To Boycott or Not to Boycott

The 1936 Olympics and the U.S. Boycott Effort

The torch arrives in Berlin, 1936

More than probably any other edition of the Olympic Games, the 1936 Olympiad in Berlin Germany has drawn the interest of scholars and historians. These Games were interesting for a number of reasons, most notably that they were hosted by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis on the eve of the Second World War. Academics have examined the impact that hosting the Games had on Nazi legitimacy in the international community, as well as the impact that black athletic success in Germany in 1936 had on the black community back in America. Additionally, historians have pinpointed these Games as an important inflection point in the history of the commercialization of the Olympics. The 1936 Olympics were the first to ever be taped, setting the foundation for the television monolith they would go on to become.

The other important event surrounding the 1936 Games were the boycott efforts that preceded it. After 1936, boycotts and threat of boycotts would become a regular feature of the Olympic cycle. Eight countries recused themselves from the 1956 Games in Melbourne. That number increased to 34 two decades later in Montreal before peaking four years later in Moscow at 66 countries. The most recent boycott of consequence occurred at the 1988 Games in Seoul, capital of the Republic of Korea. But this trend, the explicit use of international sport as a political tool, traces its roots back to the 1930s in the lead-up to the Nazi Olympics. Though only Spain ended up withdrawing from the Games (as there was an ongoing civil war at the time), all future boycotters clearly walked in the footsteps of those activists that pressed for their countries to be withdrawn from the Games in Germany.

One thing that does seem to set the Germany boycott efforts apart from all other subsequent ones is the level of public support for it. The true evil of the Nazi regime would not become plainly apparent to much of the world until the end of the War, yet it is suggested that these efforts had, in the United States, support that the 1980 boycott lacked. This paper will examine how widespread such efforts really were.

To understand the boycott efforts, one must first assess the environment in which they occurred, starting with the upper level of amateur sport administration at the time. While today, power is fairly consolidated under the United States Olympic Committee and the various sporting federations, in 1936 it was much more diffuse. The USOC’s precursor was known as the American Olympic Association, which shared power with various stakeholders like the Amateur Athletic Union and the National Collegiate Athletic Association. However, there was much cross-pollination between these organizations in terms of membership, so the circle of real power brokers in the Olympic movement in the United States was actually rather insular.

The two sides of the boycott debate were headed by Avery Brundage, then head of the AOA, and Judge Jeremiah T. Mahoney, president of the AAU. Brundage was a lifelong fanatic of Olympism, reacting to any hint of dissent with the ferociousness of a religious crusader. The domestic affairs of the German government, asserted Brundage, should not prevent U.S. athletes from pursuing their dream to participate in an Olympic Festival. Mahoney, on other side, could not support a celebration of Olympic ideals in a country rife with discriminatory social legislation. American participation in the Berlin Games, he believed, represented tacit approval of Adolf Hitler’s policies.

These two men clashed both in the papers and behind closed doors over the course of several months. In a letter to fellow AOA member Jack Kirby, Brundage wrote that “if we deviate from our policy of concerning ourselves with sport alone, however, we will be in constant hot water.” Brundage also refused to believe that support for a boycott was as widespread as it was. He seems to have failed to grasp that people could arrive at a different point of view than he had in good faith, instead deciding that the entire movement was the work of Jewish and communist agitators. As historian Allen Guttman wrote in his history of the Olympics,

The entire problem, in Brundage’s eyes, was that opponents of the Nazi regime were not satisfied with Olympic rules; that they really wanted a boycott to undermine Nazism; that they mean to use the games as a political weapon. Since Jews and communists were calling for a boycott, Brundage reasoned — illogically — that all the boycotters were Jews and communists.

Brundage’s fanaticism often bled into outright anti-Semitism. Guttman argues that Brundage was not previously an anti-Semite, but rather his zeal for Olympism caused him to react thusly towards the threat they posed to it. Regardless of this chicken-or-the-egg situation, these feelings were a large part of the discourse surrounding the boycott. Many managed to support participation in the Games without resorting to such outright bigotry, such as Brundage’s longtime ally Kirby, who wrote Brundage on the matter, “I take it that the fundamental difference between you and me is that you are a Jew hater and Jew baiter and I am neither.”

Problematic views aside, Brundage was correct in his observation that both left radicals and Jewish communities vocally supported a boycott. As one New York Times article reported, Jewish community groups organized to plan “a militant campaign to prevent colleges and athletic organizations from permitting their athletes to participate in the 1936 Olympic Games.” Leftist papers like Crisis and the Daily Worker both strongly supported the movement.

Yet among those that supported a boycott, some bristled at the suggestion that they were all Jews and communists. One fellow sport administrator wrote to Brundage, “It may interest you to know that there are more gentile colleagues who desire to bring the matter before the AAU convention [where the matter could be decided] than there are Jews.” This was true for the wider populace as well. As Guttman notes, Catholics and Protestants lined up in support of a boycott, writing endorsements in their respective publications Commonweal and Christian Century. The Catholic War Veterans offered their support, as did numerous prominent Christians from both sides of the Catholic-Protestant split: Al Smith, Reinhold Niebuhr, James Curley, and Harry Emerson Fosdick all separately came out in support of the movement. The National Council of Methodist Youth offered their support as well, asking parishioners to support the boycott movement as “one of the most effective means of expressing the moral indignation of civilized people at the return of barbarism” to Germany.

In the black community, the movement also found its supporters. As historian David Wiggins wrote, “Some black newspapers advocated a boycott, while the majority encouraged participation.” The argument against participation was similar to what could be found in the white press: that participation would be at least tacit endorsement of Nazi practices. As the New York Amsterdam News, a prominent publication at the time, wrote on the subject,

As members of a minority group whose persecution the Nazis have encouraged, as citizens of a country in which all liberty has not yet been destroyed, you cannot afford to give moral and financial support to a philosophy which seeks the ultimate destruction of all you have fought for.

But for every editorial like this, there was one expressing amazement “that such a concerted effort was being made by sport organizations in the United States to ensure that minority groups were being treated fairly in Germany”, while showing little concern for the plight of black Americans in their own backyard.

The large majority of black athletes were reluctant to clamor for a boycott out of sympathy for Jew when that group had done nothing to improve the lot of black Americans. Merely identifying with the suffering Jews had experienced was not enough to warrant a boycott of something as important as the Olympics, particularly when the Jews had made no protest about lynchings and other barbarities inflicted on black Americans.

Wiggins suggests that this behavior could be rooted in what he calls “a strong undercurrent” of anti-Jewish views in the black community. As he wrote, “Blacks seemed as caught up as American whites in the anti-Semitic movement” of the 1930s, and that “it was not uncommon for members of the black community to lay much of the blame on Jewish American for the injustices they suffered — particularly in the economic sphere.” He noted that black Americans “frequently stereotyped Jews and blamed them for everything from economic exploitation to murder.” Guttman, though more muted in his words, echoed the sentiment, writing that “while anti-Semitism did not make Afro-Americans especially sympathetic to the Nazis’ racist ideology, it did leave them less indignant than they might have been about the discriminatory treatment suffered by Germany’s Jewish athletes.”

The attitudes of black Americans toward Jewish Americans received some much-needed nuance courtesy of writer and social critic James Baldwin, who famously wrote on the topic for the New York Times. Baldwin suggested that it was not expressly anti-Semitism that governed blacks’ behavior towards Jews, for there is no differentiation between the subjugation blacks faced from white Christians and that they faced from white Jews. He suggests that blacks and Jews are not the brothers in solidarity that Wiggins and Guttman seem to want them to be, writing, that “very few Jews have the courage to recognize that the America of which they dream and boast is not the America in which the Negro lives.” Baldwin continues,

In the American context, the most ironical thing about Negro anti-Semitism is that the Negro is really condemning the Jew for having become an American white man — for having become, in effect, a Christian. The Jew profits from his status in America, and he must expect Negroes to distrust him for it. The Jew does not realize that the credential he offers, the fact that he has been despised and slaughtered, does not increase the Negro’s understanding. It increases the Negro’s rage […]
He is singled out by Negroes not because he acts differently from other white men, but because he doesn’t.

In this context, the lack of more widespread enthusiasm for the boycott movement in the black community becomes more understandable.

James Baldwin

Among German Americans, the boycott movement received little support. Dietrich Wortmann, head of the German American Olympic Fund Committee at the time, found success in appealing to other German American immigrants for donations to fund the U.S. team. Though there was much animosity among this group as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, research suggests that these German-Americans were sincere in their commitment to Olympism, more intent on fostering sportsmanship between their two nations than any insidious attempt to spread Nazism. As one historian wrote, “It seems more likely that Wortmann’s efforts towards Olympic participation were for the sake of American athletes, the Games, and the Olympic spirit.”

In conclusion, it is apparent that support for the boycott was indeed widespread. Despite Brundage’s bigoted claims, it was not just Jews and Communists trying to prevent the United States from attending the 1936 Games in Berlin. As this paper showed, Catholics and Protestants were similarly engaged, as were black and immigrant communities. Though no demographic appeared to be unanimously in support of the boycott, all appeared to be within a few deviations of the national average of 43% found by Gallup in 1935. This is significantly higher than a similar movement just four years later leading up to the 1940 Games in Japan (that poll was taken before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Games were eventually cancelled, along with the 1944 Games).

From what has been since learned about Brundage’s backroom deal with then-International Olympic Committee President Henri de Baillet-Latour to marginalize the AAU’s role in the US Olympic Movement, this boycott may never have had much of a chance of succeeding regardless of how widespread support was. The Olympics have never really been a democratic affair, so as long as Brundage stubbornly maintained that it was the duty of the Olympic Movement to transcend international politics, the show would go on. As Guttman wrote of the man,

He simply failed to understand that there were men and women of good will who did not agree with him. He was unable to imagine honest opposition and instead attributed what opposition he encountered to ethnic prejudice or political ideology.

Even so, it is true that the Olympics were much more dependent on public donations to fund the team during this era, so there may still have been some level of recourse through which to exert public pressure on Brundage and the AOA. However, today funding comes mostly through corporate sponsors, so those avenues have been effectively closed off. Any future boycott would likely only come as a result of direct government pressure, like it did in 1980, rather than a grassroots movement like the one that occurred in 1936.