Exhibit: The Nazis used the 1936 Olympics to fool other nations into believing they were model citizens of the world. Now a show at the U.S. Holocaust Museum captures the chilling images of that time.


July 28, 1996|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It is our recognition of what is familiar in the 60-year-old photograph, what is contemporary in it, that makes the whole image so chilling.

A young athlete in white track suit, his carriage erect, his limbs sinewy, carries the Olympic torch aloft as he races past a sea of smiling spectators.

But these spectators, hundreds upon hundreds of them, are wearing the muddy-colored uniform of the Hitler Youth, and behind them, banners three stories tall and bearing the Nazi swastika, obscure the whole horizon.

As millions of people around the world enjoy the pageantry and athletic splendor of the 1996 Games in Atlanta, that photograph ushers spectators into a Washington exhibit that reminds us the best of Olympic ideals once was usurped for nefarious purposes.

Opening earlier this month for a year-long stay at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is an examination of one of the darkest moments in the 100-year history of the modern Olympics, when the nations of the world, including this one, put aside their misgivings and gave Adolf Hitler the opportunity to propagandize on the largest stage then imaginable. Never before, and never since, have the Olympics been so cynically and successfully subverted to promote political ideology.

"Berlin is where the Games become a political spectacular," says John Hoberman, a sports historian at the University of Texas and one of the exhibit's advisers. "The symbolic usefulness of the Olympic venue for political purposes is widely recognized today because the Nazis exploited them so magnificently."

The new exhibit, which will tour for three years after the end of its run in Washington, presents its story in a way that is at once dramatic and restrained. Like the museum's masterful permanent exhibit, "The Berlin Games" makes use of a variety of media to build its tale. It mixes an engrossing collection of photographs as well as letters, newspaper articles, oral testimony and documentary film clips, including out-takes from Leni Riefenstahl's "Olympia" that were captured by the Allies after World War II. (Footage from the completed film is not used because exhibit organizers did not want to seek permission from Riefenstahl, the legendary glorifier of the Nazis.)

Although America's own revisionist propaganda has often cast the Berlin Games as the place where Jesse Owens and other African-American athletes exposed the emptiness of Nazi racial theories, the Games in truth were exactly the public relations triumph Hitler and company had hoped they might be.

"These people were considered freaks, madmen, horrors -- all of which they turned out to be," says Richard D. Mandell, a University of South Carolina historian and author of "The Nazi Olympics." "But at the '36 Games, they presented an image that was completely contrary to that. They presented themselves as stable, well-meaning, competent. The Games were a grand success for the Nazis."

Interestingly, as the exhibit points out, Hitler was slow to appreciate the potential usefulness of the Olympics. The 1936 Games were awarded to Berlin in 1931 -- two years before Hitler's ascension to power -- to reward and encourage Germany's return to the family of nations after its defeat in the Great War. But Hitler had no interest in sports and even less in the international ideals of the Olympic movement. It was Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda and malevolence, who awakened the Fuhrer to the potentials of playing host to the Olympics. Thanks to his intervention, the Third Reich put on the grandest, most impressive, best-attended Olympic Games ever before staged.

Some urged boycott

But before that, the Nazis had to survive demands that the Olympics either be moved from German soil or, failing that, that they be boycotted altogether. In the United States, Jewish organizations strongly urged a boycott, and they were joined by influential political figures such as New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and former New York Gov. Al Smith (but not a neutral Franklin Delano Roosevelt), newspapers such as the New York Times and some trade unions and leftist organizations. Their insistence that America stay away from Berlin made for what Olympics historian John Lucas calls "one of the greatest sports debates in history."

As the exhibit clearly shows, the character of the Nazi regime, if not its ultimate acts of horror, was abundantly evident by the summer of 1936, particularly in regard to Jews, but also to Gypsies, homosexuals and political opponents. Nazi persecution was well under way. Concentration camps were already functioning.

By the summer of 1936, Jews had lost their rights of citizenship. Their businesses had been boycotted. They were forbidden to marry non-Jews. They were excluded from social and athletic clubs and all public facilities.

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