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Berlin's Games

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Very Different Sportsman Spirit Played Out at 1936'Nazi Olympics'

When you think of the Olympics, most people get caught up in the sport and camaraderie that take place before a world audience. How that spirit must’ve been different when Berlin hosted the Olympics in 1936.

Through its exhibition “The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936,” the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum sheds light on how the Games played out amid Nazi Germany’s re-militarism, extreme nationalism, rampant racism and Jewish persecution. At the time, many expressed concern and boycotted holding the Olympics in Berlin, but the city was awarded the coveted honor — prior to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.

It’s said that Hitler originally eschewed the idea of hosting the Olympics, but he soon realized that the international gathering could be exploited for propaganda purposes. So for two weeks, Hitler’s Nazi dictatorship camouflaged its racist, militaristic underbelly while it hosted 49 teams from around the world during the ’36 Summer Games.

“Nazi Germany wanted to show the world that it was ready to re-join the community of nations after its defeat in World War I,” said exhibition curator Susan Bachrach, in a release.

“Hosting the Olympics presented the Nazi leadership with an extraordinary opportunity to project the illusion of a peaceful, tolerant Germany under the guise of the Games’ spirit of international cooperation. That effort was largely successful, and the relatively young regime scored a major propaganda victory.”

The exhibit features a great deal of black-and-white photographs, as well as Olympic memorabilia, newspaper clippings, Nazi propaganda and posters, video footage, and interviews with former athletes.

One pictures shows a torchbearer running through the uniform-laden crowds with Nazi flags flying overhead — a jarring moment in the annals of Olympic history. Also on display is the original torch from that run. In fact, the Nazis resurrected the idea of a torch run — originally conceived for the 1916 Berlin Games, which were canceled because of World War I.

In all, 3,422 torchbearers ran one kilometer (0.6 miles) each along the route of the torch relay from the site of the ancient Olympics in Olympia, Greece, to Berlin — the first such run in the modern history of the Games. The torch passed through countries that in a few short years would become occupied or controlled by Germany.

“Holocaust history offers a useful perspective for understanding the questions and challenges we face today,” said museum director Sara Bloomfield. “This exhibition provides a fascinating backdrop to the contemporary Games.”

The exhibit debuted at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1996 in conjunction with the opening of the Atlanta Games. It now returns to Washington following a 10-year tour through 16 cities.

Topics that are explored include the debate that raged in the United States over boycotting the Games, the historic success of many of the 18 African American athletes who participated, and Nazi Germany’s banning of Jews from competing on Germany’s Olympic team, as well as excluding them from other sports-related activities.

The concept of sport as military training is also highlighted, with the Nazis using athletic games as a tool to prepare Germany for war. The display concludes by detailing the fates of the athletes who got caught up in the events of World War II and the Holocaust, which did not spare Olympians who participated in the 1936 Games.

For younger museum-goers who may not be old enough to grasp the complexities of “The Nazi Olympics,” a nearby exhibit, “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story,” presents the history of the Holocaust in ways that elementary and middle school children can understand. It includes pages of a “diary” written by a child named Daniel, who takes visitors through the walls of his home and his experience in the ghetto, where his sister and mother were killed.

The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936 through Aug. 17 U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, SW For more information, please call (202) 488–0400 or visit www.ushmm.org.

About the Author

Christine Cub

Last Edited on November 29, 1999