Eighty years since the ‘Nazi Games’

The Summer Olympics in 1936 began on a very atypical August day. Dark clouds gathered in the sky over Berlin. Occasional rain harassed the spectators. The doomed Hindenburg airship hovered over the Olympic stadium, intermittently obscuring the sun and casting a giant shadow across the crowd.

For the opening ceremony, three thousand singers warmed the colossal stone stadium in West Berlin with the sound of the German national anthem, followed by a more sinister rendition of the Horst-Wessel-Song.

Only by chance had the opportunity to hold the Olympics Games fallen into the hands of the Nazi regime, with the decision for the venue made in 1931, two years before Hitler’s seizure of power.

Previously scheduled to be held in Germany in 1916, the competition had been cancelled due to the outbreak of WWI. That year, intended to feature the 11th Olympiad, celebrating the brotherhood of man, would be remembered instead for the names of Verdun, the Somme & Fromelle.

Twenty years later, in Berlin, the Nazi regime would utilise the Olympics as a vehicle for presenting Germany’s recently reassumed vigour and the physical prowess of its youth. Not only would this be an exhibition of nations, but of the strength of those nations.

The 1936 Summer Olympics is often remembered for the mass exclusion of Jewish athletes on the part of the German team (Nine Jewish athletes from other nations who could have been disqualified had the Nazis proposed blanket ban of Jewish athletes been introduced would win medals at the ‘Nazi Games’) and for the four gold medals won by black American athlete Jesse Owens. It is easy to overlook the reality that Nazi Germany technically won the Games. Edging out the United States with an 89–56 margin. A coup for the regime, no doubt influenced by the fact that Germany fielded the most athletes.

If ever there was a competition truly deserving of that old overspent sporting maxim ‘it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts,’ it would have to be the 1936 Summer Olympics.

The previous November in Nüremburg, at the annual Nazi party rally, Nazi racial theory was institutionalised with the introduction of the Nürnburger Gesetze, stripping Jews of Reich citizenship and banning them from having sexual relations with or marrying persons of “German blood”.

In March 1936, German troops crossed the Rhine and began remilitarising the West bank of the river, in violation of the Treaty of Versaille and Treaty of Locarno. The French government, battling financial ruin and internal dissent, would offer no resistance.

Two days before the Olympic opening ceremony, Nazi forces had secretly begun flying Spanish nationalists from bases in Morocco to fight against republican forces in the Spanish civil war. A conflict that would serve for the Nazis as a dress rehersal for the invasion of Poland and outbreak of WWII three years later .

The storm clouds were gathering, yet the Games continued.