02 November 2022

Hitler's olympic handshakes — the facts

The 1936 Olympic games were held in Berlin, nazi Germany. After the opening ceremony on 1 August, competition started on 2 August.

Two events have been interpreted as insults to America or, in particular, to black Americans (who, at the time, were subject to racial segregation in their homeland). These events are: Hitler did not personally congratulate the medallists of the high jump (among whom, two blacks) nor the fourfold medallist Jesse Owens (black). This is true, but in a trivial sense, because Hitler did nor publicly receive any non-German winner after the first day.

Mr. Volker Kluge, editor of the Journal of Olympic History from 2012 to 2022, was so kind as to provide us with most of the information used below.

Fact 1. On the first day of the competition, Hitler received in his lodge all nine medallists, without exception.

There were three medals ceremonies that first day, namely (in order): 

  • women's javelin throw (medallists: two German, one Polish)
  • shot put (medallists: two Germans, one Finn)
  • 10000 meter (medallists: three Finns)

Regarding the first two events we have these photographs 

and for the third we can quote this nazi newspaper (complete first page, dated 3 August 1936, here)

Among the false accounts repeated till today there is one claiming that Hitler received only German winners, and was urged to receive either all or none, after which he chose the latter. In fact, he did receive all and was urged to only receive Germans, see below.

Fact 2. The high jump competition of the first day took so much time that the results were only known late in the evening, and the medal ceremony was postponed till next day.

The schedule for that day was as follows (verify it here):

and the first medal ceremony was to be the high jump, at 4 p.m. Unfortunately, the qualifying standard had been too low, and more than twenty athletes presented themselves for the final which started at 3 p.m. When Hitler received the medallists in the women's javelin, the competitions were suspended. Likewise after the award ceremonies in the shot put and in the 10000 m. After that, the 12 award ceremonies in the art competitions began, a boring event which made people leave the stadium. 

The photo above, taken around 6:30 p.m., shows that only few people attended the olympic ceremony concluding the contest in Lyric Works (one of the twelve). If you look carefully, you'll notice that even the silver medallist had not shown up. The bronze medallist was the Austrian Hans Helmut Stoiber, to whom we owe the photograph. (See here for an overview of the 1936 olympic Art Competitions.)

After that, the high jump dragged on and was eventually cut short by replacing the sixth-place jump-off by an ex aequo. Most people had left by then, including Hitler; after all, he was a guest and could come and go as he wanted. According to the newspaper quoted above, he had left by 7 p.m., well before the high jump contest had ended. 

Among the photographs of the high jump medal ceremony is the following one (see here, p.26) 

On 2 August 1936, the sun set in Berlin at 19:57, before the high jump contest was over. Clearly, the photo was not taken in the dusk, but in broad daylight. In the upper right corner of the picture we observe a standing man and his shadow. An enlargment of this section proves that the sun was high in the sky.


Hence, there is no doubt that the high jump medal ceremony was not held on the day of the competition (2 August 1936), but the day afterwards (3 August 1936). 

Testimony (1955) by Karl Ritter von Halt, President of the Organizing Committee of the 1936 Winter Games. 

On the first day of the Games, not at Hitler's wish, the "Reichssportführer" brought up to Hitler's lodge, the tree winners of individual events, where they received the congratulations of the Führer for their victory.
Count de Baillet-Latour witnessed this incident with disapproval. At the onset of the second day of the Games, he came up to me very much concerned, begging me to put a stop to such receptions, as they were contrary to the Protocol of the I.O.C. I asked the Count to accompany me to Hitler's lodge where in a very angry tone, he begged the Chancellor of the Third Reich to forgo these receptions as they were not conform to the olympic Protocol. Hitler excused himself and afterwards received only German winners in a place near-by his lodge. [Bulletin du Comité International Olympique, August 1955, pp. 34-35 (here)]

Fact 3. On 4 August 1936 (the third day of the competitions) the Presidential Chancellery released the following communiqué:

The Führer and Reichkanzler has been unable to regularly attend the competitions and could therefore not receive all the victors of the various nations. To avoid favouring a few individual winners and thus individual nations, there will no longer be receptions of winners in the Führer’s lodge after the contests. Only German winners will be introduced to the Führer, in the event that he is present in the stadium when there is a German victory. [Original document and German transcription below.] 

The 1955 Testimony and Fact 3 agree in recording that, on the urgent demand of the Olympic Chairman, Hitler, from the second day of the competition on, would only receive German winners. Ritter von Halt adds that this was to happen in a place near-by his lodge. Either his recollection, two decades after the facts, is unreliable or Hitler did not live by the agreement. Anyhow, on the sixth day of the competition Hitler received a German winner in his lodge, drawing the attention of the whole stadium. Here is what the nazi newspaper quoted above writes about it:

(complete first page, dated 7 August 1936, here). Also, he did receive non-German winners, but well out of sight. Such was the case with the American 100m gold medallist Helen Stephens, on 4 August 1936. In her diary she wrote Hitler met me privately and complemented me. I also got his autograph and another official [below left, our emphasis], ending with met & had hand kissed by Göring, the Minister President.

The reception of Stephens was very casual (the photo shows that Hitler has not even left his binoculars) but far form secretive. Among the official olympic postcards there was one with the photo on one side and on the other side the caption OLYMPIA 1936. The Führer at the location of the olympic contests: the fastest runner in the world, the 100m winner MISS STEPHENS, U.S.A., receives an autograph of the Führer [above, right].

Even a genuine handshake has been recorded. The photograph below shows Hitler shaking hands with British rower Jack Beresford after he and Leslie Frank Southwood won the double sculls event on 14 August 1936. (Also present are members of the German gymnastics team.)

Besides these recorded facts, there may have been others of a similar nature that were not. Hence it is not altogether impossible that Hitler privately shook hands with Jesse Owens. Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler's minister for economic affairs, writes in his 1953 autobiography:

Hitler's public appearances in those days were exemplary. If speeches were made, they were moderate, peaceful and friendly towards other countries. He even managed to heartily shake hands and congratulate the 100m record runner Jesse Owens, a negro. [German original here, p.417.]

It is definitely wrong that this was among Hitler's public appearances. About the private event, Owens used to claim that it did happen, but later denied it. 


Added 25 November 2022. The "Testimony" (1955) by Karl Ritter von Halt, quoted above, is described in Bulletin du Comité International Olympique as being a reply to a question asked in the Swiss newspaper Sport : Organ für alle Sportzweige. The original German text of this question was as follows:

IOK behauptet sich gegen Hitler-Regime

Lord Aberdare (Großbritannien), eines der ältesten Mitglieder des Internationalen Olympischen Komitees, weist in dem letzten Bulletin des IOK als im Interesse des IOK liegend darauf hin, daß sich das IOK nach der 1931 erfolgten Vergebung der Olympischen Spiele nach Berlin im Jahre 1933 einem Verlangen des „Dritten Reiches“, die Organisation der Spiele für das IOK zu übernehmen und an Stelle des vom Internationalen Olympischen Komitee betrauten deutschen IOK Mitgliedes Dr. Lewald einen anderen Präsidenten eigener Wahl mit der Leitung zu beauftragen, zurückgewiesen habe.

Diese Information ist sportgeschichtlich von Wert.

Es wäre aufschlußreich, zu erfahren, wer damals die Wünsche des Hitler Regimes beim internationalen Olympischen Komitee vertreten hat. (Sport : Organ für alle Sportzweige;  7.V.1955, No.53 , p. 10)

On the other hand, no answer by Ritter von Halt could be found in this newspaper, whose relevant issues (54 to 82)  were browsed in vain. The original letter by Ritter von Halt was also not found in the archives of the International Olympic Committee. Unfortunately, therefore, we'll have to do with the translations provided by Bulletin du Comité International Olympique.