Germany Hosts the Summer Olympics Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Berlin Olympics of 1936, the most controversial Olympic Games of the modern era, were used by the Nazis to showcase their racial ideology and strengthen their regime through carefully staged pageantry and propaganda. The gold medals won by African American athlete Jesse Owens in four events represent one of the most spectacular individual achievements in Olympic history.

Summary of Event

Berlin had been scheduled to host the 1916 Olympic Games, which were canceled because of World War I, and German athletes were not invited to the 1920 and 1924 Olympics as a punishment for Germany’s role in the war in an early interjection of politics into the Olympic Games. When they competed in the 1928 Games in Amsterdam, however, German athletes finished second to the Americans in the overall medal count. The selection of the venue for the 1936 Olympics was made in 1931, when Berlin bested Barcelona, Spain. Olympic practice allowed the host of the Summer Games to do the Winter Games as well, and Germany selected the Bavarian resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Some Germans were not pleased with Germany’s hosting the 1936 Olympics, both because Jewish and black athletes would be competing and because of the expense involved in sponsoring the Games during the Great Depression. [kw]Germany Hosts the Summer Olympics (Aug. 1-16, 1936) [kw]Summer Olympics, Germany Hosts the (Aug. 1-16, 1936) [kw]Olympics, Germany Hosts the Summer (Aug. 1-16, 1936) Sports;Olympic Games Olympic Games;Berlin (1936) Summer Olympic Games;Berlin (1936) [g]Germany;Aug. 1-16, 1936: Germany Hosts the Summer Olympics[09230] [c]Sports;Aug. 1-16, 1936: Germany Hosts the Summer Olympics[09230] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Aug. 1-16, 1936: Germany Hosts the Summer Olympics[09230] Brundage, Avery Diem, Carl Goebbels, Joseph Hitler, Adolf [p]Hitler, Adolf;Olympic Games Owens, Jesse Riefenstahl, Leni

Planning for the 1936 Olympics had begun before Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor. Carl Diem, general secretary of the organizing committee, attended the 1932 Games and took copious notes on the pageantry and handling of the events. With Hitler in power, however, several new issues arose. What was Hitler’s attitude toward hosting the Olympics? Would the Nazi government adhere to the Olympic ideals of equal access for all athletes? How would athletes and governments react to an Olympics sponsored by Nazi Germany? After some initial hesitancy—overcome by Joseph Goebbels’s strong support for the Games—Hitler authorized full funding of the 1936 Olympics. He saw the Games as a vehicle to promote Nazi ideology, strengthen the government and Germany, and to deflect criticism from the Nazis. Although German sports officials had made a June, 1933, written promise that Jewish athletes would not be excluded from the German Olympic team, Jewish athletes and officials were expelled from German athletic associations, which effectively barred them from the Olympics.

Such actions led to a movement in the United States and Western Europe to move the Games or to boycott the Berlin Olympics if Jewish and black athletes were barred from competing. Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee, went on a fact-finding tour of Germany in 1934 to investigate matters. He urged that American athletes participate in the Games and condemned the boycott movement as interfering with athletics. Passage of the discriminatory Nazi Nuremberg Racial Laws in 1935 energized the boycott movement, but Brundage was able to outmaneuver boycott supporters at the December, 1935, vote of the American Athletic Union (AAU), which decided to send athletes to the Games. Individual athletes then faced the dilemma of whether to participate. Two Jewish athletes were recalled from abroad to participate for Germany: Rudi Ball played on the hockey team at the Winter Games, and Helene Meyer won a silver medal in fencing at the Summer Games and did the required Hitler salute on the medal platform.

The Winter Games at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which lasted from February 6 to 16, 1936, attracted athletes from twenty-eight countries. Complaints from high-level Olympic officials caused the Nazis to remove anti-Semitic signs from the roads leading to the site prior to the commencement of the Winter Games. The reoccupation of the Rhineland by German troops on March 7, 1936, led to renewed calls for boycotts in France and Britain, but athletes from both nations competed, and the Nazis removed anti-Semitic signs from Berlin, suspended anti-Jewish activity, and cleaned the city in preparation for the Summer Games. Carl Diem and Joseph Goebbels had created great publicity and propaganda campaigns to advertise the Olympics, which featured both an Olympic exhibition and an Olympic caravan. Propaganda;Nazi Germany

The Summer Games opened with tremendous fanfare and pageantry. The famous composer Richard Strauss led a 100-piece orchestra and chorus of 3,000 in the German national anthem, the Nazi Party’s anthem (the “Horst Wessel” song), and a special composition to honor the Olympics. The 110,000 spectators saw the culmination of the torch run from Olympia, Greece, and Hitler was presented with an olive branch from Olympia. The Nazis paid careful attention to media coverage by providing print journalists with impressive facilities; shortwave radio was used to broadcast the Games in twenty-eight languages to an estimated 300 million listeners worldwide; and an experimental television network beamed the events to select locations throughout Berlin. Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, with secret funding from the Nazis, was able to document the Olympics in her groundbreaking three-and-one-half-hour film, Olympia (1938). This work set the standard for sports documentaries but raised questions about Reifenstahl’s connection to the Nazi regime and her artistic vision. In general, however, the pageantry and festivities resonated with many excited participants and visitors.

The sailing competitions at Kiel and the other events in Berlin brought together forty-nine nations, about five thousand athletes, and more than three million attendees. German athletes won the most medals—eighty-nine—and the United States was second with fifty-six. These Games, however, were remembered for the tremendous accomplishments of the African American athlete Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals: in the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes, in the broad jump, and in the 4- by 100-meter relay. The relay remained controversial because of the last-minute replacement of two Jewish members of the American team, Martin Glickman and Sam Stoller, with two African American runners, Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. Questions still remain whether this was done to field the fastest team or to avoid offending the Nazis.

Contrary to popular belief, Hitler did not refuse to shake Owens’s hand: On the first day of competition, the head of the International Olympic Committee had insisted that Hitler congratulate either all or none of the victors. Hitler chose to not congratulate any of the participants, but the American media were unaware of the situation and thought that only American athletes were affected.

At the end of the Berlin Games, the site for the 1940 Olympics was announced—Tokyo, Japan—but World War II caused the 1940 and 1944 Games to be canceled. After the closing ceremonies were over, many spectators launched into a series of “Sieg Heils.”


More than any other Olympics, those of 1936 were linked to the head of state of the host country who was a highly visible spectator and beneficiary of the validation which the Games brought to his regime. The nearly flawless execution of events and festivities, coupled with suspension of anti-Semitic activities during the Olympics, convinced many foreign journalists and visitors that accounts of earlier anti-Semitic actions had been exaggerated. Although a few perceptive observers saw through the propaganda, the Nazis achieved their goals through their politization of the 1936 Olympics.

New innovations and technologies became permanent fixtures at the Olympics: the torch run, the extensive use of radio and the experimental medium of television, and the elaborate pageantry. The boycott movements in the United States and Western Europe set an example that would become a reality during the U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980 and the Soviet Union-led retaliatory boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

The reasons for the success of the German athletes are subject to scholarly disagreement: Some tout nationalistic and ideological motivation, while others focus on the rigorous and scientific training that would soon become standard for world-class and Olympic athletes. In any case, the strong showing by the totalitarian regimes in the medal count—Germany in first place, Italy in third; and Japan in eighth—caused other nations to emulate their examples for physical education programs for school children and training athletes. Perhaps emboldened by their Olympic successes, Germany, Italy, and Japan drew closer and became more aggressive: Japan invaded China in 1937 and Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and many nations were engulfed in World War II within a few years of the Berlin Games. Sports;Olympic Games Olympic Games;Berlin (1936) Summer Olympic Games;Berlin (1936)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bachrach, Susan D. The Nazi Olympics: Berlin, 1936. Boston: Little, Brown, 2000. Developed from an exhibit of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, this concise treatment’s strength is the superb photographs that supplement the text.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hart-Davis, Duff. Hitler’s Games: The 1936 Olympics. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. This journalistic account examines the 1936 Olympics from the British perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krüger, Arnd, and William Murray, eds. The Nazi Olympics: Sport, Politics, and Appeasement in the 1930s. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. A valuable collection of eleven scholarly essays covering the 1936 Olympics from the point of view of individual nations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mandell, Richard D. The Nazi Olympics. 1971. Reprint. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987. Has a new preface. The first scholarly treatment of the 1936 Games highlights the strong connection between Nazi ideology and the propaganda to which the Olympics were subjected.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schaffer, Kay, and Sidonie Smith, eds. The Olympics at the Millennium: Power, Politics, and the Games. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000. These essays provide an overview of key themes of Olympic history in the twentieth century. Especially valuable is “Jewish Athletes and the ’Nazi Olympics’” by Allen Guttman, et al.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Senn, Alfred E. Power, Politics, and the Olympic Games. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics, 1999. A historical overview which explores the relationship between domestic and international politics and the Olympics.

Stockholm Hosts the Summer Olympics

Racist Theories Aid Nazi Rise to Political Power

First Winter Olympic Games

Hitler Comes to Power in Germany

German Troops March into the Rhineland

The Anschluss


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