frederick Birch all, comes out after the Games saying the Games put German's back in the fold of nations and even made them more human again.

(Soundbite of music)

BERKES: At the closing ceremonies, the stadium went dark as the Olympic flame was extinguished. Hitler eventually retraced the route of the Olympic torch relay. He and his allies conquered every country along the way. And among the millions to die in the Holocaust, were at least 11 athletes from the 1936 Olympics.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: You can view propaganda posters and video from the Nazi Olympics on our Web site. That's NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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