Playing With Fire

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 10, 2008

The happy faces are the most striking. Throughout the exhibition "The Nazi Olympics" at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, there is a disturbing sense of high spirits in many of the photographs. Smiling, carefree crowds enjoying the spectacle, caught up in the drama, transported by the visceral thrill of being in the same open-air arena with tens of thousands of equally giddy people.

The athletes, too, look happy. Jesse Owens, the African American track-and-field star who would embarrass Adolf Hitler by winning prolifically, wears an unaffected and sheepish grin. Marty Glickman, a Jewish runner who would be pulled from the American relay team for reasons that remain mysterious, is seen in training before the Olympics, beaming and squinting in the sun aboard the SS Manhattan, the ship that took the American team to Germany for the event.

Part of the dissonance in these ebullient images is an illusion of history. In the summer of 1936, although Hitler's animosity to Jewish, non-Aryan and other marginal groups was no mystery, the Holocaust hadn't happened yet. The seizure of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, the annexation of Austria and the invasion of Poland were still a few years away. Hitler was a menace and his racial policies repellent. This was enough to inspire farsighted people to argue strenuously against participating in what would become one of the dictator's greatest propaganda coups. But the Olympic Games were also, for many people, a pleasant punctuation in the gathering storm.

"We all want to be wishful thinkers," said Sara Bloomfield, director of the Holocaust Museum.

Since their reinvention for modern times in 1896, the Olympics have emerged as a collective and mostly fruitless exercise in wishful thinking, practiced en masse. The rhetoric of peaceful athletic competition among a brotherhood of nations barely masks the nationalist posturing and the crass commercialism underlying the whole thing. And it's a rare Olympics that is conducted without some kind of political hypocrisy just under the surface.

Just in time for another Olympics, and another debate about the permeable boundary between Olympic sport and international politics, the Holocaust Museum is reprising its 1996 exhibition devoted to the infamous Games of '36. The powerful show, which has traveled extensively since it opened more than a decade ago, has been reinstalled, with the addition of new artifacts.

Front and center is new material about the famous torch relay, which in many ways became the defining symbol of the Berlin Games. Outside the exhibition, the show's designers have painted on the floor a graphic borrowed from a vintage poster advertising the relay -- a map showing the cities through which the torch passed on its way from Olympia in Greece to Berlin. And the exhibit opens with a case containing one of the original torch holders, an elegantly designed piece of steel made by Krupp, the infrastructure purveyor to the Third Reich.

Susan Bachrach, curator of special exhibitions, points out that the poster with the map of the torch relay was the source of some considerable controversy in 1936. Although the version displayed in this show is completely free of any Nazi iconography, an earlier version showed the European map with the Sudetenland already annexed by Germany. This was not taken lightly by the Czechs. And it can stand as a powerful emblem for how little Nazi intentions were hidden during the Games.

They had, for instance, already rounded up Berlin's Gypsies into concentration camps outside the city. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which prescribed punishment of hard labor or imprisonment for intermarriage or sexual relations between Jewish and non-Jewish people, were in force. And the country's military ambitions had been betrayed by its military seizure of the Rhineland only months before the Games began.

On the other hand, orders came down from the top that egregious anti-Semitic displays would be put on hold while the world visited Berlin. Rabid newspapers were removed from the newsstands. And although Jews had been purged from German athletics, a few token "non-Aryan" athletes were allowed on the German team, after extraordinary international pressure. Among them was the fencer Helen Mayer, who was part Jewish and living in the United States at the time. She returned to Germany to compete for the German team at the request of the Reich's Sports Office leader. It was an odd decision, inexplicable in many ways, and it's almost uncanny when you see her in a brief film clip making the Nazi salute on the medal platform (she took silver in the women's individual foil).

The exhibition is filled with similar curiosities and contradictions. Efforts to boycott the Games forced Americans to think about Jim Crow laws in the South, which discriminated against African Americans in ways that seemed very similar to the early stages of anti-Semitic discrimination in Germany. And the fact that Hitler got his hands on the Olympics was itself a historical accident. When the Games were awarded to Germany in 1931, Hitler was not yet in power. Olympic officials hoped the Games would celebrate Germany's reentry into the community of nations after the First World War.

Even the torch relay, which fit so easily and powerfully into the Nazi pantheon of political imagery, was invented by someone who was not himself a committed Nazi. Credit goes to Carl Diem, later a respected sports historian and a member of the postwar German Olympic committee.

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