Retired US army general Charles Hitchcock Sherrill shouldn’t have been so glad to meet Adolf Hitler in 1935.
Sent by the International Olympics Committee, Sherril’s job was to put an end to German policies banning Jews from the Olympics it was hosting in Berlin the following year. Instead, he came back with a glowing report about the Führer — and a promise by Hitler to include at least one “token Jew” at the Games.
Berlin had initially been awarded the ability to host the upcoming Olympics in 1931. It was a signal of the country’s return to the global stage after years as an international pariah following World War I.
But shortly after Hitler assumed power in 1933, protests focused on Germany’s official anti-Semitic public policy began forming across Britain and the United States. People were infuriated that the host of the games sought to prohibit Jewish athletes from taking part in the international sporting spectacle.
In the autumn of 1934, the American Olympic Committee (AOC) visited Berlin, sending its president, Avery Brundage, as a representative.
But as German author Oliver Hilmes writes in his new book “Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August” the sporting delegate’s official trip to the German capital was a farce.
Brundage, after all, was himself a confessed anti-Semite who paid little attention on his trip to the prejudices against Jewish sports stars. Instead, he recommended that the AOC simply accept Germany’s invitation to attend the 1936 Olympics, while also ignoring the existing ban on Jewish athletes from German sports clubs.
With the international pressure and moral outrage building, the IOC sent its own delegation to try and find another solution.
But the IOC delegation fared no better than Brundage did. In fact, Sherrill, who headed up the second attempt at a solution for the anti-Semitism, seemed to have a personal fascination with Hitler.
Following his Berlin visit, Sherrill even wrote to US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, praising what he called the Führer’s personal modesty, impressive physical condition, and upstanding moral character.
“[American sporting officials] like Charles Hitchcock Sherrill and Avery Brundage were huge admirers of Hitler,” Hilmes explains in a phone call from his home in Berlin. “For them, there was no question that the US would come to Germany to the Olympic games in 1936. So Hitler really had a very easy political propaganda game to play.”
Hilmes’s book was recently been published to coincide with the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.
Written in third-person, present tense diary format, the narrative mixes the banal with the spectacular, the glamorous with the political, and sporting glory with gossip and celebrity mischief. The book recreates in real time the events of those historic 16 days in August 1936.
Propaganda at its finest
“The Olympic Games in 1936 were a climax of power and international influence for the Nazis, because Germany presented itself as a peace loving, open minded, and tolerant country,” says Hilmes. “The various sportspeople and diplomats who came to Berlin were hugely impressed with what they saw. So it was an enormous success in propaganda.”
Hilmes believes the propaganda worked successfully for two reasons. Firstly, because the sheer scale of the event was unlike anything witnessed in modern international sport. The Olympic Games hosted in Los Angeles in 1932, for instance, were dwarfed in comparison to the sheer grandiosity of the Berlin Games.
Secondly, the games had a global media reach. They were the first to be broadcasted — via radio — live to a global audience. The sporting contest boasted a press team of 1800 journalists from 59 countries.
“The Nazi dictatorship… tried to overwhelm a global audience with pure technical details, so they could show Berlin off to the world,” says Hilmes. “This mechanism of overwhelming people really worked.”
But behind the public facade of lavish parties and celebratory feel-good atmosphere, a more sinister narrative lay buried beneath the surface in Berlin, then three years into a fascist dictatorship.
Germany was already plotting another world war. And by giving military and financial assistance to Spain — via fellow far-right fascist dictator General Francisco Franco — Hitler was helping to stir the beginnings of the Spanish Civil War, too.
The cultish worship of Nazi power across Germany during these years meant German public discourse was always a somewhat double-sided Machiavellian mind game.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that the negotiations conducted between Hitler and Sherrill, discussing the possible participation of Jewish athletes and potential discrimination against them, were conducted in a cynical and deceitful manner.
Fact, fiction, sport, politics, and propaganda constantly overlapped.
Hitler blatantly lied to Sherrill. The Führer’s line was that Jews were not being discriminated against per se, but merely being treated as distinct from the German people. Consequently, they would not be allowed to compete as members of the German Olympic team.
Sherrill, however, knew he couldn’t return to the United States simply accepting an unapologetically official anti-Semitic line from Nazi Germany. And so he threatened Hitler with an ultimatum: If the Germans continued to insist on this anti-Jewish position, the IOC would take the Olympic Games away from Berlin.
One Jew to represent them all
As the greatest sporting nation on earth and a major world superpower, Hitler knew he needed the Americans on board. A compromise was reached: The Nazi regime would call upon the Jewish sports federations in Germany to nominate a representative for the German team. Thus the idea of the “token Jew” for the Olympic Games of 1936 was born.
“The strategy of the token Jew was developed by the Americans, and not by the Nazis,” Hilmes explains. “The question the international community kept asking at this time was, how would Nazi Germany treat Jewish sportsmen and Jewish people?
“And so the American sports officials developed the idea that Germany should take one or two Jewish sports people in their Olympic team. And that would be enough to convince the Americans to come to Berlin,” he says.
“Hitler’s sports officials said, okay we take one token Jew, and that was the price Germany had to pay for the US to come to Berlin,” Hilmes adds. “And so the US came to Berlin, and Hitler had his victory.”
The so-called “token Jew” who competed in the Berlin Games was 26-year-old Helene Mayer. The young Jewish athlete even gave the Nazi salute upon receiving the silver medal in women’s fencing she won for Germany during the Olympic Games.
Mayer’s historical legacy is a controversial one. For some, the Jewish athlete is now seen as a traitor to Jews — a collaborator of Nazi Germany who put personal ambition ahead of moral values. For others, Mayer is seen as a tragic figure, merely an innocent bystander who was manipulated in a cynical game of propaganda which suited both the Nazi regime and the IOC at the time.
Might things turned out differently if Mayer had declined the Nazis’ invitation to compete in the international sporting competition?
“It’s hard to say,” says Hilmes. “But let’s imagine for a moment. If Helene Mayer had not competed, and if the United States had not taken part in the Olympic Games games in the summer of 1936, the propaganda victory for Nazi Germany certainly would have been much, much smaller.”
“So people like Helene Mayer, unfortunately, played a major role in Hitler’s propaganda [war] during these games,” Hilmes adds.
The star of the Nazi Olympics was ‘the Negro’
Mayer may well have been Germany’s Jewish star of the Berlin Games of 1936. But the most talked about sports star around the globe that summer was a 22-year-old American sprinter: Jesse Owens.
The young African American from Oakville, Alabama, achieved international fame and notoriety by winning four gold medals at the games. He took first place in 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and the 4 x 100 meter relay.
The public line in Nazi Germany at the time was to cheer on Owens’s achievements with great gusto along with the rest of the world.
But privately, the Nazi hierarchy was livid at having to publicly endure and applaud a victory on German soil from an African American — principally, because this narrative was at odds with one of the central tenants of Nazi ideology. The Nazis believed in a social Darwinist hierarchy and war of races where Aryans were considered the fittest and strongest, non-whites were weak, and Jews seen as subhuman.
Hilmes’s book recalls one incident during the Games where a member of the Nazi Party causally asked Hitler if he might have his picture taken with Owens for publicity purposes. The Führer snarled back at the suggestion, expressing his disgust at the mere thought of shaking hands with what he referred to as “this Negro.” Hitler then added how the Americans should be “ashamed of letting Negroes win their medals.”
Hilmes’s tome gleans much of the material regarding Hitler’s reaction to Owens’s victory from the candid diaries of Joseph Goebbels, then-Nazi minister of propaganda.
“We have to distinguish between what Goebbels wrote in his diary, what Hitler said to his close friends, and what happened in the public [about Jesse Owens],” the historian explains. “In the German public’s [eyes], Owens was the star of these games. There was not a single hint of racism against Jesse Owens in the German newspapers.”
Until his death, Jesse Owens thought Hitler treated him better than president Roosevelt did
Indeed, as Hilmes continually points out in his book, German newspapers at the time contained a myriad of charming stories that praised Jesse Owens’s sporting achievements. This perpetuated a fantasy narrative that Nazi Germany was an open minded, tolerant, and liberal nation.
“This was a highly cynical strategy,” says Hilmes, “and not a true reflection of what was happening in Germany at the time. The real truth about Nazi Germany’s thoughts on Jesse Owens you can read in Joseph Goebbels’s diary.”
“But until his death, Jesse Owens thought Hitler treated him better than president Roosevelt did,” adds Hilmes. “This shows us just how perfectly the Nazi propaganda worked.”
Games, with a concentration camp a stone’s throw away
This constant stream of cynical propaganda, however, was not just used to conceal Nazi Germany’s official anti-Semitic policy or its military ambitions for global domination.
As early as 1936 the Nazis had already begun building political prisons and labor camps close to Berlin. These were purposely constructed to imprison those the Third Reich viewed as a threat to Nazi ideology.
One such concentration camp, Sachsenhausen, was already under construction just 35 kilometers (22 miles) north of Berlin during the summer of 1936.
While not officially an extermination camp, an estimated 30,000 prisoners would die at Sachsenhausen during World War II.
Initially built for criminals and political opponents, Jews would end up at Sachsenhausen at a later stage, too.
Over the course of the camp’s existence, the number of Jewish prisoners in Sachsenhausen fluctuated. The Jewish population went from 21 in early 1937 to 11,100 in the beginning of 1945. During Kristallnacht in November 1938, SS leader Heinrich Himmler ordered the arrest of up to 30,000 Jews, deporting almost 6,000 to Sachsenhausen.
“The Nazis started building up the [Sachsenhausen] camp in the summer of 1936,” Hilmes explains, “but most of the international visitors during the autumn of 1936 didn’t know what was going on in the north of Berlin.”
One of the main reasons the German press appeared to be so squeaky clean during the Olympic Games was due to the limited availability of Der Stürmer — the weekly anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda mouthpiece that dedicated itself full time to attacking Jews in Germany.
Established by Julius Streicher in 1923, the tabloid newspaper had nearly half a million readers by the mid-1930s.
“Der Stürmer really was the most vulgar anti-Semitic newspaper in Nazi Germany,” says Hilmes. “It was so vulgar that even Joseph Goebbels was embarrassed by some of the things that were written in the paper.”
Typical stories that appeared in the weekly newspaper included moral panic-inducing tales warning that “Aryan” girls were being violated by older nymphomaniac Jewish men.
The paper didn’t entirely suspend publishing over the course of the 16 days the Olympics Games took place, but official Nazi policy forbade it from being sold on the streets of Berlin during this time.
“The Nazis decided not to sell Der Stürmer during the Olympic Games because the international tourists could have read it,” says Hilmes. “The Nazis didn’t want them to see the real things that were happening in Germany at the time.”
Of course, the summer of 1936 is not the only time during the 20th century that the Olympic Games was hijacked in the name of politics.
During the 1972 Games in Munich, West Germany, the Palestinian terrorist group Black September took hostage 11 Israeli Olympic team members who were subsequently murdered along with a German police officer.
In1980, the US boycotted the Moscow Olympic Games. And in 1984 the Soviet Union, and other Eastern Bloc countries, similarly boycotted the Los Angels Games. These boycotts were reflective of knife edge tension during the last days of the Cold War.
Can the Olympic Games of 1936 teach us any lessons in our present age?
“One of the lessons that one could lesson from the Olympic Games in 1936 is that sport should not be used as an instrument in international politics,” says Hilmes.
Hilmes has strong views on the World Cup in Qatar in 2022.
“The World Cup in Qatar in 2022 is really a ridiculous [spectacle],” says Hilmes. “There is no soccer tradition in Qatar, a questionable country which has been accused of funding international terrorism, and where homosexual activities are punishable by death.”
“I believe no liberal democratic countries should have any business being there,” the historian concludes.