Last week we enjoyed the new movie Race which tells the story of Jesse Owens, a black man in the Depression era who not only has to confront racism at home, from other players in the locker rooms, and ill treatment in the wider society, but also his internalized racism, which prevents him from making eye contact with his coach when they are speaking.
Moreover, he carries a heavy burden for a young man in deciding whether to even play in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, which were designed to become a showcase for the Nazi ideal. Pressure was placed on Owens from every direction. source In a way this is a story of Jesse’s decisions. rjn
‘Nazi Olympics’ exhibition explores 1936 spectacle in Berlin
The first-level story about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin has Jesse Owens, the African-American track star, showing up Adolf Hitler, the racist German dictator, by winning four gold medals over competitors from Hitler’s supposed “master race.” It’s a compelling tale of comeuppance.
The fuller truth, of course, is darker and more complex, as a new exhibition at the Illinois Holocaust Museum demonstrates. Maybe the villain got embarrassed a little on the world stage, but he also got to temporarily calm international anxiety about his supremacist policies and military ambitions with the smokescreen of a five-ringed propaganda spectacle. Among the revelations in “The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936”: Hitler’s Games gave us the now-stirring traditions of the grand opening ceremony — big rallies were a Nazi specialty — and the relay run carrying the lighted torch from the site of the original Olympic Games, in Greece. “A lot of what we think about when we think about the Olympics, the Nazis were the first to do them,” said Arielle Weininger, Illinois Holocaust Museum chief curator. “It very much diverted everyone’s eyes from the reality of what was happening.” The exhibition, opening Sunday, comes at a propitious time for the continuingly resonant Skokie museum. It’s the 80th anniversary of the Berlin Games.
The movie “Race,” which tells some of the story of Owens and those Olympics, opens Friday. (You can read Tribune critic Michael Phillips’ less-than enthusiastic review at www.chicagotribune.com/ movies.)
And 2016 is an Olympic year, with the Summer Games being held in August in Brazil. The traveling exhibition, created by the U.S. Holocaust Museum in 1996, coincident with the Nazi Olympics’ 60th anniversary and with the Atlanta Olympics that year in the United States, superbly explains the buildup to the ’36 Olympics, both in Germany and in the U.S.
In Germany, we learn, Hitler did not at first like the “internationalism” of the Games, which had been awarded to Germany in 1931, two years before the Nazis took power. But his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels convinced the dictator of their propaganda value.
Hitler had begun overt discrimination against German Jews just weeks after winning office. The September 1935 Nuremberg laws went further, stripping Jews of citizenship and forbidding them from having sex or intermarrying with “persons of German or related blood.” Jewish and Gypsy athletes were removed from German international sporting teams.
In the meantime, the Nazis were rearming the country and sport was one of the key tools. “Really, they were building a nation of soldiers,” Weininger said.
In the U.S., the German race laws stirred calls for a boycott of the Olympics. The Amateur Athletic Union and some leading newspapers, including The New York Times, favored a boycott. But the American Olympic Committee, headed by Chicago engineer, builder and former Olympic athlete Avery Brundage, argued that politics should not be forced onto the Games.
He alleged a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” in favor of a boycott, the exhibit tells us, and he wrote that American athletes should be spared involvement in “the present Jew-Nazi altercation.”
Complicating matters for potential African-American athletes was the fact that their own country had official policies of discrimination against them. Writers in the Chicago Defender, the leading black newspaper of the time, pointed out this hypocrisy and opposed the boycott because African-American wins would disprove Nazi racial theory.
A torch from the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the first with a grand opening ceremony.
There is a great deal of text in the exhibition, but it is entirely on point and, because it illuminates a chapter in history that is incompletely understood, fascinating. Surrounding the text blocks are photographs of the principals, political cartoons, such artifacts as a Nazi chart laying out the rules of Jewish intermarriage, and video that lets you see and hear Hitler, Goebbels and mass rallies in action.
When it comes to the section on the Games themselves, the exhibition isn’t so concerned with the sports movie moment, the victories by Owens. Instead it details how Germany’s lone (half-) Jewish Olympian gave the Nazi salute on the medal podium; how American Olympic authorities removed two Jewish runners from their relay squad while in Berlin; and how German authorities took down anti-Jewish signage before the Games. After it was over, Germany, in spite of Owens, had won the most medals, and The New York Times, the exhibition says, reported that the Games had put Germany “back in the fold of nations” and made Germans “more human again.”
The former Chicago Tribune correspondent William Shirer, according to exhibition text, was one of the few to regard the “Berlin glitter as merely hiding a racist, militaristic regime.” History, of course, proved Shirer and his fellow doubters correct. The final images of the exhibition show a gallery of Olympic athletes, from Berlin and earlier Games, murdered in the Third Reich’s concentration camps. firstname.lastname@example.org
Note At one point in the movie there is a mention of Metcalf and later of Ralph. That’s Ralph Metcalfe who was called the World’s Fastest Man in 1934 and 1935 and who ran second to Jesse Owens in the 100 meters in the 1936 Olympics and whom I met once.
Metcalfe (center) with Jesse Owens and Frank Wykoff on the deck of the S. S. Manhattan as the team sailed for Germany in 1936
Metcalfe in 1977
As director of the Upward Bound program for high school students at Loyola U. I called on aldermen of the wards where our students lived. I was admitted to Alderman Metcalfe[s office at one end of a long, dim room and saw him behind his desk at the other end. We could study each other as I travelled the distance between us. I don’t remember our conversation. I do remember Mr. Metcalfe.
He later was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served the country in other ways as well. The federal building at 77 W. Jackson, Chicago, is named for him,