The Nazi Olympics

In August 1936, the Nazi regime tried to camouflage its violent racist policies while it hosted the Summer Olympics.

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Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC.

For two weeks in August 1936, Adolf Hitler's Nazi dictatorship camouflaged its racist, militaristic character while hosting the Summer Olympics. Softpedaling its antisemitic agenda and plans for territorial expansion, the regime exploited the Games to bedazzle many foreign spectators and journalists with an image of a peaceful, tolerant Germany.

Having rejected a proposed boycott of the 1936 Olympics, the United States and other western democracies missed the opportunity to take a stand that—some observers at the time claimed--might have given Hitler pause and bolstered international resistance to Nazi tyranny. With the conclusion of the Games, Germany's expansionist policies and the persecution of Jews and other "enemies of the state" accelerated, culminating in World War II and the Holocaust.

In 1931, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 1936 Summer Olympics to Berlin. The choice signaled Germany's return to the world community after its isolation in the aftermath of defeat in World War I.

Two years later, Nazi party leader Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany and quickly turned the nation's fragile democracy into a one-party dictatorship that persecuted Jews, Roma (Gypsies), all political opponents, and others.

The Nazi claim to control all aspects of German life also extended to sports. German sports imagery of the 1930s served to promote the myth of "Aryan" racial superiority and physical prowess. In sculpture and in other forms, German artists idealized athletes' well-developed muscle tone and heroic strength and accentuated ostensibly Aryan facial features. Such imagery also reflected the importance the Nazi regime placed on physical fitness, a prerequisite for military service.

Racism in Sports

In April 1933, an "Aryans only" policy was instituted in all German athletic organizations. "Non-Aryans"--Jewish or part-Jewish and Romani (Gypsy) athletes--were systematically excluded from German sports facilities and associations.

The German Boxing Association expelled amateur champion Erich Seelig in April 1933 because he was Jewish. (Seelig later resumed his boxing career in the United States.) Another Jewish athlete, Daniel Prenn--Germany's top-ranked tennis player--was removed from Germany's Davis Cup Team. Gretel Bergmann, a world-class high jumper, was expelled from her German club in 1933 and from the German Olympic team in 1936.

Jewish athletes barred from German sports clubs flocked to separate Jewish associations, including the Maccabee and Shield groups, and to improvised segregated facilities. But these Jewish sports facilities were not comparable to well-funded German groups. Roma (Gypsies), including the Sinti boxer Johann Rukelie Trollmann, were also excluded from German sports.

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