Tuesday, 6 October 2015

DANGEROUS GAMES: Australia at the 1936 Nazi Olympics

DANGEROUS GAMES: Australia at the 1936 Nazi Olympics
Allen&Unwin, 2015, 338 pages

Review by Phil Shannon

There were none so brave in the Australian team at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 as Werner Seelenbinder, a wrestler, was in Germany’s team, says Larry Writer in Dangerous Games, his history of the 1936 Australian Olympians.  Seelenbinder was a communist, one who had miraculously slipped through the Nazi net, who planned to protest Nazism on the world stage, right in front of Hitler (the Games’ official patron), from the victory podium should he win a medal.  He finished in fourth place, however, narrowly missing his chance.  During the war, Seelenbinder joined an underground anti-Nazi resistance group which aimed to infiltrate and destroy the Nazi Party from within.  He was discovered, tortured and beheaded.

To the Australian athletes, however, the Olympics was their once-in-a-lifetime dream and they would not let reality interfere.  Reality like the first Nazi concentration camp, Sachsenhausen (only 35 kilometres north of Berlin), opening just one month before the Games, or German troops being despatched to support General Franco in Spain just two weeks before the Opening Ceremony.  Or reality like Nazi Germany’s massive re-armament, and racial persecution and discrimination including the banning of German Jews from the Olympics.

‘I put my blinkers on’, recalled one Australian athlete, adding that ‘we allowed ourselves to be used as Nazi propaganda pawns’.  ‘Of course we knew’ about fascist outrages, said another, but the Australian athletes preferred not to act on their knowledge as they rejected international calls for a boycott of the Nazi Olympics and rebuffed the messages smuggled into the Athletes’ Village by anti-Nazi groups pleading for the athletes to protest fascism.

The only Australian competitor to withdraw, fearing what may happen to him as a Jew in Nazi Germany, was the boxer, Harry Cohen, a decision made easier for him by, or prompting (he was never entirely clear), his move to turn professional.

With athlete backing, and the support of Australian politicians who saw fascism as a political prophylactic against socialism, the Berlin Olympics went on to become a propaganda showpiece for the Nazi regime.  Hitler, who had reluctantly inherited the 1931-awarded Games from Germany’s pre-fascist social-democratic government, was cool on sports generally, and the Olympics in particular, calling them a ‘Jewish-nigger-fest’, but he had come to embrace them.

They would allow a demonstration of ‘Aryan supremacy’ on the sports field, primed by the ‘shamateurism’ of under-the-table regime, corporate and private funding of Germany’s ‘amateur’ athletes.  They would facilitate the Nazi regime’s deception of  their foreign critics through suspending overt displays of anti-Semitism (temporarily removing signs such as ‘Dogs and Jews not allowed here’), keeping convict and camp labour out of sight, and reprieving prostitution, gay bars and American jazz for the visitors.  The Games would offer the prospect of uniting, or intimidating, the German population through swastika-saturated nationalism and patriotic pageantry.

The Australian team did not disrupt their Nazi hosts’ plans, their one act of defiance being to refuse to comply with their Nazi attaché’s strong suggestion that they give the straight-arm Nazi salute to Hitler during the national teams’ parade at the Opening Ceremony.  The Nazi salute was one endorsement too far of Nazism for the Australian athletes who had become unsettled by the martial atmosphere surrounding the Games, the nightly war games and the menace of Hitler’s brown-shirted thugs.

For some athletes after the Games, their unease solidified into disillusionment with the Olympics altogether for their rampant nationalism, crass commercialism and intrinsic politicisation.  The swimmer, Evelyn de Lacy, boycotted the official dinner for pre-war Olympians at New South Wales Parliament House during the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Larry Writer unfortunately doesn’t live up to his surname.  His book grinds along largely in orthodox sports journalism gear whilst his industrious emphasis on the athletic narrative relegates the political drama, and, more pointedly, the political and moral failure of Australian athletics, to a subordinate marring of the plucky Australian sporting legend.  Clutching at the old lie that ‘sport is above politics’, Australia’s ‘apolitical’ 1936 Olympians wound up as green-and-gold propaganda performers in the Nazi darkness.

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