GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, Germany — Most everyone knows how Jesse Owens went to Berlin and won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics. As the legend goes, Owens showed Adolf Hitler a thing or two about the Nazi myth about superiority.
Birger Ruud of Norway is also one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time, a great ski jumper who could also beat you at alpine racing. Moreover, his story is one of incredible personal courage. After his time in the Olympic spotlight, he spent 18 months in a Nazi prison camp and then, upon release, joined the Resistance, where he used his unmatched ski skills to find and hide ammunition dropped from British aircraft.
It is no accident that the photo of Ruud’s moment of triumph in the ski jumping event at the 1936 Winter Olympics, here in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, high in the Bavarian Alps, makes for the emotional centerpiece of an unprecedented exhibition that brings to light not just the story of those Games , but, more importantly, the back story.
Here in the photo are the three Olympic champions: Ruud, the winner, just as he had been four years before, flanked by the silver medalist, Sven Eriksson of Sweden, and the bronze medalist, Reidar Andersen, another Norwegian. Here, too, is the then-president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Belgian Count Henri de Baillet-Latour. And over on the right side of the photo — here is the jarring note that underscores the great lie of the 1936 Winter Games, the notion that sports and politics don’t mix: Karl Ritter von Halt, the organizing committee president, snapping a sharp stiff-armed Nazi salute.
It’s not a pretty picture. Indeed, it’s jarring. But it is an honest photo. It happened. And that is precisely why it’s on display, now, after 75 years, along with dozens of other photographs and other materials that confront the ugly history of the 1936 Winter Games, the town’s mayor, Thomas Schmid, said.
“We really said that for this 75th anniversary we need to talk about this openly — the ‘dark side of the medal,’ ” he said, referring to the title of the exhibit, which opened here Feb. 15 and which the Museum of Tolerance has already expressed interest in bringing to Los Angeles.
“We can’t make it go away,” Schmid said, “but we can show how Garmisch-Partenkirchen has changed.”
The 1936 Berlin Summer Games have, over the years, been the subject of extensive study. Not so the Garmisch-Partenkirchen Winter Games just months before.
Building upon the success of the 1932 Los Angeles Games, the 1936 Berlin Games announced the emergence of the modern Olympics as a worldwide phenomenon.
A confluence of factors explains why — the expanding reach of communication technologies, the attempt by the Third Reich to use the Berlin Games as a massive propaganda exercise, the power of the film “Olympia” by Leni Riefenstahl, Jesse Owens’ four medals and more.
To this day, of course, the 1936 Berlin Games remain a source of enduring controversy.
Again, the reasons are complex. The Riefenstahl film, for one. Just to pick another, many of the stories from Berlin have remained alive: Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, the only Jews on the U.S. track team, were denied sure gold medals when they didn’t run in the 400-meter relay; for reasons never made clear, they were told the day of the race they would not run.
In comparison, the 1936 Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen — it’s as if they hardly happened.
And yet, as Charlotte Knobloch, the leader of the Jewish community in Munich and Bavaria, put it, those Winter Games hold significance that deserves to be fully, deeply understood:
“People have, of course, gladly glossed over the fact that this was a most revolting show of propaganda, a nasty deception of public opinion worldwide, under whose guise the very first signs of the Shoah could already be detected.”
Why look back now at 1936?
Munich is bidding for the 2018 Winter Olympics. An IOC inspection team is in Germany this week; the full IOC will pick the 2018 site in a vote on July 6. Annecy, France, and Pyeongchang, South Korea, are also in the 2018 race.
The Munich candidacy proposes to hold ice events — skating and curling — in the city. The snow events — skiing and so on — would be in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
Thus the impetus to revisit 1936, the mayor and others stressing that the 2018 process affords the opportunity for reflection, perhaps even healing.
In February, meanwhile, the 2011 Alpine World Ski Championships were held here in Gapa, as Garmisch-Partenkirchen is colloquially known on the ski circuit. Some 100,000 euros, roughly $138,000, from the championships’ cultural budget — supported by the German federal ministry of the interior — was allocated to fund the exhibition.
That took care of the logistics.
As for the will to get it done:
This exhibition is the first of its kind in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Not once in 75 years has there been anything like it, according to Alois Schwarzmüller, a retired local high-school teacher, long-time community activist and one of the exhibit’s primary curators.
For decades, he said, most of the archives were locked away in communist East Germany. It was only after the fall of the Berlin Wall that one could even get at the files, he said.
Then more time had to pass.
“The first generation — they were the Nazis. … They did not allow us to go behind the wall.
“The second generation — in community politics, they told me it was only a sports event,” Schwarzmüller said, referring to the 1936 Winter Games. “There was nothing else.
“Now I think it’s time. We have a generation that wants to be informed.”
The way the story has been largely understood for the past 75 years, Schwarzmüller said, is that the 1936 Winter Games offered near-perfect organization, an array of new buildings and impressive competition venues.
The Games served as cover for a brutal dictatorship that oppressed political opponents and that harassed, humiliated and disenfranchised Germany’s Jews. That is “the dark side of the medal”:
• A photo depicts Gapa-area road signs above another announcing, “Jews not welcome.” Such “not welcome” signs disappeared by the Feb. 6, 1936, opening ceremony. They came right back after the Games.
Baillet-Latour, the IOC president, had encountered numerous such signs on a visit to the area just four months before the Games. He was “especially horrified,” historian David Clay Large writes in the sole chapter devoted to the 1936 Winter Olympics in his first-rate book “Nazi Games,” to see, too, that “the speed-limit markers on dangerous turns included explicit exemptions for Jews, thereby encouraging them to kill themselves.”
• A photo shows Hitler at the 1936 Winter Games’ opening ceremony. Some number of the Austrian team “unmistakably” shouted out, “Heil Hitler!” as they left the stadium at the end of the ceremony, Large writes, causing Hitler to “gaze wistfully” across the border. Innsbruck is just a few kilometers away.
• A photo of von Halt, the Winter Games organizing committee chief, is accompanied by a striking caption. It says, in part, that in 1936 and 1939, von Halt visited concentration camps in Dachau and Sachsenhausen. “As a convinced national socialist,” it says, “he approved suppression of political opponents and the destructive anti-Semitism that was done by the brown dictatorship since 1941. At the collapse of Berlin he sent in the last hours very young soldiers and old men to fight hopelessly against the Red Army.”
“We need to tell people what happened,” said Christian Neureuther, who, having grown up in Gapa, is something of local ski royalty and whose voice thus carries locally, nationally and even abroad. He raced at three Winter Games. So did his wife, Rosi Mittermaier, and she won three medals, two of them gold, skiing in 1976 in Innsbruck. Their son, Felix, skied at the 2006 and 2010 Winter Games.
“Everyone thinks the 1936 [Winter] Games were fantastic and beautiful,” Christian Neureuther said. “The truth comes out here — the two sides of the medal.”