IT MAY Be different in Moscow this year, but in Berlin in 1936 the Olympics were a respite for many Germans who were sickened by Hitler and his Nazis.
The presence of 52 nations during two beautiful August weeks 44 years ago gave those of us who were there the illusion of being part of the world and lightened the shroud of fear that had weighed down on us since Hitler came to power in January 1933.
Out at the Olympic Stadium the fear actually lifted for a few moments. We cheered when Jesse Owens, the black American, won the 100-meter race. We cheered and cheered and cheered and then some when he won the broad jump. And we just could not stop cheering when he and Ralph Metcalfe, also black, came in first in the 400-meter relay.
And then we booed -- yes, we booed loud and clear -- when, up there at his festooned grandstand, Adolf Hitler, the master racist, refused to shake hands with our black heroes.
I learned later that the International Olympic Committee had politely told the Fuehrer that he should shake hands with all Olympic winners or none, but that, the next day, Hitler again turned away when a black American winner was presented with his medal.
Jesse Owens diplomatically told reporters that he had not noticed the snub. But everyone else in the stadium noticed and felt safe, in the anonymity and intoxication of the festive excitement, to voice disapproval. We could give vent to spontaneous emotion, more spontaneous, I should think, than the mass hysteria at Nazi party rallies.
This is not to say that all German Olympic spectators were anti-Nazi. Most of them, like sports fans everywhere, were probably apolitical. For them the Third Reich was new, a pompous overture to an unknown opera. Unemployment was drastically down and the standard of living was drastically up. Berlin, dilapidated and decadent a few years before, suddenly looked as scrubbed as an imperial garrison on the emperor's birthday.
There was applause when the French team, in an excess of misplaced politesse, raised arms in the Hitler salute as it marched passed the Fuehrer's grandstand.
But then again we all fell into rhythmic chants when film maker Leni Riefenstahl flitted about the field between games, instructing her crews with much arm-waving and hand-framing of camera angles. "Leni is a showoff! Leni is a show-off!" a
Riefenstahl, no doubt, told her crews to avert their lenses from blacks (there were eight on the U.S. team) and focus on the blond sea of high-breasted Hitler Youth maidens instead. As far as I know, the foreign press, too, made nothing of our noisy commentary, which the Gestapo wisely ignored.
So, of course, did the German newspapers -- although the Olympic news could not be supressed. In the absence of television, radio transmitted the mood as well as the facts of the event all over Germany. A friend who grew up in Marburg told me recently that, years after the games, one school kid would still boast about another, "He runs like Jesse Owens."
The cheering and booing were not serious political demonstrations. For those of us who were present, they were cathartic relief. It just felt good to be able to scream, to release fears and frustrations, to express what we constantly had to repress, except in guarded whispers to close friends and trusted family members. In the Olympic Stadium, we were safe. The Gestapo could not possibly arrest 100,000 spectators, probably half of them foreigners, under the eyes of the whole world.
The cheering and booing, more importantly, lifted us out of our isolation. Cutting you off from the world is one of the terrible things totalitarian regimes do. Even in a crowd, you are always alone because you don't know whom, if anyone, you can trust. You don't know what others are thinking and thus begin to doubt the sanity of your own thoughts.
Sure, my parents, a very few friends and I, a teenager at the time, knew that Hitler meant war, holocaust and the incarceration of all his active opponents. We knew that Sachsenhausen, one of the first concentration camps, was not 30 kilometers from where we sat. We had friends there. They were being tortured.
But did our neighbors know? The nice looking lady on the bench below? Did anyone else in this stadium know? Did 92 percent of this jovial crowd really vote the Nazi ticket in the last election (in March 1936), believing that Der Fuehrer would lead them to peace, freedom and glory?
Maybe it was only those 8 percent, who cheered so loudly for Jesse Owens. But there they were. We were not alone.
Hitler had intended to make a good impression on foreign opinion with the Olympics, and he did. Five months earlier, he had torn up the Treaty of Versailles and marched into the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland. No one was more surprised than he himself that he got away with it, with nary an Allied murmur. No one even thought of pulling out of the Olympics.
Albert Speer reports in his memoirs that Hitler exulted over the harmonious atmosphere that prevailed during the games. International animosity, Hitler believed, was clearly a thing of the past. Hans Bernd Gisevius, a member of the German resistance, observed later that, impressed by the efficient organization, pomp and circumstances of the Berlin Olympics, many foreigners "allowed themselves to be deceived as to the true nature of the Third Reich."
Whether or not this had any bearing on subsequent events -- appeasement at Munich, the Kristallnacht, when the synagogues burned and the deportation of Jews began, the outbreak of World War II -- is anyone's guess.
My guess is only that if the Berlin Olympics had benefits for the Nazis, they also had benefits for its first victims, the German anti-Nazis.
We could talk more freely in the cafes and other public places. We met foreigners, some by prearrangement. We could buy foreign newspapers and magazines. The windows to the world had opened a little.
More importantly, border controls were relaxed. This meant that Jews and political "enemies of the state" could more easily slip abroad. Or at least they could persuade a foreign sports lover to take some valuables abroad for them. Under Nazi law, refugees could take no money or possessions with them to help them start a new life.
It is impossible to tell how extensive all this was. It was not a time to ask questions or to write diaries or letters, let alone conduct surveys. The Olympic respite certainly helped my family and me. We got out within weeks after the event, although I was close to draft age.
Again, Moscow in 1980 is not Berlin in 1936. Yet, the presence of some 100,000 foreigners, no matter how closely watched, cannot fail to have a liberalizing impact on life in the Soviet capital. Perhaps an American boycott of the Moscow Olympics will chastise the men in the Kremlin. I am afraid it will also punish the Russian people, who were never asked about Afghanistan.