I feel like I owe it to Jesse Owens to tell his story. As always, I owe Hitler nothing.
What makes the story of Hitler and Jesse Owens so resonant? Well, let's get a bit of context.
1936: A little background
1936 was not JUST the year Peter and the Wolf debuted in Moscow. Hitler, who had been elected in 1933, was quickly turning Nazi Germany into a force to be reckoned with. He had rejected the Treaty of Versailles and had begun to re-arm. Nazi Germany took over the Saar, a territory governed by the League of Nations, in 1935.
On March 7, 1936 Germany reoccupied the Rhineland.
On August 1, the Games of the XI Olympiad opened in Berlin.
Hitler and the Nazis only allowed members of the Aryan race to compete in the games.
America, knowing better (but, really, not that much better) chose our best athletes, including Jesse Owens. As an athlete at Ohio State, Jesse Owens had proven his incredible athletic prowess. At one period of 45 minutes in 1935, Owens broke three world records and tied a fourth (some sources say he may have also broken the fourth, but still).
Can you imagine breaking an average of one world record every fifteen minutes? Incredible.
The 1930s was not a decade made up only of fun and sports, however. It was the decade of the Great Depression, and the United States was a shockingly prejudiced nation. Coming out of the 1920s, the KKK's numbers were as high as they'd ever been. Segregation was common and Jim Crow laws were in full effect throughout the South.
Jesse Owens was the grandson of slaves and grew up sharecropping. And he was faster than anyone.
The 1936 Olympics: A Whole Lotta Nazis
In 1931-- a year before the Nazis began to rise to power and two years before Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany-- only two cities bid for the 1936 Olympics: Barcelona and Berlin. Unlike other bidding wars, this only lasted one round. Berlin basically beat Barcelona to a pulp.** After the first round was counted, Berlin had 43 votes to Barcelona's 16. The Olympics were going to Germany!
Here's where the spoilsport action begins.
The Reichssportführer (translated it means the head of the Reich's sports ministry, but it just sounds sinister) decided that the Olympics in specific and sports in general would be a perfect way to "weed out the weak, Jewish, and other undesirables."
The Nazis decided to go all out. As previously discussed, the 1936 Olympics began many of our proudest modern Olympic traditions, like the torch relay and vandalizing ancient Greek artifacts. After all, this would be an incredibly public demonstration of a resurgent German power. Or so he thought?
Hitler and Jesse Owens:
Here's the story that everyone likes to tell: Jesse Owens won the gold medal for the 100m sprint, the long jump, the 200m sprint, and the 4 x 100m relay. And Hitler flat out refused to shake his hand because he was black.
This is one of those stories that's true in that everyone believes it, it makes narrative sense, and it sums up the general emotions of the time in a concise way. It's not true, per se, in terms of what actually happened.
On the first day of the ceremonies, Hitler made a special effort to congratulate all the German gold medalists. The IOC decided that his congratulations were outside the bounds of good sportsmanship and showed favoritism. Hitler either had to congratulate everyone or congratulate no one.
He chose no one.
FDR: Also Kind of a Spoilsport
Did Hitler snub Jesse Owens? The only answer here is "sorta." Given the chance, he surely would have snubbed Jesse Owens, but he also would have snubbed every other non-German athlete. In his memoirs Inside the Third Reich, Albert Speer wrote:
"Each of the German victories, and there were a surprising number of these, made him happy, but he was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games."That said, Hitler never snubbed Jesse Owens to his face. The President of the United States, though, that's a different story.
In Owens's own words: "Hitler didn't snub me—it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram."
The story of the 1936 Olympics is without a doubt mostly about Hitler and the Nazis. But Jesse Owens's story is more complicated. It gets to the very roots of American discrimination in the 20th Century. And it's a much harder story to tell than the story of Hitler refusing to shake Owens's hand.
It might just be more important. Alas, I am out of time and attention span.
*Get it? Like a baguette, only in blog form? No? Hm.
**Which, in retrospect, kind of reads like foreshadowing.
And crack a dang book!