The Olympics Of Eighty Years Ago: Hoover Archives Acquires Materials From The 1936 Berlin Games

Tuesday, August 2, 2016
“Germany 1936: Events Worth Visiting in the Olympic Year” (German Subject collection)

Above: “Germany 1936: Events Worth Visiting in the Olympic Year”  (German Subject Collection)

 

Adolf Hitler, flanked by the president of the International Olympic Committee, Count Henry de Baillet-Latour, and Theodor Lewald, its secretary, enters the Olympic stadium during the opening ceremonies (Erich Knapp Papers, Box 8)
Adolf Hitler, flanked by the president of the International Olympic Committee, Count Henry de Baillet-Latour, and Theodor Lewald, its secretary, enters the Olympic stadium during the opening ceremonies (Erich Knapp Papers, Box 8)

With the start of the Rio Olympics approaching, the Hoover Library & Archives have coincidentally acquired German publications promoting and documenting the games of the XI Olympiad held in Berlin in 1936.  These imprints, full of attractive drawings and high-quality photographs, now added to the German Subject Collection, complement an excellent collection of images from the Berlin games already available in Hoover Archives’ Erich Knapp Papers.  The Berlin games are best remembered by the phenomenal performance of the American four-time Olympic medalist Jesse Owens, as well as the strained atmosphere of the event marred by the omnipresent Nazi trappings of the Third Reich and the near-religious cult of its leader, Adolf Hitler.

Other aspects of the XI Olympiad have not been as well retained in popular memory.  Leni Riefenstahl’s chronicle of the games, titled Olympia, has become a film history classic, but that the games were the first to have live television coverage is less known.  The German Post Office, using Telefunken cameras, broadcast about seventy hours of coverage to special viewing rooms throughout the greater Berlin area.  Also, despite the brave efforts of Jesse Owens, the most celebrated athlete of the games, and his American colleagues, the Germans dominated in most disciplines, winning eighty-nine medals as opposed to fifty-six for the US team.

With the Nuremberg Laws excluding Jews from civil society promulgated in 1935, the question of racial supremacy was of key importance to Hitler and the National Socialists. Eliminating of all Jews and black people from the 1936 Olympics turned out to be impossible, mostly because of international pressure, but Jews were eliminated from the German team.  One notable exception, Helene Mayer, was such a strong contender in fencing that her Jewish father was overlooked and she was permitted to compete, winning a silver medal for Germany in foil.  A similar exception was made for one of the principal promoters and organizers of the German Olympic movement and the 1936 Olympics, Theodor Lewald.

Theodor Lewald, secretary of the International Olympic Committee (Erich Knapp Papers, Box 8)
Theodor Lewald, secretary of the International Olympic Committee (Erich Knapp Papers, Box 8)

Born in 1860, Theodor Lewald by Hitler’s time was a senior civil servant who had faithfully served the last German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and then the Weimar Republic.  He spoke English well and had many American friends, including the head of the American Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage.  When in 1931 Berlin was chosen as the home of the1936 Olympics, Lewald became the games’ chief organizer.  When Hitler came to power in 1933, the preparations for the games were so advanced and efficiently managed by Lewald that for a time the Nazis chose to tolerate the fact that Lewald was a Mischling zweiten Grades (“mixed race of second degree”), as his paternal grandmother was Jewish.  Lewald’s imposing stature and Nordic-Aryan appearance, much closer to the “ideal” of the Nazi race theory than either Adolf Hitler or Joseph Goebbels, did not hurt his chances for survival.  Even though he was replaced as the head of the German Olympic Committee by a Nazi Party official, Lewald kept his position as the secretary of the International Olympic Committee and in that capacity marched into the Olympic stadium next to Führer Adolf Hitler and IOC president Henry Baillet-Latour during the opening ceremonies on August 1, 1936.   

In all, history was kind to Theodor Lewald, according to the American Jewish historian Walter Laqueur.  Lewald survived the war unscathed and was able to obtain extra food rations and help his girlfriend avoid deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.  He died in Berlin in 1947, a month short of the ripe age of eighty-seven.

Maciej Siekierski    siekierski [at] stanford.edu