I watched three documentaries PBS put on their schedule on Tuesday, August 3 as part of the lead-in to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, which begin this Friday with the big opening ceremonies. First up was The Nazi Games: Berlin 1936, a co-production of something called “taglicht media” with “pre TV” and the Austrian TV networks ORF and ZDF — which explains why so many of the interviews included were in German (with voiceover translations), though the interviewees themselves were cosmopolitan enough they probably knew enough English to be interviewed in it. The basic thesis of the program was that it was the 1936 Berlin Olympics which set the template for every modern Olympic Games since: the construction of monumental stadia and other venues for the Games to take place in (one commentator said the International Olympic Committee expects host cities to build permanent structures, not merely temporary facilities, whether or not the cities can afford them or will have any use for them once the Games are over), the elaborate pageantry — it was apparently the organizers of the Nazi Games that first thought of the idea of having an Olympic torch start out in Greece and be carried by relay runners to the site of the current Games, which has been done in every Olympics ever since — and the whole exploitation of the Olympics for political propagandist purposes. One thing I hadn’t known before watching this was that the winning bid for Berlin as the host city of the 1936 Olympics had been made as far back as 1930 — well before the Nazis gained power — and indeed the two heads of the German committee that wrote and presented the bid to the IOC were both Jewish (and, to forestall one of the many threatened boycotts of the Games, the Nazis were forced to leave them in place as part of the organizing committee until the Games were over). When Hitler took power his first instinct was to cancel the Olympics and tell the IOC to have them somewhere else — Hitler was suspicious of anything international and his only interest in sports was as a way to give young German men physical training that could later be used to make them soldiers for the war he intended to start as soon as he’d rebuilt enough of the German military to make it realistic.
But he (likely advised in this direction by his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels) quickly realized that the Olympics provided him a heaven-sent propaganda opportunity to present Nazi Germany to the world as he wanted the world to see it, peace-loving and tolerant. He issued decrees that there would be no racial or religious persecution of foreign athletes coming to Berlin for the Games (and there wasn’t), and that Jews would have an equal chance to compete for spots on the German team (which they didn’t; he grudgingly let on one Jewish athlete, a woman diver who was blonde, blue-eyed and didn’t look particularly “Jewish”). In the filmmakers’ presentation, the real villain is Avery Brundage, a well-heeled American and postwar head of the IOC, who saw his chance to gain power in the Olympic movement by fiercely defending the Berlin Olympics against threats of boycotts; a number of Jewish organizations and non-Jewish allies tried to organize boycotts, and at one point got the U.S. Amateur Athletics Union (AAU) within a hair’s-breath of withdrawing its sanction for the Games. Brundage worked his way around that by saying that the U.S. Olympic Committee, which he headed, would sanction the athletes itself if the AAU refused to, but that wasn’t necessary; he got the vote he wanted from the AAU and the U.S. team went to Berlin — as did those of 46 other nations, the largest representation of any modern Olympics to that time. The film discusses not only the boycott threats (including the sad fate of three Austrian swimmers who decided on their own not to participate — and who got hammered by the Austrian authorities even while the country was still nominally independent: the Austrian athletic guilds imposed a lifetime ban on them so they could never swim in competition) but also the hazards of the breakneck construction pace Hitler insisted on to make sure every facility would be ready for the start of the Games, including the collapse of a tunnel near the Brandenburg Gate (because it was built too close to the surface), which killed four workers — who were declared Heroes of the State and given what amounted to a military funeral, with their swastika flag-draped coffins on display before thousands of people.
The Games themselves went pretty much the way Hitler wanted them to — he wanted Germany to win the most medals to show the racial superiority of his “Aryan” people — and while the United States led the medal count early due to their dominance in track and field (including the fabled feats of Black American sprinter Jesse Owens — who got a lot of footage in Leni Riefenstahl’s great documentary of the Games, Olympia, mainly because for all her support of the Nazis she wasn’t particularly interested in their racial B.S. and she was fascinated by Black male bodies, as she proved after the war when, blacklisted from the German film industry, she started making anthropological trips to Africa and shooting highly sexualized photos of the native men), the Germans caught up and eventually surpassed the U.S. when the events they were especially good at — the ones with military applications, like horse riding, fencing and rowing — came up later in the Games. The makers of The Nazi Games (whose names I couldn’t find online — PBS used to offer quite a lot of printed documentation on their shows but now their Web presence seems directed almost exclusively to “streaming” versions of the shows themselves) obviously borrowed a lot of Riefenstahl’s Olympia footage, including the famous shot of the dirigible Hindenburg (a year before its fabled destruction in an accident at Lakehurst, New Jersey) looming over the Olympic stadium as Hitler and others in the Nazi bigwigs’ box waited for the Games to begin. Most of the rest was probably from the Deutsche Woschenschau, the “German Weekly Newsreel,” the official Nazi production which was considerably more creatively photographed and edited than its U.S. equivalents.
The filmmakers also cut in footage from more recent Olympics to show how the pageantry and spectacle invented by the Nazis for their Games have been reproduced again and again, and indeed expanded on by later Games organizers — and they also make the point that the IOC has generally not only been willing to deal with authoritarian governments but has preferred to because a dictatorship is more likely than a republic to be able to build the giant structures the IOC demands and displace as many people out of the way as needed, both to make room for the stadia, Olympic villages, training facilities and whatnot and to get “undesirable” people off the streets for the duration of the event. When the narration mentions how the Nazis swept the streets of Berlin of over 600 “Roma” and “Sinti” (i.e., Gypsy) people and put them in concentration camps (later the Gypsies would be among the principal populations singled out for elimination in the Holocaust, along with Jews, Communists, Queers and people with disabilities), I couldn’t help but make the parallel with the recent actions of the city government of San Diego to sweep the downtown streets clear of homeless people — including planting so-called “rock gardens” under overpasses where homeless people had been sleeping and threatening to arrest anyone who ran food lines for them — for the same reason the Nazis did it in Berlin in 1936: so out-of-town visitors wouldn’t see any “undesirable” people clogging up the streets when they came to watch the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Petco Park. Oddly, the narration in the actual documentary didn’t use the term “Potemkin village” to describe how the Nazis cleaned up their act and made Berlin look clean, spanking new and like a mecca of peace and tolerance for the foreign visitors to the Games (which were also the first ones broadcast to the U.S. “live” — unlike the organizers of the Los Angeles Games in 1932 they did not charge foreign stations rights fees — and also the first ones ever televised, though the only way you could watch the games on TV was in exclusive “TV cottages” which at one point were more crowded and harder to get tickets to than the actual live venues where the games were being played), though the Web site on the program did.
It also oddly did not mention that the 1936 Winter Olympics were also held in Germany (in the Northern German resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where Richard Strauss owned a villa that he had told Kaiser Wilhelm had been paid for from the royalties from his controversial opera Salomé), or that 20th Century-Fox used both the 1936 Winter and Summer Olympics as backdrops for movies (the Winter Games for One in a Million, screen debut of Sonja Henie, who won gold medals for figure skating in the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Games; and the Summer Olympics for Charlie Chan at the Olympics, which featured Keye Luke in his usual role as Number One Son of Charlie Chan but also made him a member of the U.S. swim team — and the young Keye Luke looked quite hot in a bathing suit and nothing else), though it did mention that largely due to Brundage’s maneuvering (Brundage got onto the International Olympic Committee at long last when one of the German Jews who had originally proposed Berlin as the site of the 1936 Games was pushed out by Hitler after the Games were over and he felt he could show his true face again), the 1940 Winter Olympics were moved from Japan (which was already at war with China in the 1930’s, well before the rest of World War II began) to Germany — though in the event they weren’t held because of the war and the Olympics didn’t resume until 1948. The show also made clear that Brundage wasn’t just a Nazi fellow-traveler; he agreed with a lot of their ideology and in particular their anti-Semitism (though there’s no evidence he actually wanted to see them all killed; remember that anti-Jewish prejudices were quite common among the U.S. and European upper classes until the revelation of the Holocaust after the war made anti-Semitism look sick and decidedly unfashionable), and every time anyone spoke out against the Berlin Olympics and called for a boycott, Brundage smeared them as tools of the Communists and the Jews. Brundage eventually became head of the entire Olympic movement until he fell from power in 1968, another year of political and social ferment that affected the Games big-time.