Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Return of World War Wednesdays!

World War Wednesdays: Canada's Participation in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games
The Canadian ski team offers the Olympic salute
     World War Wednesdays has returned! For the new segment of posts, I wanted to take a look at Canada and the Second World War from a chronological perspective through the exploration of different themes. This week, we'll start in 1936 at the summer Olympics hosted in Berlin, Germany-- commonly referred to as the 'Nazi Olympics'.
     Before we focus on Canada's participation in the games, we'll first discuss the nature of the event itself. It's important to note that Berlin had been decided as the host city two years before the Nazis came into power, but the Olympics ended up being the perfect platform for Hitler to show the world just how powerful Germany was. Forty-nine countries and their associated media would be represented at the Olympics, which provided a perfect scenario for the German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels to showcase his country with an impressive technological system for coverage.
Statues created by Karl Albicker depicting the Aryan 'Master Race' Supermen of Germany
 The German athletes themselves trained full-time, which challenged the concept of an amateur competition. The vast Olympic stadium which held 100,000 spectators was completed on time for the event, as were the 150 other buildings. The anti-Semitic posters which had plastered Germany just before the games quickly disappeared in order to ensure that the games were a success and that no upsets were caused. On August 1st, 1936, the opening ceremonies were held, as seen below (Canada enters around 1:30):
     As the announcer mentions, the Olympic salute appears very similar to the Nazi salute. This fact did not go unnoticed by the participating countries, as can be seen by the entrances of Great Britain and the United States. Canada, however, decided to continue with the gesture, which created some controversy. It can be seen in the footage the way the crowd reacted to seeing Canada do this: the people erupt in cheers. The seemingly innocent gesture was perceived exactly the way it appears to us today- as a sign of Nazi sympathy- and the German onlookers misunderstand it to be just that. It is a haunting and eerie moment captured on film which is a symbol of things to come regarding the Canadian attitude towards Germany, which will be explored in subsequent posts.
     When the Nazis proclaimed the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 which stripped German Jews of their citizenship, there became a great deal of uncertainty as to whether or not countries who did not support the laws should boycott participation in the Olympics. When Great Britain decided against boycotting, Canada did the same. Ultimately, not one country boycotted the games, and the participation of 49 countries was the largest in Olympic history.
     It is fascinating to think about the Canadian athletes who travelled to Berlin that summer, saw Hitler in the stadium, and performed in front of thousands of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. An interesting story is that of Irving "Toots" Meretsky, the only Jewish member of Canada's basketball team at a time when Canada was a leader in the game. A native of Windsor, Ontario, he visited a small Jewish community in Berlin while he was there, commenting that "it was obvious that they were all scared." But unlike some of his fellow Jewish athletes, he had decided to compete in the games as a sign that nothing was going to keep him from the Olympics. His bravery is just one of many examples of defiance displayed in the face of Germany during this remarkable event.
Irving "Toots" Meretsky, 1936
     If you are interested in seeing some more footage of the games, the Nazis ensured that much of it was captured on film through a state-of-the-art system of wired stadiums. Leni Riefenstahl, a favored film director, was given the contract to document the games in a way that glorified Germany and its athletes. The two-part documentary pioneered the way that sporting events are filmed to this day, and can be found on Youtube with English subtitles. Hearing O Canada played while Hitler is in view is an incredibly haunting thing to witness, and this film effectively captures the immense juxtaposition and tension that was the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics.
As part of the return of World War Wednesdays, I would like to do a Q&A post for anything that readers would like to know! Ask me anything via a comment on this post, on the Backus-Page House Facebook page, or via my personal Facebook Delany Leitch. I'd love to hear what you'd like to see in these posts or to clear up any questions!
   As always thanks for reading,

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