• For Teachers & Students
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Nazi Salute
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The 1936 Berlin Olympics

The 1936 Olympic Games is a confusing study. The most hospitable and dramatic Games up to that point were hosted by one of the cruelest regimes in history. Awarded to Germany in 1931, the Games of the XI Olympiad became a propaganda spectacle for the Nazi Party. With the full financial and organizing force of the Nazi government behind the planning, the 1936 Games transformed the Olympics from an underfunded amateur competition into a spectacle that nations could look toward for both an economic and public relations boost.

German Olympic Committee officials Carl Diem and Theodor Lewald undertook the massive responsibility of planning Games that would meet the Nazi Party’s standard for large, organized events. During the preparations, the Nazi Party removed Lewald, who had Jewish ancestry, from his official post as Olympic Committee President and demoted him to advisor. Despite the change, the German Olympic Committee was determined to outdo all previous Olympic hosts in size, accommodations, and pageantry.

One of the most defining innovations of the 1936 Olympics was the Olympic Torch Relay. Never before in either the ancient or modern Olympics had a torch been lit in Athens and carried to the Games. With cooperation from Greece and every nation along the route, the first Olympic torch arrived in Berlin for the opening of the Games. The Games were also the first to be televised with closed circuit feeds present throughout the Olympic Village. Acclaimed filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl revolutionized sport documentaries with Olympia.

The Games are also famous for the accomplishments of American sprinter Jesse Owens. Owens, an African American, won four gold medals in the Track and Field events, prompting spectators around the world to declare that he disproved Hitler’s notions of Aryan superiority. Reporters at the time declared that Hitler had snubbed Owens by refusing to shake his hand. The previous day, Hitler had been warned about acknowledging athletes publicly. The president of the International Olympic Committee informed Hitler that he could not publicly congratulate only German winners. He must acknowledge all winners or none. Hitler, not wanting to cause a very visible international incident at the Games, decided to remain a spectator while in public view. Behind the scenes, however, he would congratulate all German medal winners.

Leading up to the Games, newspapers around the world had printed stories of the harsh treatment of Jews in Germany, and many attendees expected the worst. However, the picture of Germany seen by athletes and spectators was one of hospitality, order, and patriotism. In order to project a progressive, orderly nation, the Nazis ordered the removal of all public anti-Semitic signs and publications. The open persecution of Jewish citizens was effectively put on hold in all areas that could be accessible to outsiders. Some reporters and Olympic officials hoped that this signaled a softer approach to racial issues in Germany, but it was short lived. Members of the International Olympic Committee were confident that hosting the Games had positively influenced Germany and would make them more cooperative in international affairs. After the Olympics ended, the Nazis were even more emboldened and took further steps to marginalize and persecute Jews, political dissenters, and other “undesirables.” In fact, Hitler was planning to make the Olympics his own, permanently stage the Games in Nuremburg beginning in 1944.

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Secondary Sources

The Nazi Olympics by Richard D. Mandell

The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936 by Susan D. Bachrach

Mega-events and Modernity: Olympics and Expos in the Growth of Global Culture by Maurice Roche

“The Issue of Racism at the 1936 Olympics” by D.A. Kass
In Journal of Sport History, Vol.3, No. 3 (Winter, 1976)

“The Voices of Sanity: American Diplomatic Reports from the 1936 Olympiad”
In Journal of Sport History, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Winter, 1984)

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Primary Sources

The Nightmare Years 1930-1940 by William Shirer

“1936 Official Olympic Report” available at http://www.la84foundation.org/5va/reports_frmst.htm

The New York Times
Articles beginning in 1933 when first talk of a boycott surfaces and through coverage of the 1936 Games

Olympia (film) directed by Leni Riefenstahl

Images from the collection of The National World War II Museum below.

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Student Travel – WWII Educational Tours
High school and college students, learn the leadership principles that helped win WWII on a trip to France or during a weeklong residential program in New Orleans. College credit is available, and space is limited.

See You Next Year! HS Yearbooks from WWII
Collected from across the United States, the words and pictures of these yearbooks present a new opportunity to experience the many challenges, setbacks and triumphs of the war through the eyes of America’s youth.

The Victory Gardens of WWII
Visit the Classroom Victory Garden Project website to learn about food production during WWII, find lesson plans and activities for elementary students, get tips for starting your own garden and try out simple Victory Garden recipes!

The Science and Technology of WWII
Visit our new interactive website to learn about wartime technical and scientific advances that forever changed our world. Incorporates STEM principles to use in the classroom.

Kids Corner: Fun and Games!
Make your own propaganda posters, test your memory, solve puzzles and more! Learn about World War II and have fun at the same time.

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