Five-ring Circus

Olympic Appeasement

The United States’ acquiescence to Hitler at the 1936 Games helped fuel the rise of Nazi Germany.

Adolf Hitler salutes the teams during the opening ceremony of the XI Olympiad on Aug. 1, 1936 in Berlin.
Adolf Hitler salutes the teams during the opening ceremony of the XI Olympiad on Aug. 1, 1936, in Berlin.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images and Lőrincze Judit/Wikipedia.

The Games of the XI Olympiad had their official opening in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium on Aug. 1, 1936. The Olympic competitions had actually been scheduled to take place in Berlin some 20 years previously, but the 1916 Summer Games had been canceled upon the outbreak of the First World War. Germany was subsequently excluded from the 1920 and 1924 games (in Antwerp, Belgium, and Paris). In 1928, during the Weimar Republic, the German Olympic team was allowed to compete in the games in Amsterdam. Three years later, defeating its rival Barcelona by a large majority of votes, Berlin had won the bid to host the 1936 Games. By the summer of 1936, German democracy was a thing of the past, and Berlin was at the center of a brutal dictatorship that persecuted, locked up, or murdered its political opponents. In such circumstances, shouldn’t the International Olympic Committee have relocated the games?

Intellectuals like Heinrich Mann, brother of the writer Thomas Mann, had no doubt that Nazi Berlin was the most unsuitable site imaginable for a great athletic festival. “Believe me,” the writer warned from his Paris exile in June 1936, “the international sportspeople who go to Berlin will serve as nothing but the gladiators, prisoners, and jesters of a dictator who already conceives of himself as the master of the world.” But it was too late. The first athletes, men and women, were by this time already on their way to the Olympic Village.

Heinrich Mann was just one of many to express such sentiments. The fact that the competitions nevertheless took place in the capital of the Third Reich was due to the machinations of a few sports administrators. The history of the Berlin Games offers, among other things, a lesson in political cynicism and moral corruption.

It wasn’t long after Adolf Hitler seized power in 1933 that a broad-based international protest movement arose, centered on the question of whether the regime would allow Jewish athletes from Germany to participate in the Olympic Games. Should this permission not be granted, the protesters, especially in England and the United States, demanded that the international community boycott the athletic festival in Berlin. The IOC, however—as so often in its history—declared that such political questions lay outside its area of responsibility. Its president, Belgian aristocrat Henri de Baillet-Latour, made reference to Germany’s internal affairs, in which there was little desire to interfere. But Baillet-Latour underestimated the American public, which his excuse failed to satisfy.

With the pressure of public opinion in the United States growing steadily, in 1934 the American Olympic Committee dispatched its president to Berlin. Avery Brundage’s mission was to examine and report on the situation of Germany’s Jewish athletes. The 46-year-old businessman, who had in the past expressed his admiration for Hitler, would then help decide on a possible boycott of the games. Brundage stayed in the capital city for six days. He met representatives of the German government; inspected the XI Olympiad’s future site, then under construction (a matter of special interest to him, as the founder of a construction business); visited various Berlin museums (he was an art collector); and generally had a good time. However, a meeting in a Berlin luxury hotel with the authorities responsible for “Jewish Sports” turned into farce. Informed that Jews could not be members of a German sports club, Brundage replied, “In my club in Chicago, Jews are not permitted either.” The American visitor couldn’t recognize any discrimination in what he saw in Germany. After his return to the U.S., Brundage explained: “I was given positive assurance in writing … that there will be no discrimination against Jews. You can’t ask more than that and I think the guarantee will be fulfilled.” With this, as far as Brundage was concerned, the matter was closed.
He had never seriously considered boycotting the games.

In spite of Brundage’s assessment, the protests continued. In the summer of 1935, the IOC felt obliged to send its own negotiator to Berlin. Charles Hitchcock Sherrill’s task was not to make an open-minded assessment of political conditions in Germany. Rather, the 68-year-old American was charged with preventing a boycott at all costs. Sherrill, a lawyer, retired brigadier general, college professor, and diplomat, was like Brundage an admirer of Hitler’s.
In June 1933, in a letter to the New York Times, Sherrill had praised the newly elected German chancellor as Europe’s strong man. When Hitler granted him an hourlong conversation on Aug. 24, 1935, Sherrill was overwhelmed. In a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sherrill waxed enthusiastic over Hitler’s modesty, his upright character, and his impressive physical condition. An amateur historian, Sherrill very proudly noted that his 1931 book Bismarck and Mussolini had been lying on Hitler’s desk. (Sherrill neglected to mention that the Führer, unschooled in the English language, could hardly have been capable of reading the 300-page opus.) Berlin was to harbor no doubts about Sherrill’s friendly attitude: Sherrill had a copy of his letter to FDR passed on to Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda ministry via the German Embassy in Washington.

Sherrill was as little interested as Avery Brundage in the situation of Germany’s Jews. Hitler exhibited unwillingness to go into the matter at any length. The Jews weren’t being oppressed, he said, lying to Sherrill’s face, but had only been separated from the German population. For this reason, he explained, no Jew could be a member of the German Olympic team. At this point, Sherrill went on the offensive: If Hitler persisted in this view, he said, the Americans would boycott the games, and moreover the IOC would probably have no choice but to withdraw from the Berlin venue and hold the competitions somewhere else. In that case, Hitler blustered, purely German Olympic Games would be held in Berlin. But these threats were nothing more than hot air. In truth, securing American participation must have been of the greatest interest to Hitler, as it was to the IOC. The United States held the undisputed position of No. 1 sports nation in the world; if the Americans stayed away, the athletic and political significance of the games would be destroyed, and the French and British would probably follow suit and withdraw.

Sherrill of course knew this, and he proposed to the Führer a diplomatic way out of the predicament. The government could call upon the Jewish sports associations to nominate one representative to the German team. Sherrill’s suggestion was little more than an outline, but with it the idea of the “alibi Jew” was born. Hitler promised to ponder the proposal and invited his American admirer to attend that year’s annual National Socialist Party rally in Nuremberg as an honored guest. Sherrill gratefully accepted the invitation.

During his four-day stay in Middle Franconia, Sherrill had further discussions with the Reichssportführer (Reich sports leader) Hans von Tschammer und Osten, who found more and more to like in the American proposal. From this point on, the Germans changed their tune, explaining that Jewish athletes would be allowed to join the German team, provided they were in “Olympic shape.” The authority to decide who did and who did not rate as olympiareif, “Olympics ready,” was none other than Hans von Tschammer und Osten. By the time Sherrill left Nuremberg, there was an agreed-upon candidate. On Sept. 21, 1935, Tschammer invited Jewish fencer Helene Mayer to join the German team. Here again, Sherrill showed himself to be a true friend to the Nazis. “Send her the letter by registered mail,” he’d advised the Reich sports leader on his way out. “Whether she accepts or not, Germany’s Reichssportführer will have respected the IOC’s principles.” It was as simple as that.

Back in the United States, Sherrill gave the Berlin government unconditional absolution, stating that the treatment of Jews in Germany concerned him as little as “the lynching of Negroes in the South of our own country.” Sherrill even had the presumption to issue an unambiguous threat to American Jews. The German News Office, the official press agency for the Third Reich, cabled Sherrill’s words to Berlin: “You’ve got 500,000 athletes in this country preparing to try for the Olympic Games and a trip to Germany. Now then, if these athletes suddenly realize that about five million Jews out of the approximately 120 million people in this country are attempting or have succeeded in depriving them of their opportunity, we are almost certain to have anti-Semitic trouble that will last for many years.” In other words: Jews had better take good care not to look like spoilsports.

When Mayer joined the German Olympic team, the international boycott movement collapsed. But what would have happened had the United States and a few other countries declined to make the trip to Berlin? What effect could the boycott have had?

It’s certain the Western powers’ abstention from the games would have thwarted Hitler’s strategy to project the image of a peace-loving statesman. In Hitler’s choreography, the Olympic Games were to serve as a kind of “compensation” at the end of a series of political provocations and extortions. In mid-October 1933, Germany had announced its withdrawal from both the League of Nations and the Geneva Disarmament Conference, thus giving the starting signal for a massive rearmament program. Less than two years later, in mid-March 1935, Hitler had introduced compulsory military service and expanded the armed forces from 100,000 to 500,000 men. And in spring 1936, just a few months before the opening of the Berlin Games, the dictator had pulled off his most brazen coup to date when he sent German troops marching into the demilitarized Rheinland, once again breaking international agreements.

Hitler had handed the Western powers a genuine casus belli—but nothing happened. Aside from issuing a few meek notes of protest, the governments in London and Paris kept quiet. In this way, Hitler exposed the West’s indecisiveness. And not so many weeks thereafter, with the Olympic Games, he could show his supposedly friendly face. Hitler needed the Western powers in Berlin, for he wanted to lull them into security and distract them from other things. During those summer days in 1936, Hitler committed his real plans to paper in a top-secret memorandum. In his view, a war with the Soviet Union was inevitable; Germany was “overpopulated” and needed new “living space.” At the end of the memorandum, he wrote, “I hereby set the following task: 1) The German armed forces must be deployment-ready [einsatzfähig] within four years. 2) The German economy must be war-ready [kriegsfähig] within four years.” Three years later, World War II began.

The XI Olympic Games would go down in the history books for a variety of reasons: Almost 4,000 athletes from 49 countries took part in 129 competitions—more than ever before. With 89 medals (33 gold, 26 silver, 30 bronze), Germany was by far and away the most successful country, followed by the United States (24 gold, 20 silver, 12 bronze). While Jesse Owens was the most successful athlete with four gold medals, Hitler was ultimately able to fit the black American’s success into his perverse world view, claiming that black people were “more athletically built” and therefore “not fair competition.”

Hitler later claimed the Olympic Games brought half a billion reichsmarks to Berlin. It’s hard to say whether this figure is correct. Regardless, the value of the 1936 Olympic Games couldn’t be measured in marks and pfennigs. Most of the foreign visitors enjoyed their trips and came away overwhelmed by what Nazi Berlin had to offer. Hitler and his regime were able to present themselves as peace-loving, reliable members of the family of nations. These 16 days of August gave many people new hope that things would change and Hitler could be trusted to keep his promises of peace. The sporting spectacle had helped pull the wool over their eyes.

More than four decades after the failed boycott of the Olympic Games in Berlin, the sports festival once again became an arena for political disputes. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan at the end of 1979, more than 40 countries—among them West Germany—pulled out of the 1980 Summer Olympics, scheduled to take place in Moscow in July. “It had no effect,” recalled former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, speaking about the boycott in an interview many years later. “Russian television viewers just didn’t notice that a couple of countries were missing.” When asked whether, in that case, any villain should get the chance to present himself to the world as a peace-loving host, Schmidt answered, “No. Nevertheless, I’d be glad to see international sport remain as free from politics as possible.” But this principled position is misleading. Whether in Berlin in 1936 or Sochi in 2014 or Qatar in 2022, as long as international sports organizations and their administrators allow themselves to serve as the instruments of dubious regimes, sport will never be free from political influences. That’s the lesson of 1936.

Charles Hitchcock Sherrill, who died unexpectedly in Paris in June 1936, did not live to see Hitler’s Olympic Games. Avery Brundage’s career, on the other hand, was then just beginning. In 1952, he was elected the president of IOC. At the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, it was Brundage who—after an attack by Palestinian terrorists had taken the lives of 11 members of Israel’s Olympics team—declared to the global public: “The games must go on.”

Parts of this piece were adapted from Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August by Oliver Hilmes. The piece was translated by John Cullen.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

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