During the Winter Olympics, Hitler managed to persuade the world that his Germany was a normal, civilized country.
On 6th February 1936, Adolf Hitler must have been supremely satisfied when the Olympic flame flared out from the tower above Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria. Despite the fears, the international community had not boycotted the Winter Olympics organized in the Third Reich. The Nazis managed to persuade the world that, in spite of the 1935 Nuremberg laws ‘for the protection of German blood’, Hitler’s Germany was capable of organizing a sporting event, respecting all nations and races. How did they do it?
Halt the hatred
First, the authorities in Berlin started to promote its German sport stars of Jewish descent. Their persecution was stopped and they became highly desirable – from a propaganda perspective. That’s why they took the trouble to ensure that Rudi Ball, a Jewish sportsman and bronze medallist from the Lake Placid Olympic Games, who had been voted the best hockey player in Europe a couple of years earlier, was on the German hockey team. It was an open secret that he agreed to participate in exchange for permission for his family to leave the Third Reich.
Second, the authorities removed all anti-Semitic symbols from Garmisch-Partenkirchen and the surrounding area. Signs like ‘No entry for Jews’ disappeared. The Der Stürmer magazine was removed from the news-stands. Abusive posters were ripped down and graffiti was removed. Instead of anti-Semitic propaganda, visitors would see innocent advertisements for Coca-Cola, which became one of the official sponsors of the games.
It was harder to change the people. It was an area famous for its anti-Semitic sentiment. The good burghers of Garmisch-Partenkirchen were planning to make their town ‘Jew free’ and expel all unwanted inhabitants. At the request of the authorities in Berlin, they generously agreed to postpone it until the games were over. Even the hoteliers were persuaded to accept non-Aryans under their roofs, while instead of Heil Hitler they greeted their guests with the words Grüss Gott (God Bless).
The authorities also alerted the police and their subordinate services to ensure they didn’t allow any acts of aggression towards foreigners, particularly those who didn’t look very Aryan. They circulated a rumour that the Americans were just waiting until one of them was stabbed in the Alps so that they could whip up a storm. They would take their whole Olympic team home and a scandal would blow up, after which Berlin might lose its right to organize the summer Olympic Games. And Hitler was most determined to hold these, given their greater prestige than the winter games!
Even the Führer himself managed to control his anger when, two days before the opening of the games, a Jewish student, David Frankfurter, shot and killed a senior member of the Nazi party, Wilhelm Gustloff, in Davos, Switzerland, in protest against the policies of the Third Reich. The stakes were too high!
Organization and propaganda
On 6th February 1936, literally everything went right for the Nazis. When it looked as if there would be a shortage of snow during the games (!), it suddenly began to fall. Swastika flags flew proudly over the snow-covered streets and ski-slopes. Military orchestras played; boys from the Hitler Youth marched. Obviously, the public didn’t disappoint either. They greeted Hitler with ovations as he stepped down from his train, and large crowds accompanied the Nazi bigwigs everywhere.
There was another propaganda coup during the opening ceremony. As he watched the country teams marching past, his uncovered head proudly held high despite the falling snow, Hitler must have been delighted when the Italian team greeted him with the fascist salute. He must have been happier still when teams from some of the most democratic countries in the world raised their arms with the ‘Olympic salute’, which looked very similar to the Sieg Heil. For the public and the propagandists there was little difference. But the effect? Terrifying! Almost the whole world saluted the Führer!
The event was also a success for the Third Reich in sporting terms. Although the Norwegians headed the medal table, the Germans were just behind (although, for some of their podium spots, they could thank the exclusion of experienced Alpine skiers from Switzerland and Austria, who had suddenly been declared ‘professionals’). This all whetted the appetite for the summer games that took place in Berlin the same year. The Third Reich’s propaganda had triumphed.
But beyond the truly fabulous spectacle that accompanied the winter games, brown shadows lurked here and there.
It turned out that, in the hills not far from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the German army was exercising. In general, there were plenty of uniforms at the games: not just soldiers or police, but even the athletes. Photographs of the competitors in the ‘military patrol’ competition, (the forerunner of the biathlon), show skiers in uniform, holding guns. Even then, this provoked mixed feelings. The Norwegians refused to take part in the competition, saying it was too militaristic in character.
There was also an incident of banditry in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. A few overzealous SS men attacked members of the Spanish team because of their dark skin and ‘Jewish looks’. Of course, they later tried to excuse themselves, claiming they were ‘provoked’ by the foreigners. The nearby regional headquarters of the SS in Munich instantly issued a warning to their members to watch out for ‘foreign provocateurs’.
The American journalist William L. Shirer wasn’t taken in by any of it. From the outset he wrote that the Nazis had not changed and only wanted to hide their treatment of Jews from their guests. The authorities in Berlin accused him of lying. In a radio programme, Shirer was branded a “dirty Jew, trying to torpedo the winter games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.”
The Nazis dropped their angelic masks quite quickly, remilitarizing the Rhineland in March 1936, breaking the terms of the Versailles Treaty. France, deep in crisis herself, didn’t react. She couldn’t even bring herself to boycott the summer games in Berlin, which Hitler must seriously have feared…
When one looks back with the benefit of hindsight at the photographs of Garmisch-Partenkirchen from February 1936, the Olympic flame, burning on its tower, leaves a particularly intense impression. It looks like the sentry tower of a concentration camp.
Translated from the Polish by Annie Krasińska
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