The cultural power of sports, like any other kind of power, can serve any sort of means, including the most diabolical. That, among other things, is the message behind The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936 -- an exhibition organized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and presented by the Missouri Historical Society -- which opens at the Missouri History Museum this Sunday, Sept. 17, and runs through Jan. 7.
Though the memory will hardly be as fresh as Big Mac's mighty swings, most people with a passing knowledge of sports history will know the 1936 Olympics as the revenge of Jesse Owens, whose unmistakable mastery in the field (four gold medals in a single day!) made a mockery of Hitler's racist theories of the white master race. The Nazi Olympics presents the Jesse Owens story and the backdrop of Nazi propaganda that made it so unforgettable, but it also uncovers many other stories that had been forgotten.
As important as Owens and other athletes who did compete are those who did not. When the U.S. failed to make a moral stand as a nation by boycotting Hitler's Olympics (not the last time this country would collaborate with Nazis), some American Jewish athletes, including Herman Neugass and Milton Green, made individual stands by boycotting the Olympics or the Olympic trials. Three Austrian swimmers of Jewish descent did as well. And many of Germany's finest athletes, such as the world-class high jumper Gretel Bergmann, were excluded from competition by the Nazis because of their race. (Counter-Olympics were organized in Prague, Randall's Island -- a tiny part of New York City situated in the East River between Manhattan and Queens -- and Barcelona, though the last event was canceled because of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.)
A bittersweet episode in the troubled historical relations between blacks and Jews emerges in this exhibit. For as Jewish athletes were spurning the games on moral grounds, blacks such as Owens and Mack Robinson (the brother of baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson) were pridefully seizing new opportunity. Nineteen African-Americans went to Berlin, three times the number who competed in the 1932 Los Angeles Games. The exhibit shares new oral history with one of these athletes, John Woodruff, who returned with a gold medal only to be excluded from a competition at the Jim Crow-era U.S. Naval Academy. This delivers Nazi history with an edge that is too often missing, reminding us that U.S. racial policy -- and lynch-mob rule -- provided an all-too-imperfect contrast to the Third Reich.
(It might be noted that St. Louis has some bragging rights in this connection: The 1904 St. Louis Olympics, the first held in this country, was also the first to feature an African-American athlete, the runner George Coleman Poage.)
Exhibit co-curator Susan D. Bachrach, a historian with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, says that The Nazi Olympics was drawn partly from the work of other researchers, such as Richard Mandel, though the museum also produced fresh materials, particularly new oral histories with survivors of the 1936 Games. Though she recognizes that the exhibit was designed, in part, "to capture a new audience, including young people, who might not otherwise" choose to study this history, she also thinks her sources speak for themselves without any need for justification.
"As a historian," she says, "I have problems with questions about relevance. These are great stories, great personalities, great heroes." She has also framed their stories as a book for young readers with the same name as the exhibit, The Nazi Olympics. Adult readers should check out Mandel's book (also titled The Nazi Olympics) and, by all means, an altogether different narrative: Berlin Noir, a crime-novel trilogy by the Scottish writer Philip Kerr set in Nazi Germany. Its first book, March Violets, takes place precisely during the 1936 Games and even opens with Nazis taking down display cases for anti-Semitic newspapers "so as not to shock foreign visitors who will be coming to Berlin to see the Games."
Soon enough, the world would know all too much about anti-Semitism in Hitler's Germany -- and the rest of the Third Reich's diabolical designs. (During the Games, besides trying to fortify the master image of the Aryan race, Germany was also building a concentration camp, Sachsenhausen, near Berlin.) Hitler's thirst for world dominion certainly had intended consequences for the future Olympics, which the Führer predicted (with his usual accuracy) would "take place in Germany for all time to come" starting in 1936.
The smart money is on Sydney in 2000, though the Berlin Games did see one ambitious innovation that has become a permanent Olympic feature: the opening relay run with the torch starting from the site of the first Games. When you watch the torch passed this year, remember those denied a chance to carry it -- and those who refused to touch a torch tarnished by hatred and murder. "It's a vivid lesson of what human beings are capable of at our best and our worst," says Bob Archibald, president of the Missouri Historical Society, "a potent reminder that none of us should lose sight of."