Hitler’s Olympics

Hitler's Olympics

For someone who didn’t even like sport, it might seem somewhat surprising that Adolf Hitler was able to stage one of the most successful, albeit controversial, games in Olympic history; they were so successful in fact, that the format has been followed in much the same way ever since.

The background to the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games in many ways goes back to WWI, and the Langemarck Hall at the Olympic Stadium is a telling reminder of how Hitler had never forgotten his time in the trenches.

Langemarck was a WWI battlefield in Belgian Flanders and somewhere I visited several years ago. The war cemetery there holds 44,000 German soldiers including many inexperienced young men.

When the stadium, and the Langemarck Hall, was constructed in 1936, Hitler was known to turn to a few confidants to proclaim that there would be “Revenge for Langemarck”.

The Langemarck Hall and Belltower

Also fighting in the trenches on the Western Front, but on the opposite side of the fence so to speak, was Winston Churchill. They wouldn’t have known about each other then, but they most certainly did in WWII.

The Second World War had its roots in the aftermath of the Great War when the 1919 Treaty of Versailles dished out harsh punishment to Germany from which they never fully recovered.

Land was taken (or taken back whichever way you want to look at it) and given to France and Poland, and a bill of 132 billion gold marks was handed over to Germany for the cost of the war.

Not helped by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the country became financially crippled with the population suffering severe hardship.

Mindful of the affect that the reparations were having, it was realised in some quarters that Germany needed to be brought back into the world community, and it was suggested that Berlin could be allowed to bid for the 1936 Olympics; it was obviously borne in mind that Berlin had been chosen to host the 1916 Games which of course never materialized. The 1932 bid was successful – but before the Olympic Games were due to start Hitler and the Nazi party were in power: His opportunity to gain revenge for Langemarck had arrived.

Among the first people to pay the price were the Jews and Romany Gypsies: Hitler thought that Northern European (or Aryan) people were a superior race to anyone else, and it wasn’t long before persecution started taking place throughout Germany – which didn’t go unnoticed elsewhere.

Several countries wanted a ban on Berlin hosting the Summer Olympics, but Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, suggested to Hitler that the Games could be used to show Germany in the best possible light to the rest of the world – and almost immediately the Fuhrer became interested in sport, and the charm offensive began.

Some of Hitler's victims
Some of Hitler's victims

Red carpets were rolled out, posters demonising Jews came down and buildings spruced up. The whole façade had the desired effect because although some countries boycotted the Games, the overall ban was dropped.

One of the strongest countries intending to compete was the United States, and some of their best athletes were African Americans, who when asked to refrain from taking part, then turned the question around and asked “ how can you ask us not to go to Germany because of the way they’re treating Jews when we’re treated the way we are in America”. It was a fair point, but Hitler didn’t want them to compete either, and it must have been a bitter pill for him to swallow when he agreed that they could.

With the political obstacles out of the way, Hitler then set about providing the best international sporting spectacle – and largest propaganda exercise – that the world had ever seen.

He introduced the first torch relay from Greece to the new 100,000-seater Olympic Stadium in Berlin, and used new technology in the form of television to broadcast live pictures of the Olympics for the first time. As if that wasn’t enough, Germany’s medal tally beat other participating nations by a marathon, but the real star of the show was the Fuhrer himself.

Inside the Stadium

The propaganda exercise had been a resounding success – well almost. The only fly in the ointment came from an African American called Jessie Owens. He came from extremely humble beginnings, but was the Usain Bolt of his day. It wasn’t only Hitler who thought that white people were superior at the time, the same thoughts were echoed in parts of America too.

Jessie Owens was not only a great athlete, but also a beacon of hope for black people everywhere. At Berlin he won four gold medals and became recognised as the fastest man in the world – proving to Adolf Hitler, America and the rest of the world that white people weren’t necessarily superior after all.

It was widely reported that Hitler snubbed Jessie Owens, but I’ve also read that he never held a grudge against the athlete – and neither did Jessie Owens hold a grudge against the Fuhrer either.

Medal Winner's Board with Jessie Owens' name at the top of the left hand column
Medal Winner's Board with Jessie Owens' name at the top of the left hand column
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When the XI Olympiad was over the charade also came to an abrupt close. Jessie Owens went back home to another menial job, Jews and others were once again persecuted, and the world would soon descend into chaos – but at least Hitler would have had his revenge for Langemarck.

The stadium is now home to Hertha Berlin football club and located in Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf. It can be reached by U2 or S5.

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22 thoughts on “Hitler’s Olympics

  1. toonsarah

    Thanks for including lots of details about these Games which I hadn’t read about previously – very interesting. The stadium seems worth a visit next time we’re in Berlin, if ever we are!

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      In a way it’s interesting for all the wrong reasons – but that’s history for you. Thanks again for following Sarah. It’s always appreciated

      Reply
  2. TheRamblingWombat

    A very insightful review Malc. It remains amazing to me how Hitler got as far as he did before people realised what he was up to. I imagine others were still war weary after WWI and didn’t imagine it would happen again, so soon.

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      Thanks Albert. You’re absolutely right about how quick WWII followed WWI and there are lessons to be learned from it, which I’m not sure that they have. I have some deep feelings about it all, but I don’t think for one minute anybody would listen to me. All I’m going to say is that Germany has carried a monkey on its back for a long time and believe that they know how to get rid of it.

      Reply
        1. Malc Post author

          That’s one of the things I like about you Albert. Always prepared to listen to someone elses’s point of view. Churchill once said that “it takes courage to stand up and speak, but it also takes courage to sit down and listen”.

          Reply
  3. Alli Templeton

    What a fascinating story of an audacious stunt from Hitler’s Nazi propaganda machine, Malc. I’d only heard of these Olympics before, and never knew the events around it, or what it was all really about. Well done to Jessie James for the poke in the eye to the dreadful hosts, and for showing the world what real talent looks like. Thanks for this eye-opening nugget of history – a fascinating read. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      I’ve always had a desire to try and understand why the world tore itself apart during the 20th century, and as you will be only too aware the more you look back into these things the harder it gets to understand.
      Thanks for taking a look Alli and I hope your day in London went well.

      Reply
      1. Alli Templeton

        I think in many ways it was worse in the 20th Century than it was in the Middle Ages. Back then it was much simpler: all politics was dynastic politics. And compared to the medieval era, in my view the 20th Century, with the Nazis and all their atrocities were much more brutal than anything they did in the Middle Ages.

        London went well thanks, hard work, and I’ve realised I need all the revision time I can get, so I’m going to take Maddie to Bristol on the Friday after my exam – 21st June. Then I’ll really be able to relax and enjoy it too.,, 🙂

        Reply
        1. Malc Post author

          I’m no expert on any of this stuff, but it’s easy enough to see how WWI led to WWII, and how WWII led to the Cold War, so when the world sleepwalked into conflict in 1914, it opened the gates to almost another century of turmoil, but far worse than the Hundred Years War.

          I can see your logic in leaving the Bristol trip to after the exam. I’m afraid that I can’t keep up with all these modules and exams. The one on 21st June is for what exactly? – just so that I know what I’ll be celebrating 🙂

          Reply
          1. Alli Templeton

            No worries, Malc. It is a madly busy time and everything’s blending into each other. It’s only one exam, on 14th. The whole module crammed into one long paper. So I’ve decided it’s best to get it out of the way before I take Maddie to the SS Great Britain – hence taking her on the following Friday, the 21st June.

            You’re right, of course, we did sleepwalk into WWII and onto the Cold War – that’s a really good way of phrasing it. You’d have thought after the Great War though, the powers that be would have avoided another conflict at all costs. Talk about history repeating itself…

            Reply
            1. Malc Post author

              That all makes sense now. I thought you had another exam on the 21st. We’re probably both sleepwalking at the moment 🙂

              Reply
                1. Malc Post author

                  🙂 At least you’ve got an excuse 🙂 Thanks for following and enjoy the rest of your weekend

                  Reply
  4. Stuart Templeton

    A very interesting post Malcolm, I was actually surprised that the stadium is still standing – I would have thought that it would have been pulled down years ago.
    A very interesting post, I’d heard of Jesses Owens obviously but I didn’t know that they had started a lot of the traditions we still follow today – I would have thought the Olympic torch went back further than that.
    Great photo’s as always!

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      The torch itself goes back much further but not relaying it from Greece. Thanks for taking a look Stuart and thanks for your comments as always

      Reply
        1. Malc Post author

          Reading about what Hitler got up to doesn’t always make for a comfortable read, but it’s still worth knowing about I reckon

          Reply

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