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Monday, September 14, 2015

“Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936”, by David Clay Large

416 pages, W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN-13: 978-0393058840

It is both disappointing and ironic that, arguably, the two most iconic symbols of the 1936 Olympic Games are Jessie Owens and Adolph Hitler. One would have to dig fairly deep to find any definitive information on the Games of the XI Olympiad, let alone realize that the Winter Games of that year were held in Germany as well, at Garmisch-Partenkirchen. What Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936 does is provide a well-written and authoritative summary of the entire Olympic Games of 1936 and underscores their significance in athletics, as well as modern world history.

As with most Olympics, global politics plays a huge role as to which country is permitted to host the Games, and nowhere is this more evident than the IOC’s (International Olympic Committee) controversial decision to award Germany the 1936 Games. Still facing global condemnation for being the main aggressor in World War I, the “new” Germany – first under the Weimar Republic, who in fact was awarded the Games, and later under the Nazi regime, which inherited them – was eager to prove itself as a reformed society and regain its place as a major world power. Large delves into the fragile decision to let Germany host both the Summer and Winter Games, even though the world was well aware of the alarming rise of social repression and anti-Semitism at the hand of the Nazis (who smartly reminded the politically powerful United States of America’s own on-going racial issues). The back-and-forth debate of this period, rife with threats of boycotts, highlighted the weakness and fear of Western Europe and the obvious economic and political pull of the United States and its cranky IOC representative Avery Brundage (who also played a crucial role in awarding Munich the Games in 1972 and someone whom David Clay Large does not view very favorably at all).

While Nazi Games covers both the Summer and Winter Olympics, most of the attention is focused on the Summer Games in Berlin, designated by Hitler as the quintessential event to showcase the Nazi State to the world. The much smaller-scaled Winter Games are covered in the book, but they are portrayed more as a tune-up for the massive propaganda project being prepared for Berlin. Large details the extent of Germany’s investment toward the Olympics, economically and politically. It is quite interesting to see the efforts made to hide anti-Semitism and political/social suppression during the Games, alluding to this brief period as being the eye of the Nazi hurricane for those targeted by the Nazis. While history may dictate the Berlin Games being viewed in a negative light, Large reminds readers of its significance in terms of truly modernizing the Olympics by showcasing the first televised broadcast, using aerial photography, advanced filming techniques, sport-specific architecture, and the introduction of new sports.

The chapters devoted to actual athletic competition are more-or-less summaries with notable highlights being detailed. While the spectacular exploits of Jesse Owens gets ample coverage, Large digs deeper and provides readers with an in-depth perspective of Owens’ Olympic experience, including controversies within the American track and field delegation and Owens’ heartwarming friendship with Lutz Long, a German competitor. I found much of the coverage of the various competitions to be particularly well-written and exhilarating, as some of the competitions seem to take on a life of their own. Interesting facts and smaller storylines, such as the death toll on horses during the equestrian events or US decathlete Glenn Morris’ infatuation with filmmaker Riefenstahl are peppered throughout and add to the overall picture of the Games. Nazi Games concludes by putting the 1936 Olympics in perspective as fleeting moment of universal celebration before the world descends into a total nightmare. We learn that a significant number of the German medalists were killed in the war, including Jesse Owens’ friend Lutz Long. While World War II dictated that no Olympics would be held again for another twelve years, Germany had to wait thirty-six years before it would receive another opportunity to prove itself worthy of hosting another Olympics, only to have the ghosts of 1936 rise again.

Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936 is a story about how the government of the Third Reich exploited the Olympic movement to conceal their ultimate militaristic intentions against the rest of the world. It is also a story about how the IOC willfully turned a blind eye to the marginalization and persecution of Jews and other minorities within the Third Reich by taking the word of German officials as the gospel. By accepting the whitewashed view presented by Hitler’s cronies, the members of the IOC damaged the Olympic movement by accepting racism and entrenched the marriage between the Olympics and politics that endures today; indeed, rather than learning the lesson to never trust a totalitarian government, the IOC continues to award Olympiads to some of the most vile governments on Earth, all the name of separating politics from sport, an impossibility if ever there was one.

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