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.
Jewish athletes were effectively blocked from meaningful competition. Daniel Prenn, Germany's best tennis player, was removed from the Davis Cup Team. Eric Seelig, a champion boxer, was thrown out of the German Boxing Association and stripped of his titles. And Gretel Bergmann, a world-class high jumper whose story the exhibit closely follows, was kicked out of her sports club, forcing her to go to England to continue her athletic career.
In the United States, the growing insistence on a boycott finally forced Avery Brundage, head of the American Olympic Committee, to make a "fact-finding" trip to Germany in 1934.
Aside from Hitler and the Nazis, Brundage is the exhibit's greatest villain, an anti-Semite only too willing to blind himself to the truths unfolding in Germany. He allowed himself to be persuaded by Nazi officials, who were present at all Brundage's interviews with Jews. He returned to the United States with assurances about the treatment of German-Jewish athletes. Nevertheless, his testimony and his insistence that the Olympics were "above politics" resulted in the narrowest of margins when the American Athletic Union in December 1935 voted in favor of going to Berlin.
Brundage was rewarded for his role in getting the American team to Berlin. In 1936, when an American of German descent named Ernest Jahncke was kicked off the International Olympic Committee for opposing the Games in Berlin (the only person ever dumped by the IOC), his place was taken by Brundage, who later served for two decades as the IOC's chairman. He also forever after blamed the boycott movement on a "Jewish-Communist" conspiracy.
To send a message
If Brundage's motives were less than pure, others had more valid reasons for opposing a boycott. Some American Jews fretted that a boycott would only expose German Jews to even more danger. And while some Jewish-American athletes, including members of the vaunted Long Island University basketball team, refused to compete for spots on the American Olympic team, others, such as sprinter Marty Glickman, intended for his participation in the Games to serve as a message "that a Jew could do as well as anyone else and maybe better."
(Glickman and Sam Stoller, the only Jews on the American track and field team, did not compete in Berlin. On the day of the 400-meter relay, their coaches replaced them with Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, winners of the gold and silver medals in the 100-yard dash. Glickman has always maintained that he and Stoller were replaced because of anti-Semitism.)
African-Americans were not so torn about participation in the Games. Racism had long prevented American blacks from competing for the Olympics, but by 1936, some of those barriers were weakening, enabling more blacks than ever before to make the Olympic team. Some African-American newspapers decried the hypocrisy of those clamoring for an Olympic boycott who had never voiced concern about discrimination against blacks at home.
"Many blacks believed the possibilities for distinguishing themselves were so limited that they had to take advantage of the ones they got," says Jeffrey Sammons, a New York University historian.
The Nazis did make some concessions to keep Americans in the Olympics. At the Winter Games of 1936, which were held at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, they took down anti-Semitic signs after receiving complaints from IOC officials. They also put some token Jews on the German team, including Bergmann and Helene Mayer, a champion fencer who was part Jewish and living in Los Angeles.
Bergmann, who now goes by the name Margaret Lambert and lives in Jamaica Plains, N.Y., says her reason for agreeing to return to Germany was simple. "There were hints dropped that if I didn't come back, there might be repercussions against my family," she said recently.
But she doubted she would be allowed to compete, fearing every day that the Nazis would arrange for her to suffer an accident. Instead, the day the American team left by ship for the Berlin Games, she received a letter saying she wasn't good enough to represent Germany. But her best jump, 5 feet, 3 inches, was the height that won the gold medal that summer.
Mayer, tall, slim, and blond -- supposedly Aryan traits extolled by the Nazis -- did get to compete in Berlin, and she won the silver medal. One of the exhibit's most poignant photographs shows Mayer standing on the medals platform, her right arm outstretched giving the Nazi salute to Adolf Hitler. One is left wondering what could have been going through her mind at that moment. She returned to the United States soon after the Games but died at a young age of cancer.
Torch relay's start
If Mayer's performance disproved Hitler's racial beliefs, the Nazis weren't going to make the concession. They used sport to venerate Aryan characteristics and their highly stylized advertisements for the Games showed German athletes in noble poses (not unlike today's U.S. postal stamps). In their posters promoting the Olympics, they strongly suggested that the Germans were the natural heirs of the ancient Greeks. (The Olympic torch relay, intended to evoke the Greek Games, was first run in Berlin.)
They wanted the performance of German athletes to demonstrate the superiority of the race and were gratified when Germany won more medals than any other country for the first time.
As for the victories of Owens and other blacks, those merely confirmed rather than upended Nazi beliefs that blacks were of the "subhuman" classes, closer to animal than human.
"It is just stupid, wishful thinking to believe Jesse Owens changed any Nazis' minds about blacks," says George Eisen, director of the Institute for Regional and International Studies at California Polytechnic Institute. "The ability of the human mind to rationalize prejudice is limitless."
In any case, in the summer of 1936, the Nazis probably were less interested in promoting their racial message than duping the world into accepting Germany as a good citizen of the world. Press accounts during and after the Olympics must have greatly pleased them, for the Germans were portrayed as warm, amiable hosts and master organizers. The Games, pronounced the New York Times, "made the Germans more human again."
That naivete may seem breathtaking today, although the wishful thinking continued right up until Germany invaded Poland three years later. But even before the Berlin Games had begun, the Germans had moved troops into the Rhineland and resumed military conscription, hardly the acts of a pacific nation. Not incidentally, during the Games themselves, they were also busily supervising the construction of a concentration camp only 18 miles from Berlin (although they made sure that inmate work details were not seen by outsiders during the Games).
While the exhibit concentrates on events leading up to and during the Berlin Games of August 1936, its final images, perhaps the most haunting of all, look ahead. A gallery of photographs show doomed Olympians such as German-Jewish gymnasts Alfred and Gustav Flatow, Hungarian-Jewish fencer Janos Garay and Otto Herschmann, an Austrian-Jewish swimmer. For them, the spirit of international brotherhood and harmony supposedly fostered by the Olympics ended in places like Auschwitz, Mauthausen and Theresienstadt.
The exhibit's organizers say they deliberately kept the focus on the 1936 Games, leaving it to spectators to find parallels between the Berlin Olympics and more recent editions. They are not hard to find.
Just as the Nazis labored to hide ugly truths in Berlin, reports filter from Atlanta of sweeps of homeless people. The nationalism evident then is still apparent today with the daily medal standings and award ceremonies. And while no one has equaled the Nazi success in hijacking the Olympics to promote political ideology, it would be hard to argue that the recent Olympics have not lent themselves to the crassest sort of manipulation.
"The overt political use of the Games for Nazi purposes is not significantly different from the overt commercial use of the Games today," says Jeffrey Segrave, a professor of physical education at Skidmore College.
The fact that the IOC has long been peopled by right-wing ideologues, from Avery Brundage on down to Juan Antonio Samaranch, a one-time Franco-phile, also has not gone unnoticed. (How could it, after Samaranch bestowed the highest Olympic honor of all on Nicolae Ceausescu, the late Romanian dictator and sadist.)
Perhaps the danger always has been in taking the Olympic message too much to heart. As University of Texas' Hoberman points out, there is no evidence at all that the Olympics promote the cause of peace. "In fact, there is a correlation between a country's participation in the Games and the chances that it will go to war," he says.
The Nazis' rising aggression after the Berlin Games should have made that point, but it didn't. In the summer of 1939, after Hitler had gobbled up Austria, after he had bitten off a chunk of Czechoslovakia, after he had murdered political prisoners and further persecuted the Jews, the International Olympic Committee awarded Germany the honor of playing host to the 1940 Winter Games. Hitler proclaimed that the Olympics would remain in Germany for as long as the Third Reich existed.
For a thousand years.
What: "The Nazi Olympics"
Where: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, until July 1997
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m. daily. Free. Passes are not required.
Call: (202) 488-0400
Pub Date: 7/28/96