Eighty years ago this summer, the world converged on Berlin for the 1936 Summer Olympics. It was the biggest, most modern and most perfectly choreographed spectacle the world had ever seen – and whose inventions, from the Olympic torch relay to live television coverage – still define the Olympic Games today. Thanks to a stream of perfect and beautiful images, the games tricked much of the world into thinking, for a very brief time, that Adolf Hitler’s Germany meant no harm. It was the first time an unsavory regime successfully used a sporting event for propaganda purposes, but it would not be the last.
Oliver Hilmes, a bestselling biographer of Alma Mahler and Cosima Wagner, is the author of Berlin 1936: Sechzehn Tage im August (Sixteen Days in August), published by Siedler Verlag in May.
Handelsblatt: Why do the Berlin Games still hold such power to fascinate us today, 80 years later?
Hilmes: They were the first games in which the media played the starring role. And they were incredibly modern, with vast new facilities, urban infrastructure and many other innovations that were entirely new at the time, but that are still relevant today. Most importantly, they were the first Olympics staged by a totalitarian regime. In that, they still offer uncomfortable lessons.
The Nazis were the first to recognize the potential for propaganda that comes with the Olympics.
Yes, but at first, Hitler didn’t even want the Olympics. The games had been awarded to Germany in 1931, before the Nazis came to power. The Olympic ideal of a family of nations where people of all races could join together to peacefully compete didn’t exactly fit an ideology that believed in Aryan superiority. But Hitler quickly recognized the tremendous potential the games offered for propaganda, for showcasing Germany to the world. The first thing he did was double the size of the stadium.
What was the plan for the Olympics?
The Nazis wanted to impress, to appeal to the emotions. They wanted people to leave the games in awe, and for visitors to feel that a country capable of delivering that kind of perfectly choreographed spectacle isn’t one they should mess with. In fact, it was the Polish ambassador in Berlin who said, after attending the opening ceremony, “we have to be on our guard against a country that knows how to organize so perfectly.”
So Hitler designed the games for a foreign audience.
The Third Reich had an image problem. Hitler had been rearming, pulled Germany out of the League of Nations, and broken the Versailles Treaty by marching into the Rhineland. With the games he wanted to whitewash all that. A lot of tourists came to Berlin that summer, including very many Americans. Hitler wanted them to go home with the idea of a tolerant, friendly, welcoming Germany. And to tell all their friends what a fabulous time they’d had, and how wrong everything was that one was reading in The New York Times.
And it worked.
Better than anyone imagined. Some of Hitler’s greatest allies in his Olympic propaganda ploy were Americans. For Hitler, America was his most important audience. There was a campaign in the U.S. to boycott the games, and without the Americans, other countries might have stayed away too. It was American sports officials like Avery Brundage who told Jewish groups not to make such a fuss about the Nazis, that his own athletic club barred Jews too. The U.S. National Olympic Committee sent an ardent Hitler fan named Charles Sherill to personally advise the Führer on how to avoid the boycott. It was at Sherill’s suggestion that Hitler allowed Helene Meier, who had a Jewish father, onto the German Olympic fencing team as a token Jew to mollify critics. This pretense of tolerance killed the boycott movement, and the Americans duly participated.
The timeless lesson from 1936 is that beautiful, perfectly choreographed images have a tremendous power to manipulate.
And we won’t even mention Eleanor Holm, who, in the 1980s, still raved about all the fun she had with Göring and Goebbels.
If these are your supposed enemies, you have no problem as a dictator. Even declared foes of Hitler were so impressed that they came away swayed in favor of Germany. It helped that the regime temporarily cleansed Berlin of vile anti-Jewish propaganda, like certain Nazi newspapers that were taken off the shelves. The rest of the German media were instructed to lay off the racial epithets and report positively about other countries’ medals.
What did visitors see when they arrived in Berlin?
Visitors were awe-struck by brand-new stadiums and sports facilities purpose-built for the Olympics, with new public transit to take visitors there. These were unbelievably modern concepts, as was the Olympic Village where several thousand athletes and staff could live. The Olympic torch relay, still one of the games’ most iconic symbols, wasn’t an invention by the ancient Greeks. A Hessian sports official created it as a spectacle for 1936.
The biggest innovation was how the Nazis used the media.
Radio broadcast the games around the world. It was the first live television broadcast of a sports event. People didn’t yet have TV sets at home, so the Nazis set up rooms for public viewing in Berlin and Leipzig. Siemens invented new technology to broadcast with just a few seconds delay.
And then there was Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favorite filmmaker.
With her tremendous creativity, Riefenstahl was in a league of her own. She practically reinvented filmmaking, coming up with innovations used in sports coverage and motion pictures for many decades afterwards. She was the first to employ an underwater camera for the diving and swimming events. She used tracks and cranes for motion photography, and was the first to create aerial shots with a hot-air balloon. Riefenstahl created the modern aesthetic of perfect bodies, of the masculine athlete. We take it for granted now, but in 1936, it was all incredibly new.
What did the games teach other regimes about using sports as propaganda?
The timeless lesson from 1936 is that beautiful, perfectly choreographed images have a tremendous power to manipulate. We saw it in Sochi, where we’re only now finding out what a fraud those games were, and the extent to which doping was organized by the Russian state. Yet it was a podium for Vladimir Putin to play host to half the world. We’ll see it again in 2022 in Qatar for the soccer World Cup. Qatar is a country at war, one that has a questionable regime at best. We have to ask ourselves, what are German and European athletes doing there?
What do you suggest are the lessons?
Instead of trying to figure out how not to fall for manipulation, the only answer can be not to award large sports events to dubious countries. It’s terribly difficult not to be blinded by the power of perfect images.
Stefan Theil is the managing editor of Handelsblatt Global Edition Magazine.