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1936: The Nazis
 pg. 98 
  By the summer of 1936, German Jews had lost their citizenship rights. Their businesses had been boycotted, their professional lives restricted. They were excluded from public facilities and prohibited from marrying non-Jews. Meanwhile, as the Nazis expanded their anti-Jewish policies, they also understood that German physical fitness and athletic prowess could build nationalism, foster racial purity, and spur military preparedness. Consequently, Jewish opportunity for places on the 1936 Olympic team was all but eliminated. Those positions had to be saved for those who could bring the most honor to the German people and the Nazi state.

Bowing ever so slightly to pressure, Reich officials placated the IOC by allowing one Jewish athlete to compete for Germany in the 1936 Summer Games: Helene Mayer. Mayer had competed for Germany in two previous Olympiads, and she announced she would be pleased to return to her homeland from California to do so again. Mayer was half Jewish, a Mischlinge. She was also tall and blonde, nearly fitting the prototypical Aryan image. As Mayer received the Olympic silver medal in the women's foil competition, film coverage from that day shows her giving the stiff-armed Nazi salute. Brief and ambivalent though it seems to have been, her salute signaled that perhaps Hitler's Germany wasn't such a bad place.

Earlier, on March 7, 1936, Hitler had made a speech to the Reichstag. As he announced the restoration of German sovereignty over the Rhineland, German military forces reentered that territory, which had been demilitarized after World War I. Although that action clearly violated the Versailles Treaty, and was condemned by the League of Nations, Hitler's decision was not revoked and German troops were not withdrawn. Nevertheless, as the Olympic appearance of Helene Mayer suggests, Hitler and his followers were shrewd about advancing their national interests without straining international opinion too much.

Before the Games began, movements in several countries, including the United States and the Soviet Union, urged a boycott of Olympic competition in Germany. Not wanting to risk that outcome, the Nazi regime made concessions to improve its image. Some of those concessions involved taking down the vicious anti-Jewish signs that proliferated along German highways, at the boundaries of towns and cities, and on many streets and stores. "Jews are not wanted in this place," some of them asserted. "The Jew is our misfortune," others proclaimed.

The Winter Games began at Garmisch-Partenkirchen on February 6. By the time Hitler officially opened the Games, the antisemitic signs in the immediate area were dismantled. They remained, however, along the highways that led to the competition site. Count Henri Baillet-Latour, the Belgian president of the IOC, saw these antisemitic displays as he traveled to the opening of the Winter Games. He immediately demanded to see Hitler and told him that such practices were unacceptable. Hitler argued that Olympic protocol could not override concerns of paramount importance within Germany, but when Baillet-Latour threatened cancellation of the 1936 Olympics, Hitler ordered the road signs removed.

Such concessions were matters of expediency. They represented no change of heart or policy regarding the "Jewish question" in Nazi Germany. On June 17, for instance, Hitler issued a decree that made Heinrich Himmler chief of all German police forces. Combining that power with the authority he already enjoyed as the leader of the SS, Himmler expanded the vast terror apparatus that was now under his control. As preparations for the Summer Olympics continued, Nazi Germany was becoming an ever-more centralized police state.

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German-Jewish high jumper Gretl Bergmann was later removed from the team.
Photo: Margaret Lambert/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archive

1936: The Nazis
 pg. 98 
The Holocaust Chronicle
© 2009 Publications International, Ltd.