The movie “Race,” opening Friday (Feb. 19), tells the story of African-American track-and-field star Jesse Owens and his role in the 1936 Olympics in Adolf Hitler’s Berlin. As the history is often told, Owens’ four-gold-medal performance was a dramatic rebuke to Hitler and his ideology of racial supremacy. But Owens faced racial issues in the U.S. as well, before and after the games. History professor Peter Fritzsche has written extensively about the Nazi period in Germany, making significant use of diaries and letters, in books such as “Life and Death in the Third Reich.” He spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
The movie’s trailer suggests there was a question as to whether Owens would even attend the games, in the face of pressure from a boycott movement. How serious was the boycott effort? And how did it play among African-Americans?
The 1936 Olympics were awarded to Germany in 1931, before Hitler took power. Barcelona was the other city considered, which, if history had played out differently, would have put the games in the middle of the Spanish Civil War. It was a vote that reflected an international commitment to reintegrate Germany into the family of nations after World War I.
The Nazis themselves were hardly sympathetic with international spectacles such as the Olympics and had pulled out of the League of Nations in 1933. Nonetheless, Hitler reconsidered and hoped to showcase both the Third Reich and “Aryan” excellence in the 1936 games, which for many people in Europe and the U.S. became a referendum on the Nazis.
The mostly American effort to boycott the games began in earnest in 1935. In particular, the Amateur Athletic Union worried about both Germany’s discrimination against its own Jewish athletes and the treatment that U.S. black athletes might expect in Berlin. The AAU position was endorsed by the American Jewish Committee and the NAACP.
But even the NAACP understood that it was asking a lot of athletes who had trained for years and who themselves faced discrimination throughout the United States and Jim Crow laws in the South. It also recognized that black athletes could prove the nonsense of Germany’s racial ideas. Moreover, track-and-field athletes such as Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe reported that they had been treated very well in previous amateur events in Nazi Germany.
Owens at first appeared to agree with the boycott, but changed his mind after his coach at Ohio State intervened. Moreover, the American Olympic Committee refused to budge. In the end, I think the African-American community both sympathized with the boycott and believed that already-tested champions such as Owens and Metcalfe should be allowed to display their enormous talents.
It’s easy to view Germans at that time as a people totally fixated by Hitler and his ideology, but was it that simple? How did they view the performance of Owens and other black athletes in the games?
On the whole, Germans endorsed the Third Reich and supported Hitler. But that did not mean they agreed with all Nazi ideas or even understood them. On the one hand, Germans could abstractly subscribe to notions of racial superiority, and, on the other, be swept up in the one-on-one contests between superlative athletes. The thrilling duel between world record holder Jesse Owens and the German Lutz Long in the long jump was showcased by Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's favorite cinematographer, in her 1938 film “Olympia.”
By all accounts, fans mobbed Owens, and both Long and the German boxer Max Schmeling sought Owens out, though it is certainly true that Hitler had absolutely no intention of being seen, much less shaking hands, with black athletes. In any case, Owens’ records in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, the long jump and the 4x100-meter relay stood for decades.
The Owens-versus-Hitler narrative might suggest the games did serious damage to Germany’s image in the world, but was that the case? Did it in any way alter or slow down the direction of Nazi policies?
The summer 1936 Olympics were a great propaganda boost to Nazi Germany, which was able to display to the world an image of an orderly, prosperous, basically happy society. Perhaps, if Germany had swept the medal competition, the Nazis could bluster all the more about their racial superiority, but in fact the Germans did well and the Olympics hardly slowed down Nazi racial policies, which became more onerous and violent.
The Olympics helped rather than hurt Germany’s image. Germans themselves may have taken delight in some of the contradictions or ironies that the games exposed regarding the Nazis’ obsession with race, but they hardly peeled away from the regime. The Olympics remained a central part of Germans’ overwhelmingly positive memories of the Third Reich before the war.
What was Owens’ reception on his return to the U.S.?
As far as Owens was concerned, he was snubbed not by Hitler but by Roosevelt, who never met the American medal winners or telegraphed congratulations. Owens still had to live in a segregated country: He had to live off campus at Ohio State and take the freight elevator to his reception at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City after the Olympics. In 1936, he campaigned for the Republican presidential candidate, Alf Landon, perhaps in part because he was embittered by Roosevelt.
You also note that there are two important Illinois connections with the 1936 games.
Yes, one was Metcalfe, who was a record-breaking athlete in the 1930s and won a gold and silver in Berlin – the gold as a teammate with Owens in the 4x100 and the silver behind Owens in the 100-meter dash. He eventually entered politics, winning election as an alderman from Chicago’s South Side in 1955 and as an Illinois congressman in 1970. He was a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The other was Avery Brundage, who was a 1909 University of Illinois graduate and president of the U.S. Olympic Committee in the lead-up to the 1936 games. He pursued a more dubious political path. He considered the boycott a Jewish-Communist conspiracy and advanced to the International Olympic Committee minutes after the one pro-boycott American was booted out in July 1936 – the only IOC member to ever be expelled. He became the IOC president in 1955, retiring only after overseeing the 1972 Olympics in Munich, which he insisted continue even after the terrorist raid on the Israeli team. In 1974, Brundage left his private papers to the U. of I. library, so if you want to understand the 1936 Berlin Olympics, you have to come to Urbana to inspect them.