Hitler’s Olympics

On this day, 80 years ago, the 1936 Summer Olympics kicked off its opening ceremony in Berlin, Germany.  Berlin had won the bid to host the games two years before the Nazi Party came into power, and the International Olympic Committee considered changing the location in response to Germany’s rise of antisemitism. With assurance from Adolf Hitler and his regime that Jewish athletes could compete in the games, the IOC decided to continue on with the event as scheduled.  This would be the last Olympics before the outbreak of World War II; the games being canceled for 12 years until the London Olympics in 1948.

In Hitler’s Olympics: The Story of the 1936 Nazi GamesAnton Rippon tells the story of those remarkable Games. His account looks at how the rise of the Nazis affected German sportsmen and women in the early 1930’s. And it reveals how the rest of the world allowed the Berlin Olympics to go ahead despite the knowledge that Nazi Germany was a police state.

Bringing the story of this unbelievable time to life, Rippon writes in his introduction:

When the International Olympic Committee met in Barcelona in April 1931 and recommended Berlin as the stage for the 1936 Olympics Games, they awarded them to a democracy. By the time those Games got under way five years later, Germany was in the grasp of a fascist dictatorship and the Olympics had been delivered into the hands of one of the most evil regimes the world has ever seen.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the Nazis achieved a remarkable propaganda coup in 1936. They persuaded the International Olympic Committee and several governments – albeit fairly apathetic ones – that they could stage a  fair and free Olympics. And having been allowed to keep the Games, they indulged a few cosmetic measures – removing anti-Jewish posters for a couple of weeks; ordering their followers to be pleasant to foreigners even if they looked like Jews – which sent most people away with a fairly relaxed view of life in the Third Reich. Visitors went home blissfully unaware that a few miles from the Olympic Stadium a new concentration camp had just been opened. While spectators enjoyed the great athletic spectacle, just a short train ride away, Jews, gypsies, Communists and other enemies of the Nazi state languished with no hope and no future.

Even though Adolf Hitler would surely have proceeded along his chosen road regardless, there is little doubt that staging the 1936 Olympic Games was an important episode in his march which ultimately led the world to another great war.

…But whatever the verdict of history on the IOC’s decision made that spring day in Catalonia, one thing is irrefutable: the nature of international sport would be forever changed after 1936; never again would it be possible to successfully argue that sport and politics can be separated. Hitler’s Olympics saw to that.

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