Berlin History

Why We Participated in the 1936 Nazi Games: Lessons for Sochi

The passage leading to the 1936 Nazi Olympic Grounds in Berlin

I am a historian teaching undergraduates at New York University in Berlin and today I was asked, walking in the warm sunshine of better times in the German capital, whether we can make comparisons between the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia and the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany (which hosted both the Winter and Summer games that year).

It’s my professional impulse to get testy when commentators say things like ‘history is repeating itself’ (which it just can’t). But with the rash of anti-gay legislation in Russia, I do think that important parallels between the two cases can be made. Both states, engaged in campaigns of terror against their minorities, are hosts of an event of the greatest international significance: the Olympics. Hate laws threaten even those participating in the Games. Both then and today, a large boycott campaign has resulted. In 1936, the boycott was unsuccessful, and the international community participated in what is considered the most nefarious Games on record. The question is whether we have learned anything. Will the 2014 boycott also fail?

Let me first outline the rise and fall of the boycott in 1935, and then we can see if there are any useful comparisons that can be made to our present predicament.

The 1935 Boycott Campaign

In the 30s, as today, the impetus for a boycott of the Olympics came largely from the United States. The American Federation of Labor, major US newspapers, arts associations, church groups, all urged a boycott of the Games. The climax of the public outcry was a mass rally at Madison Square Garden on the eve of the Winter Games in December 1935. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) made the final decision. A third of its affiliated members (a half million) signed a petition against sending an American team–– but its executive voted narrowly in favor.

Why did this executive send athletes to Nazi Germany? Historian Richard D. Mandell argues that Avery Brundage, who had been the President of the American Olympic Committee, visited and was dazzled by Germany in 1934. He came back saying the reports of racial persecutions there were not to be believed. His influence was decisive in the final vote when, in the final hours, he assumed the mantle as both head of the AAU and the US Olympic Committee, and agitated for ‘anti-Olympic’ members of the committee to resign. In this way, American athletes came to participate in Hitler’s Olympics. (Mandell, pp. 79 ff.)

But would Jewish athletes be allowed to participate, and in particular on the German team?  The answer to this question is a rather striking one: Jewish athletes were in fact actively recruited by the German team: a number of half-Jews were brought in from outside Germany, including Helene Mayer, a fencer, who had been exiled to California. She’d won gold in Amsterdam in 1928 for Germany, and won silver in Berlin, giving the Nazi salute with a swastika on her arm during the awards ceremony. Mayer’s participation was part of what we might call the ‘Jew-washing’ of the German Olympics: anti-Semitic propaganda was withheld from newspapers, ‘no Jews’ signs taken down, street violence was suppressed. In the end, many left Berlin in ’36 with the idea that things were getting better for Jews, not worse.

The President of the Olympic Committee at the time, Count Baillet-Latour was in fact astonished, despite all assurances, by anti-Semitic signs on German roads leading to Olympic events on his way to open the Winter Games. Hitler at first would not alter a ‘question of the highest importance in Germany… for a small point of Olympic protocol’ (Mandell, p. 93).  Only when Baillet-Latour threatened to cancel the Games, were the offensive signs taken down… but just until the Games were over.

Comparisons for Sochi 2014

We might draw four main points from this history:

1. Again, there’s the risk of mobilization without results:

The boycott in 1935 failed despite mass mobilization in favor. Today too we have a large wave of support for a boycott: hundreds of thousands of signatures, a torrent of public letters from Dan Savage to Stephen Fry (who wrote Putin ‘is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did Jews’), words of warning by the President on Jay Leno (the host said, ‘this sounds like Germany with let’s round up the Jews’).

We should be wary if this rush of protest leads, as in so many cases, to nothing but plenty of rhetoric and the final cry, ‘The Games will go on’. The decision then was ultimately taken by an executive of sports officials, with no regard for its constituents. This could easily happen again, unless these officials are elbowed out by government policy. I don’t think it’s enough to protest on Facebook, we need to put pressure directly on corporate sponsors and on the decision makers: your national Olympic Committees and the IOC, because they, not you, will make the final decision. The consequence of inaction is, just like in 1936, that the ambitions of trainers, sports officials and athletes to win Olympic Gold will trump humanitarian considerations.

2. Our ignorance or denial of the facts:

The decisions makers in 1935 were not convinced that officially sanctioned persecutions were actually occurring in Germany.  Today, I can’t imagine members of the decision-making bodies believing that anti-gay violence is not happening in Russia. Not unless they have never heard of the internet. You need only look at the pictures. In this sense, the comparison with 1936 is instructive because decision makers today in fact have fewer excuses not to support a boycott of the Sochi games.

3. The role of the IOC:

We should note that the Olympic Committee was actually willing to cancel the Games in protest in 1936. Today’s Olympic Committee is making none of the same threats, but rather stating that gay athletes who ‘politicize’ the Games with their sexuality could be sent home. The stance of the IOC has clearly deteriorated in comparison.

4. The risk of Jew-Washing/ Pink-Washing: 

Germany used the Olympics as a propaganda set-piece to allay fears about the extent of its anti-Semitism by including half-Jewish athletes and by suppressing anti-Semitic demonstrations. Today, Obama says that anti-gay laws have no place at the Olympics. But will Russia, like Germany, simply ‘pink-wash’ the Olympics for those two weeks of spectacle if the games do ‘go on’? I don’t think so, it’s quite unimaginable that Russia would actively recruit gay athletes at this moment.

In fact, Russia seems less compliant than Germany in suspending its campaign of hatred for the Games. Vitaly Mutko, the Russian sports minister, told the press last week that athletes coming to the 2014 Winter Olympic games in Sochi could be subject to those same “homosexual propaganda laws” passed this summer: gays or those expressing support for gay athletes could be arrested, detained for weeks and deported. Wave a rainbow flag, hold hands with a member of the same sex, and you go to jail.

Some final thoughts…

Russia’s laws are not the same as the Nazi Nuremberg laws. The former outlaw the visibility of homosexuality in literature and public life, the latter deprived Jewish-Germans of citizenship. But they are similar in the way that they exclude a long-suffering minority socially and legally. You don’t need to be a historian to be suspicious of broad comparisons with the Nazis, used conveniently to counter your opponents, but in this case I think careful parallels are quite justified. We should all be wary of where hate legislation might lead.

Ultimately, this issue should be faced in the spirit of Olympism.  You need only to look at the Olympic Charter to see that one of its fundamental principles is:

The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.

At present, we are poised to send athletes into an atmosphere of discrimination. It’s not a mistake we should make twice.



Dr. Joseph Pearson is currently a lecturer at the New York University center in Berlin, and the editor of The Needle.


*See Mandell, The Nazi Olympics (1971) for an overview of the 1936 Games.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

29 thoughts on “Why We Participated in the 1936 Nazi Games: Lessons for Sochi

  • Brilliant and timely article. I usually consider any comparisons with Nazi Germany to be over the top, but this one resonates politically and emotionally.

  • Very good article, I am also sharing this widely; thank you for so clearly comparing 1936 (1935) with 2014

  • Clearly nothing about the olympics is about humanity; the public wants to be nationalistic and voyeuristic by watching the games and the athletes themselves are motivated by their individual desires to achieve…both of which seem to override the greater issue concerning human rights here. I cannot watch these games that have been allowed to perpetuate and propagate hatred!

  • My message to the IOC (International Olympics Committee) MOC (Move or Cancel!)

  • I’m curious if Dr Pearson might be able to speak to the possibility of the Russian team being banned by the IOC similarly to how South Africa had been. I have no doubt that it would be a much bigger problem with Russia hosting the games, but it seems the best solution?

  • Great article! You write at the end:

    “At present, we are poised to send athletes into an atmosphere of discrimination. It’s not a mistake we should make twice.”

    My question is what is the responsibility of the athletes? They are not forced to go there and if they stay away from the games there will be no games.


    • Exactly what I said before now. What are they being told or threatened if they have questioned?

  • If we haven’t sent our athletes to Germany we would miss amazing stories and pictures of racial equality amidst racial discrimination. Would you reader erase those pictures from the wall of history?

    Same pictures of triumph will be left after Sochi. And even if Russian police or IOC will act against pro-gay activism the worldwide coverage it will shed even brighter light on the issue.

    • Errr…I think your view of things is a little “rose tinted” to say the least! What happened in 1936 was that the Olympic Games in Germany paved the way for Hitler to become a mass murderer. It was a powerful propaganda tool that he fully took advantage of. To say that there were “amazing stories and pictures of racial equality” completely ignores what subsequently happened!!

  • Such a well-written article, Joe. I so enjoyed reading it. It’s helped me move along from my stalled position regarding the 2013 Games.
    Since Vancouver has offered to host the Games again, why isn’t that being pursued? (not necessarily a question for Joe, but for the general public.)
    Bravo, Joe.

  • I think that everyone should boycott the Sochi Games. This is disgusting. Discrimation should be considered a punishable crime.

    • The parallels between the past and present are even stronger in some places than I realized and the IOC’s gutless homophobic position is doubtless mired in profits which have driven the games since the twin boycotts of Moscow and Los Angeles.

      Russia will probably not move on its position, and it is probably too late to move the games. That leaves only cancellation of the games (not likely) or national boycotts of the games.

  • Vancouver isn’t offering to host the games. In fact, they are insisting that they can’t. A ciy needs more than 6 months to plan a party like tha. As it stands, they have nowhere to house the participants.

    Banning Russians from playing seems more feasable – and would generate outrage from Russia. I am also hopeful that the participants from around the world will ignore/defy the warnings or Russia and the IOC. If here was ever a chance to get into the history books – this will be it!

  • Well written article. I actually saw three points on the Olympic Charter that have been ignored by allowing the Olympics to continue;

    *To act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement (Too late)

    *To encourage and support measures protecting the health of athletes (No LGBT people are protected)

    *To oppose any political or commercial abuse of sport and athletes (I’d say the law imposed abuses athletes)

  • A good article. Be more critical of the I.O.C. though. Think of it as a corporate entity interested only in market development. The Berlin games AND the Beijing games are proof of that. Allowing a dictatorship (of any political persuasion) to host the games is just asking for a display of goose-stepping and media control. The I.O.C. leadersip understand finance. They don’t know what “morality” means.

  • Jaques Rogge your IOC principles are being walked over as you happily stand by & make weak excuses.

    What’s is the point of having them if they have no meaning? Grow some balls & make a stand. Doing nothing makes you no better than Russia.

  • All this preciousness about the Games – as though the world might end if they were not held. It won’t. Perhaps if the games were cancelled, that might send the strongest message of all – that the international community considers human life and human rights far more important than a medal tally.

  • I keep hearing the example of Jesse Owens cited as a reason participate in these games. But that doesn’t make sense. Sure, Owens’ success undermined the Nazis’ propaganda of Aryan superiority and embarrassed them a little, but there are no parallels to that in this situation.

    Putin isn’t claiming that straight people are better at sports (or if he is, it isn’t an important theme), so an openly gay or gay-friendly athlete winning medals (if it happened) wouldn’t say anything to counter the lies they are telling. The only way outside participation in the games at Sochi could turn out badly for Putin is if something horrific happened. That isn’t something to hope for.

  • A simply brilliant article, I must say that the involvement of the Afro-American athletes that performed in the Nazi Olympics were not complicit with the U.S political position but to achieve athletic achievement over Nazi discrimination by beating Hitler’s Arian super stars was a powerful message, discrimination at any level must be exposed and overcome.
    The 2013 games are set, showing that Gay athletes will not be dismissed by a Demonstrative leader or an ignorant population enveloped in its own internal controlled oppression of free speech. I support athletes that take a stand however difficult. If the World simply withdraws from the oppressor nothing will ever change.

  • Regardless of personal perspectives and opinions it is important to remember the facts involved in this situation. It very clearly states in the I.O.C’s own Charter that The Games must uphold and are to represent equality and freedom for all those involved and to promote peace throughout the world. It is, by allowing The Games to continue in Russia, contradicting the very fabric of what the Olympics are all about. It has become a cooperate event; more about money and less about principal. If we do not act against these types of atrocities then we are a passively supporting and funding the actions of tyrants like Putin. FACT.

  • Great article until the final paragraph: “Russia’s laws are not the same as the Nazi Nuremburg laws. The former outlaw the visibility of homosexuality in literature and public life, the latter deprived Jewish-Germans of citizenship and legal protection.”

    Russia’s laws are depriving homosexuals, and their supporters of legal protections. LBGT are being imprisoned for nothing more than being homosexual and beaten on the street without their oppressors facing no legal consequences. No, they don’t have to wear a pink triangle, but the similarities are closer than the author states.

    • Hi Lmaris: Thanks for your comment which led me to tweak my assertion a little. I now write: “Russia’s laws are not the same as the Nazi Nuremburg laws. The former outlaw the visibility of homosexuality in literature and public life, the latter deprived Jewish-Germans of citizenship. But they are similar in the way that they exclude a long-suffering minority socially and legally”. I originally was too cautious about the comparison. Plenty of critics might say: ‘But the Nuremburg laws were much more extreme than the legal reality in Russia today for gay people’. Yes, this is true: gay people have not lost their citizenship and the legal privileges associated with it. But I should clarify that they are still suffering not only from social exclusion, but also from lack of legal protections. Best wishes, Joseph

  • Excellent post. Will cross-post to my communities. In regards to point 1 above, re: IOC partnerships, spot on. I posted this Huffington Post article to raise awareness that global consumers can and do make a difference.

    Every can of CocoCola, every Panasonic device, every McDonalds meal purchased – makes a different. Time to tell global IOC corporate sponsors your thoughts on this issue. Links to global sponsors in the above link.

  • while I despise homophobia and abhor the political use of homophobia by the Russian president and his lawmakers in the parliament, I question how credible a boycott of the olympics by the US could be since it’s only ten years ago that several US states still had anti-homosexual activity legislation on the books, and a lot of them actively discriminate against homosexuals by defining a “traditional marriage” in their respective state constitutions. Germany is only little better, having removed the last piece of federal anti-homosexual activity legislation only in 1994 and still denying homosexuals the right to a full marriage.

    • Let me emphasize the author’s statement: ‘I don’t think it’s enough to protest on Facebook, we need to put pressure directly on corporate sponsors…’
      If we would do so, by means of Facebook, G+, sponsors will surely be affected by opinion.

      That’s what I think.

  • Excellent article, though there is something else to consider when contemplating boycotts for any reason. It is the athletes themselves who would be asked to boycott, which is doomed to fail. Consider why an athlete competes in ANY sport – an athlete only does what he / she does for his / her own personal triumph. They go there to do a PB, or even to try to win. Whilst competing in their country’s colours, the sole purpose for an athlete to compete is PURELY self-motivated, for their own personal growth. It is not like the performing or dramatic arts, where the audience is the most important variable. The whole philosophy “the show must go on” applies to performers putting their own needs last, and giving an audience their all. No athlete stands at the blocks and puts themselves last, to give the spectators a dream finish. If that we’re the case, all swimmers against Eric the Eel in the pool would have thrown the race to give the spectators there & at home a fairy tale.
    As such, to ask athletes to boycott the Olympics in support of such a humanitarian issue will fail, as such a boycott does not fit into most athletes’ personality profiles & ambitions for their own personal athletic growth.

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