The “Nazi Olympics” began 82 years ago last week in southern Germany.
The almost-forgotten Nazi Olympics, that is. The IV Olympic Winter Games, which were held for 10 days in the neighboring Alps ski resort towns of Garmisch and Partenkirchen, on the Austrian border. Those Games have faded over the decades into near obscurity, overshadowed by the Summer Games — the better-known Nazi Olympics — that took place a half-year later in Berlin.
1936 was the last time that the Olympics’ summer and winter competitions, awarded by the International Olympic Committee five years earlier when Germany was still a democracy, took place in the same year in the same country.
For Adolf Hitler, who had originally derided the Winter Games as “an invention of Jews and freemasons,” the Garmisch-Partenkirchen Games turned out to be a godsend, a chance to show a friendly face to the world five months after the Nuremberg Laws were passed.
“The value of the 1936 Olympic Games cannot be measured in marks and pfennings,” Oliver Hilmes writes in “Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August” (Other Press), a book whose English-language publication coincides with this year’s Winter Olympics, now underway in South Korea. “Hitler and his regime were able to present themselves as peace-loving, reliable members of the family of nations.”
Hilmes is writing about the Summer Games, but his words apply equally to the Winter Games of ’36.
In the early days of the international Olympic movement, the winter competition was not a big deal outside of a small circle of cold-weather sports aficionados. But to Hitler and fellow image-conscious leaders of the Third Reich, they were a big deal. “A festival of Nazi propaganda,” according to historian John Soares.
“People have, of course, gladly glossed over the fact that this was a most revolting show of propaganda, a nasty deception of public opinion worldwide, under whose guise the very first signs of the Shoah could already be detected,” observed Charlotte Knobloch, a Holocaust survivor as a hidden child, who later served as the leader of Munich’s Jewish community and president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
As at the Berlin Games, the Nazis were on their best behavior that February. “Jews not wanted here” signs came down, and other public demonstrations of anti-Semitism were forbidden. The Games, Hilmes writes about the high-visibility athletic event, gave “many people hope that things will change and Hitler can be trusted to keep his promises of peace. The sporting spectacle has helped pull the wool over their eyes.
“Following up provocations and broken promises with gestures of reserve and reliability was typical of the early years of the Nazi dictatorship.”
Hilmes, an author who now works as an orchestra manager in Berlin, presents the historical context in which the Berlin Games took place, and their effect on several native Germans and foreign visitors. It includes references to the increasingly dangerous conditions that German Jews faced and their growing fear about the approaching apocalypse; as in the Berlin Games, the Nazis made a concerted effort to whitewash their genocidal intentions. The book, a series of vignettes about selected men and women whose lives then reflected the greater whole of the first years of Nazi rule, reads like a novel.
Countless books have been written over the years and documentaries produced about the Berlin Games. But hardly any exist about the Garmisch-Partenkirchen Games.
Why the difference, considering that both took place in the same land, under the same government, in the same political and social circumstances?
Berlin was the capital, a metropolis of some four million residents, near the center of the country, a magnet for arts and business, Hilmes said in a telephone interview. Garmisch-Partenkirchen was none of the above.
The Berlin Games are known for the drama of U.S. sprinter and long-jumper Jesse Owens winning four gold medals; no comparable heroics came out of the Winter Games.
And the Summer Games were bigger news than the Winter Games, with more events and more athletes, bigger crowds and warmer weather. Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl made her epic work of propaganda, “Olympia”, at Berlin, not Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
Berlin has reflected on its tortured Olympic past, while the venue of the Winter Games largely hasn’t. “People here don’t feel the need to look into that part of the town’s history,” politician Alois Schwarzmuller, who served on the twin-city’s town council for 18 years, has declared.
Just as the Nazis — as a sop to critics abroad who complained that eligible Jewish athletes would be barred from the German Olympics and who threatened an athletes’ boycott — put a token Jewish athlete, fencer Helene Mayer, on Germany’s summer team, and they allowed a token Jew on the winter team: ice hockey star Rudy Ball.
Garmisch-Partenkirchen was the dress rehearsal for Berlin. Hitler opened the Winter Games, as he did the Summer Games. According to the official Olympic report, Hitler was greeted in Garmisch-Partenkirchen with “a hurricane of jubilant voices shouting: Heil!”
With a keen eye for symbolism, Hitler introduced the first torch in Olympic history at the opening of the 1936 Winter Games; swastika flags lined the town’s main thoroughfares.
While Hilmes is reluctant to imply a contemporary political message from his study of the politicized Olympics of eight decades ago, he said — with an eye to the omnipresent threat of North Korea and its belligerent leader, Kim Jong-un — one common theme is evident. “One should not deal with terrorist regimes.”
Hilmes claims he has little interest in sports. “I’m a historian. I’m a Berlin historian. This is my story.”
A wider-reaching book about Garmisch-Partenkirchen’s Nazi-era history is not in the works, Hilmes said. A Berliner, he has no interest in researching what happened in the southern mountain venue.
The record of what happened there in 1936 is clear: Hitler did not wait long to reveal his true intentions — 12 days after the end of the Winter Olympics, German troops began remilitarizing the Rhineland, a violation of the Versailles Treaty.
As soon as the tourists left Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the anti-Semitic signs reappeared on the streets.
The danger for Jews continued; two years later, on Kristallnacht, Nov. 10, 1938, the last group of roughly 50 Jews living in Garmisch-Partenkirchen was given a few hours to leave town.