Pictures from the 1936 Olympics are vivid in the 20th-century memory: Vast crowds filling the Olympic stadium in Berlin, Adolf Hitler basking in the adulation of the mob, Leni Riefenstahl focusing her motion-picture cameras on the competing athletes, Jesse Owens blazing to four gold medals. All of this is part of contemporary mythology. What is less widely known and understood is that the 1936 Olympics never should have been played, at least not in Germany, and that when they were they became a powerful instrument for Hitler and Nazism; it is this that Duff Hart-Davis tells us in "Hitler's Games," a most useful and instructive book.
The games should not have been played in Berlin for the simple reason that the civilized world was well aware by 1936 of stories about "the horrors that Hitler had set in train in his lunatic attempt to purify the Aryan race." As Hart-Davis repeatedly emphasizes, "it was impossible for the people planning the 1936 Olympics at international level to be unaware of them, unless they deliberately chose not to read them." What seems more likely, as Hart-Davis amply demonstrates, is that these atrocities were either ignored or whitewashed by the Olympic administrators; so eager were they to have the games run on schedule and so impressed were they by the spit-and-polish orderliness of Germany under the Nazis.
Playing the Games in Berlin had been approved before Hitler came to power, but he quickly saw them as a way to legitimize his regime at home and abroad. As the American consul in Berlin put it in a letter to the secretary of state, "To the [Nazi] Party and to the youth of Germany, the holding of the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936 has become the symbol of the conquest of the world by National Socialist doctrine. Should the Games not be held in Berlin, it would be one of the most serious blows which National Socialist prestige could suffer."
The warning went unheeded. Though there was widespread opposition to the Berlin Olympics throughout the United States, the Roosevelt administration remained indifferent, and various protests came to nothing. The American Olympic Committee, under the pigheaded Avery Brundage, supported Count Henri de Baillet-Latour, president of the international committee, whose "opinion about the 1936 Olympics was that they should take place in Berlin, come what might, and the obstinacy with which he ignored the evils of Nazi ideology is enough to take away the breath of later generations."
The result was that "for the first time in their history, the Olympic Games were deliberately exploited to make political capital" -- a precedent from which the Games have never recovered. Protests against Nazi decrees prohibiting German Jews from participating in the Olympics were defused by inviting two exiled Jewish athletes, both of them women, to return and compete for the German team; this satisfied the Olympic administrators, who in any event were more interested in token efforts than genuine compliance. Berlin was dressed to the nines with finery -- much of it having a decidedly martial character -- designed to impress a world eager to believe that Hitler's Germany was "a perfectly normal place, in which life went on as pleasantly as in any other European country."
The result was a "triumph of bluff and propaganda," with incalculable consequences: "That the success of the eleventh Olympiad gave Hitler an enormous boost, both moral and political, nobody could deny. The world came to Berlin, and, with the exception of a few cynics, the world was overwhelmed with admiration for what it had seen." Not merely had Hitler gained the respect of the world, he had managed to disguise his campaign against the Jews with what became known as "the Olympic Pause," in which restrictions on Jews were briefly eased so as to court world opinion. Yet at Concentration Camp of District 208, inmates were imprisoned in "stone coffins," an "upright cell, just big enough for a man to stand in, but too narrow to allow even a slight bending of the knees." An inmate described them:
"These standing berths are the product of a torturer's imagination of an absolutely medieval type. The prisoners penned into them underwent terrible hours, nights of inexpressible torment . . . to feel the limbs becoming numb from below and beginning to ache, the knees beginning to sag and graze the walls, eternally wondering where to put one's arms and how to go on standing; and besides these things the no less dreadful spiritual torment, the fearful stab of one's thoughts . . . it is simply a hell, and the man who devised it is not a human being but a beast."
Concentration Camp of District 208 was less than an hour's drive from Olympic stadium.