From the Archives | The Olympic Boycott—Then

By | Jul 29, 2021
History, Jewish World, Latest
cover photo olympic boycott

This article was originally published in the July 1980 issue of Moment.

Meeting in Barcelona in 1931, the International Olympic Committee chose Berlin as the site of the eleventh Olympic Games in 1936. At that time, Germany was a democratic republic with a moderate right wing government. The Nazis were a boisterous minority party holding 107 of the Reichstag’s 491 seats. The prospect that this upstart group would come to power in the country of “dichter und denker”—of “poets and thinkers”—in less than two years was virtually unthinkable.

On January 30, 1933, the unthinkable came to pass; Hitler became Chancellor of the German Reich. The world community in general, and Jews in particular, bewildered by the turn of events, waited anxiously to see if Hitler would implement his racist ideas or if—as was almost universally anticipated—”power would sober him. ” Even the veteran Jewish socialist leader Chaim Zhitlowsky, in an article in the Yiddish Daily Forward entitled “Is Es Gut Far Yiden,” had written in 1932 that the Nazis would become more moderate in positions of responsibility.

Nazi actions quickly dispelled the optimism. A reign of terror against political opponents was followed on April 1, 1933, by a call for a boycott of all Jewish businesses and by the removal of Jewish teachers, judges, physicians and civil servants from government positions.

The Nazis immediately recognized the importance of the forthcoming Olympics in furthering their aims. Eager to gain international acceptance for the regime and at the same time build German self-confidence and promote the Nazi image of German physical superiority, Hitler lost no time in publicizing his support for the Games. On March 17, 1933, the New York Times reported that Hitler had met with the president and vice-president of the German Olympic Committee and had announced that he would “do everything possible to advance the Games, as well as all sports interests.”

Opponents of the regime promptly responded with questions concerning the propriety of proceeding under the new circumstances. Representative Emanuel Celler of New York addressed an inquiry to Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee, asking whether the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews might not be an obstacle to United States participation in the 1936 Olympics. Brundage responded that the Olympics would not be held in any country which violated the fundamental principles of amateur sports. A report in the New York Times of April 18, 1933, carried the by-line: “Berlin Faces Loss of Olympic Games. ” The following day, the German Olympic Committee announced that “all athletes coming to Germany to participate in the Games can count upon being received with the heartiest hospitality irrespective of nationality or race.” The rapidity of the response indicated the importance which the regime attached to the Games.

Opponents of Nazism were equally convinced that cancellation of the Olympics—or at the very least American withdrawal from the Games—would constitute a significant rebuke and a sign that the world community would not remain silent in the face of Nazi anti-Semitism. On May 22, the American Jewish Congress, meeting at an emergency conference in Washington, requested that American members of the International Olympic Committee take a firm stand against American participation. In the months following, attempts were made by American officials to secure promises from the Germans that Jews would be allowed to participate on visiting teams as well as on the German team. At a meeting in Vienna, the German Olympic Committee pledged that “all laws regulating the Olympic Games shall be observed. As a principle, German Jews shall not be excluded from German teams at the Eleventh Olympiad.” General Charles Sherrill, an American representative to the International Olympic Committee, cabled Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress, that the Germans had “yielded.”

But the German “concessions” were contradicted by the German reality. Discrimination against Jews escalated. In November 1933, the American Amateur Athletic Union passed a resolution opposing certification of American athletes for competition in the Games unless the position of the German government changed “in fact as well as in theory.” But when a similar resolution was presented to the American Olympic Committee it was opposed by General Sherrill on the grounds that its adoption might intensify existing anti-Semitism in Germany and arouse anti-Semitism in the United States. The resolution adopted by the Committee was tepid: it merely expressed the hope that Germany would remove the obstacles in question. Sherrill’s statement with his implied threat to American Jews raised ominous prospects.

On January 7, 1934, Germany sent formal announcements to 53 countries, inviting them to participate in the Eleventh Olympiad. The American Olympic Committee, meeting on February 4, postponed a decision pending clarification of the facts and an on-the-spot investigation of the situation in Germany. On June 3, Avery Brundage was designated to make the visit and the decision. In anticipation of Brundage’s arrival, the Nazis went through the motions of seeking German Jews of Olympic calibre—no easy task in view of the exclusion of Jews from the use of sports facilities and participation in athletic events.

Brundage arrived in Germany shortly after the “night of the long knives,” when hundreds of Germans—many of them old comrades-in-arms of Hitler—were brutally murdered. Tens of thousands languished in the concentration camps. Brundage spent a week in Germany escorted by the Gestapo. Before leaving, he dispatched a report to the Olympic News expressing his satisfaction with the Nazis’ guarantees of equality in their sports programs. Brundage not only capitulated; he was converted. Brundage’s statement appeared on August 11. On that same day, Samuel Untermeyer, president of the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League to Champion Human Rights, issued an appeal to Jewish athletes to boycott the Games. He accused American Olympic officials of glossing over the issue of racial discrimination. On September 2, the Jewish War Veterans called for an American boycott of the Olympics, pointing out that the atmosphere in Berlin was “laden with hate and discrimination” and “hostile to fairness and sportsmanship.” Other Jewish organizations maintained an uneasy silence.

On September 26, 1934, the American Olympic Committee met to resolve the question of United States participation in the Eleventh Olympiad. The Committee concluded that it should distinguish between the realm of sports and the general discriminatory situation. The only member who argued that the two were inseparable was Charles Orenstein, the representative of the Jewish Welfare Board. Ignoring Orenstein’s objections, the Committee accepted Brundage’s assurances that Germany would abide by Olympic regulations and would treat foreign Jews hospitably. The issue of non-Aryan participation on German teams was no longer raised. The resolution which was adopted stated: “In the light of the report of Mr. Brundage and the attitude and assurances of representatives of the German government, we accept the invitation of the German Olympic Committee to the 1936 Olympic Games.”

The American Jewish Congress now turned its attention to the Amateur Athletic Union, urging it to reiterate its earlier anti-Olympic stand at its forthcoming convention and thereby reverse the decision of the Olympic Committee. But the convention—with the unanimous support of thirteen Jewish delegates—decided on December 8 to ignore the Olympic issue. The following day, the Congress addressed a letter to Jeremiah Mahoney, former New York State Supreme Court Judge and newly elected president of the AAU, requesting at least that a review board be established to monitor Germany’s compliance with its pledges of fairness.

The new year of 1935 began with Hitler’s annexation of the Saar region on January 7. Two months later Germany reinstituted compulsory military service in violation of the Versailles Treaty. Hitler was learning that he could carry out his aims with impunity. On May 31, German Jews were prohibited from serving in the armed forces; in July riots erupted in Berlin in which Jews were savagely beaten without police interference. The American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith requested that the U.S. government “make representations” to Germany. The American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Labor Committee convened yet another “emergency conference.”

On July 31, Judge Mahoney, addressing a Jewish audience, stated that he personally would favor an American boycott if the latest reports of Nazi persecution were confirmed. “The time may come, ” Mahoney stated, “when the burden will be placed on those who want the Olympic Games in their country to prove that they have not done what they are accused of doing.” The following day, Avery Brundage responded: “Regardless of in what country the Olympic Games are held, there will be some group, some religion, or some race that can register a protest because of the action of the government of that country, past or present.”

By this time, the Olympic question was becoming a national controversy. On July 21, the Catholic War Veterans had adopted a resolution opposing American participation. The following month, the Protestant Christian Century and the liberal Catholic Commonweal advocated a boycott of the Games. On August 16, Representative Celler introduced a resolution pro​​hibiting use of public funds to help defray the expenses incurred by participating athletes. The resolution was never acted upon. In the face of the unwillingness of American political leadership to act or even to speak out, Celler’s resolution remained a hollow gesture.

On September 15, 1935—amidst pomp and pageantry—the infamous Nuremberg Laws were enacted, stripping German Jews of their citizenship and effectively excluding them from participation in German society. All pretense of “fairness” was abandoned. General Sherrill, on a visit to Germany at the time of the adoption of the Nuremberg laws, conferred with Hitler regarding the application of Olympic regulations. There is no evidence that the meeting was less than amicable.

On October 4, Stephen Wise declared, “If Hitler can bring civilized nations to Berlin, it will be ‘his crowning victory.’ ” Within weeks two committees were formed in America: the first, called the “Move the Olympics Committee, ” was headed by a Jewish lawyer; the second, the Committee on Fair Play in Sports, was led by prominent Christians. When General Sherrill returned to the United States on October 21, he was presented with a letter from William Chamberlain, executive secretary of the Committee on Fair Play, accusing Germany of racist discrimination. Far from being apologetic, Sherrill took the offensive. ” I went to Germany for the purpose of getting at least one Jew on the German Olympic Team, and I feel my job is finished. As to obstacles placed in the way of Jewish athletes or any others in trying to reach Olympic ability, I would have no more business discussing that in Germany than if the Germans attempted to discuss the Negro situation in the American South or the treatment of the Japanese in California. I am sorry,” he continued, “that what I have done has not pleased all of my Jewish friends, many of them the most prominent Jews of New York. But I shall go right on being pro-Jewish and for that reason, I have a warning for American Jews.” Sherrill, who had apparently not addressed words of warning to Hitler, now “warned” American Jews that continued agitation on the Olympic issue would cause a wave of anti-Semitism in America. “It would be overplaying the Jewish hand in America as it was overplayed in Germany before the present suppression and expulsion of the Jews were undertaken.” These remarks were quoted in the New York Times on October 22, 1935.

Criticism of Sherrill’s remarks by the Committee on Fair Play elicited an even more provocative statement from the General. Declaring that it would be “unthinkable” to boycott the Games after the Germans had “complied with the Olympic rules,” he continued: “The chief trouble,” General Sherrill said, was “in the disproportionate representation given to Jews.” He mentioned that two members of President Roosevelt’s Cabinet were Jews. One was readily identified as Henry Morgenthau, Jr., but the other was not identified except as a member of a family that had “changed its name. ” “The disproportionate representation in Washington is raising hell,” General Sherrill declared.

Late in October 1935, the American Olympic Committee published a sixteen page booklet entitled Fair Play for American Athletes. An opening statement by Avery Brundage asked: “Shall the American athlete be made a martyr to a cause not his own?” In response, the Committee on Fair Play published a booklet entitled: Preserve The Olympic Ideal: A Statement of the Case against American Participation in the Olympic Games at Berlin. The list of boycott proponents grew, but the constituencies represented were still limited. On October 22, the New York Times published an editorial favoring withdrawal. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People endorsed a boycott, as did the anti-Nazi German-American League for Culture. Probably more significant was the statement of Commodore Ernest Jahncke, one of the American members of the International Olympic Committee. In a letter to Count de Baillet-Latour, Belgian President of the Committee, he wrote: “I shall do all that I can to persuade my countrymen that they ought not take part in the Games if they are held in Nazi Germany.” But Mr. Jahncke’s power was not sufficient; his countrymen were not persuaded. The only “concession” which was gained was Hitler’s promise to Count Latour that anti-Semitic placards would be taken down at the Olympic sites during the winter and summer games.

The convention of the Amateur Athletic Union began on December 7, 1935, with a bitter debate on the question of boycott. Avery Brundage informed the meeting that, no matter how they voted, America would participate in the games. On the next day, the AAU adopted a resolution in favor of participation—and elected Avery Brundage as its president. Judge Mahoney withdrew his candidacy and resigned from the American Olympic Committee. Thereafter Brundage circulated a letter requesting the resignation of all Committee members who opposed American participation. (On April 5, 1936, Charles Orenstein was ousted from the Committee on the technical charge that he had missed two meetings.)

The Winter Olympics held from February 6—16, 1936, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen were a smashing success. The following month, the German Army reoccupied the Rhineland without opposition or significant protest. On August I, the summer Olympics began with the participation of 3738 athletes from 46 countries. Among them were 384 Americans. One of the few countries missing was Spain, where a civil war had erupted on July 15. The German intervention in that war began on July 26. But none of the contemporaneous events interfered with the excitement of the “Games. ” Despite the irritation at Jesse Owens’ four gold medals, the Olympics were a triumph for the Nazis—a symbol of their success and their acceptance by the nations of the world. Germany renascent, rearmed, restored to its former preeminence, was on the march to predominance. Who could dare resist?

One minor and temporary benefit accrued to German Jewry. During the course of the international debate, anti-Jewish agitation was toned down. The murder of a Nazi by a Jewish student in February during the Winter Games led to threats against Jews but not to action. (Two and a half years later, a similar incident became the pretext for the infamous Kristallnacht pogroms.) Some anti-Semitic signs were temporarily removed. But the respite was brief and without any lasting consequences.

Would it have made any difference in the ultimate direction of Nazism if the Games had been cancelled or if many nations had refused to participate? We cannot be certain. Obviously, Nazi racism and aggression would have to have been resisted in more crucial matters to have provided a significant deterrent. But the Olympics were a symbol—of acceptance for the Nazis, of acquiescence by the rest of the world. They undoubtedly helped Hitler consolidate his position in and out of Germany, and they provided him with a test case for the rude challenges yet to come.

As for American Jewry, whose response, by and large, was timid and circumspect, could it have changed the outcome if it had been more bold in its behavior? It may well be that nothing the Jewish community could have done would have resulted in an American boycott of the Olympics. But at the very least, a more vigorous stand would have strengthened Jewish self-respect and perhaps even demonstrated some of the alleged power attributed to Jews by their enemies. The issue of the Olympics could have become a trial run for more vocal defense of Jewish rights in the years to come. Instead, the anxious silence of the 1930s became a pattern for the far more painful, far more disastrous impotence of the war years which followed.

Top photo: Jesse Owens (left), Ralph Metcalfe (second left), Foy Draper (second right) and Frank Wykoff (right). The USA 4×100 meters relay team at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Credit Wikimedia. 

2 thoughts on “From the Archives | The Olympic Boycott—Then

  1. Mike Barnett says:

    The last minute removal of Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller from the relay race defines that Olympics as much as the success of Jesse Owens.

  2. Davida Brown says:

    The world’s attitude toward the Olympics, and Hitler’s watered down and obviously insincere promises, proved that participation in these games superseded all else. Praise to the various groups that valiantly opposed participation based on what had already transpired in Germany. The fact that the two Jewish participants on the U.S. team were rejected at the last minute, and replaced with the black participants, should have been a give-away to all, that this maniacal creature had an agenda that was exposed on the world-wide stage of the Olympics, that nothing would stop his plan of the annihilation of all Jews within his diabolical reach. Foreign leaders, who could have easily intervened, did not do so for the above stated reason. What a different outcome, if outrage towards Hitler’s decision, had caused a stir among leaders of the participating nations and a halt to the games. What a difference, if human dignity and justice had taken the prize on that fateful day. Jesse Owens had his medals and didn’t need the race; he felt bad, but the show went on. I’m sure he and the other black participant felt the pang of conscience over the years, and as athletes, it wasn’t their place to protest…it was the leaders that were the losers that day. The resulting end of it all was not a triumphant time for Germany, but a massive defeat for humanity.

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