July 7, 2007


Aryan Rhapsody: a review of NAZI GAMES: The Olympics of 1936 By David Clay Large (GEOFFREY WHEATCROFT, NY Times Book Review)

A movement began to call for a boycott of the Berlin Games, but one man who rose to the occasion was the appalling Avery Brundage, well-nigh the chief villain of Large’s book. Brundage had competed in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics before making a fortune in the notoriously corrupt Chicago construction business, and then becoming president of the American Olympic Committee. He was determined that the Berlin Olympics should go ahead, and protest — which he privately attributed to Jewish agitation — only hardened his resolve.

In fact, some prominent figures in the boycott movement were Irish-American or, in the case of Ernest Jahncke, German-American; Jahncke was a member of the International Olympic Committee, and he campaigned against the Berlin Games bravely but unsuccessfully. Various shabby maneuvers helped the Games go ahead: one American official said he had wanted to get “at least one Jew on the German Olympic team,” and when Helene Mayer was chosen as a fencer, he announced, “I feel that my job is finished.” In what he evidently thought was a good argument, Brundage pointed out that his own men’s club in Chicago did not admit Jews, and it was certainly true that anti-Semitism existed in America. But it was not the most egregious form of racism there: given the treatment of black Americans, not least athletes, with formal segregation and discrimination in the South and informal in the North, there was surely an element of hypocrisy in American indignation.

To Brundage’s delight, the Berlin Games did go ahead, even after Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland in March 1936 and the Spanish Civil War broke out in July. The American team was graced by Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals. Hitler snubbed all the black Americans, Owens included, by not greeting them, but Owens affected not to mind, and on his return home lamentably praised the Führer as a “man of dignity.”

What emerges from Large’s story is that the Berlin Olympics were less Orwell’s orgy of hatred than a propaganda coup. They were brilliantly stage-managed, in a way that showed Joseph Goebbels at his craftiest: as he said, “Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.” Overt Jew-baiting was toned down for the duration, visitors were treated well, and at Goebbels’s insistence the German news media covered the Games in a sporting spirit.

As the scholar and diarist Victor Klemperer saw more clearly than Orwell, what all of this meant was that the Games were “an entirely political enterprise.” Most foreign competitors, spectators and reporters colluded, whether they knew it or not. It should be said that this newspaper does not come off well in Large’s account, with “the Times reporter Frederick T. Birchall often sounding like one of Goebbels’s hacks.”

In The New York Herald Tribune, J. P. Abramson was sharper-eyed, as he described the way the Olympics were being manipulated. That was echoed by The Manchester Guardian: the Games were a “Nazi Party rally disguised as a sporting event.” As if to confirm that, the gifted but odious Leni Riefenstahl directed “Olympia” as a companion piece to “Triumph of the Will,” her Nuremberg movie.

Yet people don't think the PRC propaganda fest must be boycotted?

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 7, 2007 9:28 AM

If we hadn't gone to the 1936 Olympics, exactly what would have been different? And why?

Posted by: Brandon at July 7, 2007 10:44 AM

Your argument for a boycott is sound and, as we see here, has a solid historical and philosophical grounding.

And if we do so, we might as well just scrap the Olympics. Simple as that. We will have altogether determined that we cannot separate politics from them, that if we restrict them to, say, only democracies, entirely morally justified, then they simply would not be global, and never would be until global democracy, (or socialism, or the Caliph, I suppose) becomes the way of all the world.

Let's not kid ourselves that an established precedent of boycott and counter-boycott and counter-counter boycott will not destroy the games. It will. If that's a good thing for whatever reason, then so be it, but that is the reality.

Posted by: Andrew X at July 7, 2007 10:57 AM

The 1980/1984 tit-for-tat didn't destroy them.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at July 7, 2007 12:30 PM

Just restrict the hosting to democracies.

Posted by: oj at July 7, 2007 1:10 PM

A regime that didn't yet have majority popular support would have been humiliated and the German people seen that isolation awaited. Instead, allowing Hitler move from victory to victory made the Nazis seem plausible. Given the alternatives it was quite rational for middle class Germans to support them.

Posted by: oj at July 7, 2007 1:12 PM

Rodger that. It is so shameful as to be embarassing to read contemporary articles about Hitler from the pre-war period. Cowardice produces this shame. Of course, we all know that.

To admit the depths of evil of evil regimes is to accept that they may well have to be fought, so the poltroon devises every fancy to avoid the thought.

Posted by: Lou Gots at July 7, 2007 2:34 PM

Sorry, I think a Carter-like Olympic boycott would be futile and pointless. If you want to boycott China, how about not buying stuff from them? That would get them where it hurts.

Or how about this: get a huge number of foreign visitors to meet in Tiananmen Square and unfurl pro-democracy banners in many languages. Record the whole thing on video and send it out over the internet in realtime. Would the authorites dare to arrest thousands of foreigners while the world watches? That would make your point 100 times better than a boycott.

Posted by: PapayaSF at July 7, 2007 4:05 PM

Carter won.

Posted by: oj at July 7, 2007 8:35 PM

Too much stupidy here to even comment on, but Wheatcroft's statement "the gifted but odious Leni Riefenstahl" is beyond the pale.
I have no time, especially after reading the preceding comments, to ascertain Wheatcroft's opinion of the truly odious Moore/Gore works.
Food scare/danger, the earlier "fresh greens/e-coli" problem started in an "organic" Salinas Valley, CA farm.
I'm completely at a loss as to how, a scathing denunciation of the revered Bundage as a Nazi supporting anti-semite, morphs into a denunciation of the yet to be held political, when have they not been in the last Century, games in China.
Where you would rather live, China or Saudi Arabia/Iran/Lebanon/Zambia/Nigeria/Syria/Venezuela/Cuba/Haiti/Mexico?
One is changing, albeit slowly, the others, let's just say "tipping point".

Posted by: Mike at July 7, 2007 8:56 PM

A regime that didn't yet have majority popular support would have been humiliated and the German people seen that isolation awaited.

That is a gross misreading of history. The Nazi regime was quite consolidated by 1936. They'd been in power three years and had liquidated all their political opponents. There was no opposition to turn to. And Hitler would have used the "snub" to further inflame Germans' us-ve-them attitudes, with the same results.

Posted by: Brandon at July 7, 2007 11:03 PM

Exactly, he had everything but popular support. The West helped him gain that.

Posted by: oj at July 8, 2007 7:09 AM

Carter didn't "win." It just made him look wimpish and unsporting.

Posted by: PapayaSF at July 8, 2007 2:18 PM

Where's the USSR?

Posted by: oj at July 8, 2007 4:37 PM

Where's the USSR?

Honestly, you use some of the silliest debating techniques. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, right?

Posted by: Brandon at July 8, 2007 5:26 PM