Accessibility links

Breaking News

Nazi Olympics Exhibit Draws Visitors to Holocaust Museum

There have been protests and calls for a boycott of this year's Olympic games in Beijing, a reminder that despite the high ideals of the Olympics, politics often plays a role. An exhibit at the Holocaust Museum in Washington recalls one of the most politicized Games in the history of the modern Olympics. VOA's Susan Logue reports on "The Nazi Olympics - Berlin 1936."

Most Americans associate the 1936 Olympics with Jesse Owens, an African-American athlete who took home four gold medals in track competitions at the Summer Games.

Owens appears prominently in the exhibit at the Holcocaust Museum, but curator Susan Bachrach says there was a bigger winner in Berlin.

"We call these Olympics the Nazi Olympics. There is a reason for that," Bachrach says. "Because Owens' winnings not withstanding, it was a propaganda victory for Germany."

Germany in 1936 had not yet descended into the Holocaust, but there were already signs of anti-Semitism and human rights abuses. Jews were excluded from government employment and their businesses were boycotted. Other groups, including the disabled and blacks, were being sterilized.

In response, for the first time in the history of the modern Olympics, some Americans called for a boycott of the Games.

"And it almost succeeded," Bachrach says. "One side said that the Olympics are for athletes not for politicians, and one could separate sports from politics. The other side said Nazi Germany was using the games for propagandistic purposes."

That started before the games. Germany was the first Olympic host to publicize the Games with a torch relay. It ran from Olympia, Greece, through seven European countries to Berlin.

With memories of protests that accompanied this year's torch relay, Bachrach says she wouldn't be surprised if some visitors to the Holocaust Museum exhibit draw comparisons with the controversy surrounding the upcoming games in China. "I think it is inevitable, when visitors come to this exhibition with all of the reporting there has been about the Beijing games and the interest as we come closer to those games, that will be in the back of peoples' minds when they go through and look at this history."

Nate Larmore, a tourist from Seattle, visiting the Holocaust Museum with his wife Anita, is one of those people. "Because of the exhibit, it's got my mind turning about a number of parallels I hadn't considered before today," Larmore says.

"You have a Germany that wanted to find respect amongst the nations of the world and looked at the Olympiad as a means of doing that," he says. "The irony was that in order to get that respect they had to hide a lot of the things they were doing."

Ralph Kupka, visiting the United States from the Netherlands, says any comparisons between Berlin and Beijing are exaggerated. "The government in Germany in the 1930s is far more aggressive than I think the government in China is today, so I think it is not a fair comparison to make."

Lisa Delpy, an Olympic scholar and associate professor of sports management at the George Washington University, agrees. She says China has changed dramatically since her first visit 10 years ago.

"My first visit to China was in 1988. At that point, my passport was taken. For three days I had no rights, and people would not ever talk to me about where they worked, where they lived, what they did. It was very controlled," Delpy recalls. "This last time I went back, three months ago, people were inviting me to their homes; they wanted me to spend the night; they were telling me all about their businesses. It's just night and day."

Delpy says China, like every Olympic host, is using the Games to showcase the country to the rest of the world. "They are welcoming the world, because for so many years they were NOT welcoming the world," she says. "They have built many hotel rooms, and they are very happy to have tourists come to Beijing and come to China. And I think their primary emphasis - it's not political - if anything, it's economic."

That's considerably different from Hitler's goals in 1936. In 1938, the Nazis would begin their invasions of other European countries. Four years later, Hitler would begin to implement his systematic plan to exterminate Europe's Jews. By 1945, the end of World War II, six million Jews were dead.