It seems quite appropriate to me that we should publish the review of this book on the day of the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. The Nazis craved perfection in humanity in terms of race and genetics and all that ‘strength through joy’ stuff we’ve all read about. Their barbarity knew no bounds.

On the assumption of power the Nazis subsumed every sport, ejected or terrorised non-Aryan sportsmen, champions or otherwise; and killed a good many. They found they had willing helpers abroad in keeping their image rights in full view. The spectre of the 1938 football match when British diplomats forced the England team to give the Hitler salute has never gone away, but here Mr Rippon highlights the lesser known trial of Derby County players on a tour of Germany, in 1934, having to do the same. The goalkeeper Jack Kirby is pictured making a lone stand by turning his back when the moment came. What a star he was.

The 1936 Olympic Games is the stuff of legends. It is the time of Jesse Owens and his so-called snub by Adolf Hitler. There was all the iconography and the amazing propaganda filming made by the genius Leni Riefenstahl. The imagery of it all and the few tokens of sport that somehow seep through all this monochrome extravagance have blotted out so much of the facts and the real day to day history of the games.

Now that I have read Mr Rippon’s genuinely engaging book I feel I can actually talk about the event with a degree of confidence.  It has become something of a myth and legend and he shows there has always been so much more. For a start there was also the Winter games at Garmish-Partenkirchen to take in, where Great Britain managed to win the ice hockey gold in somewhat controversial circumstances – especially if you are a Canadian.

Hitler’s Olympics: The Story of the 1936 Nazi Games
Hitler’s Olympics: The Story of the 1936 Nazi Games

The most important story is how the games ever happened in Nazi Germany at all, and the story of this, with the ambitions of men intervening is one to behold. We also have to consider the attitude of African Americans. Not equal in their own country, how were they supposed to consider the plight of Germany’s minorities? Barcelona had lost out to Berlin, and an alternative games had been held there, but the opening shots of the Spanish Civil War interrupted it and some attendees died. Others returned to fight against Franco and died anyway.

The book has its stars, the biggest being James Cleveland Owens, of course, and what about the Indian hockey team – winning gold under the Union Flag? The Germans considered them Aryan, so didn’t mind losing to them. The Korean Sohn kee-chung won the marathon, but he had to run in the colours of the rising sun, with the name Kitei Son. The whole world was a dark place, not just Germany.

Perhaps the most important piece of iconography from 1936 is the torch relay, devised by Carl Diem, a good man surrounded by thoroughly evil scum. So, not all the stuff the Nazis gave us from the games was bad. In the end Hitler and his acolytes took a couple of weeks off from raising hell to sell a myth and they just about got away with it because the world let them get on with it for a host of reasons. None of it is simple, as Mr Rippon explains.

There would have been no Paralympics in Nazi Germany any more than there would have been in a pre-war Britain, but we got there in the end. On their way home from Berlin via London, the Canadian team chose to change hotels because other patrons objected to the black members of their team. This is the same London of Mo Farah. You don’t need me to tell you times have changed.

The 1936 Olympics represent a colourful episode in the rise of the Nazis on their journey to a deserved immolation. It’s all the others they took with them who represent the real tragedy and the bit part players, like the IOC members who sanctioned their games take little bits of responsibility, maybe not as much as your Neville Chamberlains and other appeasers; but they did their tiny jobs for the end result. They are a sum of many parts and the whole was a disaster. Politics and sport supposedly don’t mix. Don’t believe a word of it.

Mark Barnes

By Anton Rippon
Published in soft back by Pen & Sword Military £12.99
ISBN: 978 1 84884 764 4


Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.