Adolf Hitler, Jesse Owens and the Olympics Myth of 1936
By Rick Shenkman
Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.
“Everyone knows” that at the 1936 Olympics Hitler snubbed Jesse Owens. As the story goes, after Owens won one gold medal, Hitler, incensed, stormed out of Olympic Stadium so he wouldn’t have to congratulate Owens on his victory.
Such a performance would have been perfectly in character, but it didn’t happen. William J. Baker, Owens’s biographer, says the newspapers made up the whole story. Owens himself originally insisted it wasn’t true, but eventually he began saying it was, apparently out of sheer boredom with the issue.
The facts are simple. Hitler did not congratulate Owens, but that day he didn’t congratulate anybody else either — not even the German winners. As a matter of fact, Hitler didn’t congratulate anyone after the first day of the competition. That first day he had shaken hands with all the German victors, but that had gotten him in trouble with the members of the Olympic Committee. They told him that to maintain Olympic neutrality, he would have to congratulate everyone or no one. Hitler chose to honor no one.
Hitler did snub a black American athlete, but it was Cornelius Johnson, not Jesse Owens. It happened the first day of the meet. Just before Johnson was to be decorated, Hitler left the stadium. A Nazi spokesman explained that Hitler’s exit had been pre-scheduled, but no one believes that.
Several other misconceptions about the 1936 Olympics are prevalent. Not only was Owens not rebuffed by Hitler, Owens wasn’t shunned by the German audience at the Berlin stadium, either. Baker reports that Owens so captured the imagination of the crowd it gave him several ear-shattering ovations. Owens had been prepared for a hostile reception; a coach had warned him in advance not to be upset by anything that might happen in the stands. “Ignore the insults,” Owens was told, “and you’ll be all right.” Later Owens recalled that he had gotten the greatest ovations of his career at Berlin.
Another popular belief is that the games marked a humiliating moment for the Nazis because a few blacks walked away with a fistful of medals while Hitler had predicted the Teutonic lads would be the big winners, proof of the superman abilities of the white race. In reality, the competition was anything but a German humiliation. It is forgotten that Germany managed to pick up more medals than all the other countries combined. Hitler was pleased with the outcome.
This article was excerpted from Rick Shenkman’s Legends, Lies and Cherished Myths of American History.
© Rick Shenkman
Anyone who understands the National Socialist worldview understands that it is anything but egalitarian. The National Socialists not only perceived all things as being inherently unequal, they also understood them to be in constant flux. Unlike the Social Marxists, the National Socialists were not grand levelers of distinction. On the contrary, they understood the real meaning and value of human diversity — of true bio-diversity — and sought to preserve and protect these unique qualities across the spectrum that they might continue to flourish and find higher and higher forms of self-expression. They believed that individual human beings, and the various human races, developed their respective qualities over the course of millennia owing far more to heredity than to environment, and that our evolution had by no means reached an ending. Even the most complete man is, as far as destiny is concerned, an unfinished work — and this is, I believe, something to celebrate. It implies a kind of permanent impermanence and it reminds us that we have work to do. Nothing is static in this universe. So, this article is nothing surprising to me or mine. Unless you have blindly accepted the propaganda of the last sixty odd years, there is no reason to believe that the Germans should have been puzzled (and certainly not angered) by the success of certain races in certain fields and/or disciplines, etc. They would have expected this, as this was very much a part of their core-philosophy! However, it must have made for a good story in the occupied American press to state that Hitler threw a tantrum when a black athlete succeeded in any field whatsoever. You know, the media always tells the truth, right? They wouldn’t dream of fabricating details to sell a sensational story. Now, how many little lies just like this have been passed off as truths? These are the little lies that make up your historical “devils.” And who has the courage to challenge such lies, one by one? Is this perhaps an indication as to why the great deceivers have enjoyed such success? -W.
Jesse Owens: Myth and Reality
By Mark Weber
Source: Archives, Institute for Historical Review
Jesse Owens, the Black track and field star who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, died in 1980 at the age of 66. As so often during his lifetime, even this occasion was used by the major television networks and print media to spread slanderous falsehoods which have acquired wide acceptance through repetition over the years. With the naming of a Berlin street after Owens in March 1984, yet another opportunity was afforded for the fanfarish media dissemination of outrageous myths. Particularly idiotic and despicable was the report on NBC Nightly News of Sunday, March 4, 1984.
The myths, which are usually asserted as fact, contend that German Chancellor Adolf Hitler was furious when Owens won; that Hitler refused to shake hands with Owens because he was Black; that the Germans were embarrassed because the Owens victory “disproved” German ideas about racial differences, and so on.
Actually, Owens was acclaimed by the Berliners as enthusiastically as any German. Owens himself said that on one occasion, while in the stadium, he caught sight of Hitler: “When I passed the Chancellor, he arose, waved his hand at me, and I waved back at him.”
As for the alleged snubbing, the facts of the matter tell a story which is quite different than the one usually heard. Hitler was in his box on the first day of competition when Hans Woellke broke the Olympic record for the shot-put and, incidentally, became the first German to win an Olympic track and field championship. At Hitler’s request, Woellke and the third place winner, another German, were lead to the box to receive personal congratulations from the Chancellor.
Soon afterward Hitler personally greeted three Finns who won medals in the l0,000-meter run. Then he congratulated two German women who won first and second place in the women’s javelin throw. The only other scheduled event that day was the high jump, which was running late. When all the German high-jumpers were eliminated, Hitler left the stadium in the dark as rain threatened and was not present to greet the three winners – all from the United States, and two of whom were Black.
Hitler left because it was late, not because he wanted to avoid greeting anyone. Besides, at the time he left Hitler could not know whether the final winners would be Black or White. Count Baillet-Latour, president of the International Olympic Commission, sent word to the German leader that, as a guest of honor at the Games, he should congratulate all or none. So when Jesse Owens won the final of the 100 meters the next day, he was not publicly greeted by Hitler – nor were any other medal winners of that or any of the following events.
Any notion that the Germans were “embarrassed” because of victories by non-Whites at the Berlin Games is ridiculous. Jesse Owens is very prominently featured in Olympia, the official German documentary of the Games. Leni Riefenstahl’s film masterwork also devotes great attention to many other non-Whites, including outstanding Japanese athletes. The same holds true in the deluxe, semi-official German picture book commemorating the Games, Die Olympischen Spiele 1936, released by the Cigaretten-Bilderdienst. Jesse Owens is pictured seven times in this book – more than any other athlete – and is admiringly referred to as “the fastest in the world.” A large picture in the book records the chiseling of the victors’ names in granite at the stadium – and singled out in this picture is: “Owens U.S.A.”
Despite the remarkable achievements of Jesse Owens, and of other athletes of all races, Germany did capture more gold medals than any other nation, thus “winning” the Olympics – a fact usually ignored in discussions of the 1936 Games.
In a letter of March 14, 1984, to the Director of West German ZDF television, former German athlete Waither Tripps protested the false report by a West German television network news announcer that Adolf Hitler did not publicly greet Owens because Owens was a Negro. Tripps was himself an outstanding relay runner at the 1936 Games. After sending his letter, Tripps further stated verbally that following the Games, Hitler invited all Olympic winners, including Owens, to a reception at the Reich Chancellory. Hitler personally congratulated and shook the hand of each winner, including Owens, who later confirmed this on several occasions.
Following is the text of Tripps’s letter:
To the Director of the
ZDF [Second German Television]
Re: “Heute” [“Today”] news broadcast of 10 March 10, 1984
As part of his report on the unveiling of the “Jesse-Owens-Allee” street sign in front of the Berlin Olympic Stadium, your announcer made an absolutely untrue statement. He repeated the stupid lie that in 1936 Adolf Hitler refused to meet the incomparable, four-time Olympic winner Jesse Owens because of his skin color and Negro ancestry. It seems that the announcer sought to clearly emphasize the so-called race hatred indoctrination.
This story is not just a fairy tale. It is a wretched lie. Today the truth is suppressed for presumably political reasons. But it will not die. There are too many contemporary witnesses. I am one of them.
In fact, Adolf Hitler received and congratulated the German Olympic winners of the 1936 Games in the place of honor at the Olympic stadium. The 800,000 daily spectators, including many foreign visitors, enthusiastically applauded this. Dr. Gisela Mauermayer (now living in Munich), Tilly Fleischer-Grothe (now living in Lahr), Gerhard Stoeck (now living in Hamburg) and others were among those personally honored.
It was also arranged to honor the outstanding and unforgettable Jesse Owens in this way as well. But at this point the President of the International Olympic Committee, Count Baillet-Latour, stopped Hitler’s plan by pointing out that this practice conflicted with the Committee rules. The Count, however, had no objection to holding this kind of congratulatory reception in the Reich Chancellory.
Dr. Karl Ritter von Halt, then President of the German National Olympic Committee and head of the German athletic association, later confirmed these facts at a meeting of the former members of the German team. I was one of those present at this meeting in Stuttgart with the unforgettable Ritter von Halt, which took place shortly after his release from the Soviet-run Sachsenhausen concentration camp. (Among others, actor Heinrich George and Reich Trainer Dr. Nerz died there!) Also present were Borchmeyer (competitor in the final race against Owens, now living in Frankfurt), Blask, Hem. Tilly Fleischer, Dr. Gisela Mauermayer, Dr. Metzner, Hornberger, Stoeck, Syring, Dessecker, and many others. They are contemporary witnesses for fairness and truth.
The facts will be published in the magazine of the “Former German Winners’ Sports Club.” As National Olympic Committee President Daume rightly stated during the ceremony in Berlin, honor belongs to those who deserve it. Microphone personalities who spread lies do not belong on the television screen!
To his credit, Jesse Owens himself never contributed to the myth-making. He repeatedly stressed the warmth of his reception in Germany and his happiness during those days in Berlin. But he couldn’t prevent others from using him as a symbol, in life as well as in death, to slander Germany for motives of their own.
Adolf Hitler ‘did shake hands with Jesse Owens’
A veteran German sports reporter has claimed that Adolf Hitler did in fact shake hands with black US athlete Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Published: 11 Aug 2009
At the time, it was reported that Hitler had stormed out of the stadium furious that Owens, who had just run his way to the first of four gold medals in the 100 metres, had beaten his Aryan sportsmen.
However, Siegfried Mischner, 83, said that Owens carried around a photograph in his wallet of Hitler shaking his hand before he left the stadium.
Owens, who felt the newspapers of the day reported “unfairly” on Hitler’s attitude towards him, tried to get Mischner and his journalist colleagues to change the accepted version of history in the 1960s, the Daily Mail reports.
Mischner, who was a reporter at the time, claimed Owens showed him the photograph and told him: “That was one of my most beautiful moments.”
He said: “It was taken behind the honour stand and so not captured by the world’s press. But I saw it, I saw him shaking Hitler’s hand.
“The predominating opinion in post-war Germany was that Hitler had ignored Owens.
“We therefore decided not to report on the photo. The consensus was that Hitler had to continue to be painted in a bad light in relation to Owens.”
Mischner’s claims cannot be verified because all other witnesses, including Owens, are dead.
Owens, who died in 1980 aged 66, was the son of sharecroppers and won four track and field gold medals – the 100m, the long jump, the 200m and the relay race – [to a standing ovation] at Berlin.
He insisted that he had not been snubbed by Hitler but made no reference to meeting him and shaking hands.
“When I passed the Chancellor he arose, waved his hand at me, and I waved back at him. I think the writers showed bad taste in criticising the man of the hour in Germany,” he said.