‘Hitler’s Pawn’: Lessons in Propoganda & Perserverance

Looked at today through the lens of the Shoah, the thuggery of the pre-war Nazis seems as obvious as its signals of things to come. It wasn’t so clear to many Americans.

Partly this obscurity came from sincere observance of George Washington’s caution to avoid ‘excessive partiality for one foreign nation, and excessive dislike of another….’ Partly the fog of despair the Depression brought with it narrowed America’s field of vision. And partly it came from the witting complicity of prominent Nazi sympathizers and anti-Semites, abetted by the fearfulness of national leaders up to the White House.

For many, those are the explanations for why America slept. But there is a fourth part.

The Nazis were gifted, effective propagandists. ‘Hitler’s Pawn’, an HBO special, offers a fascinating, personal sidebar to the story of the 1936 Berlin Olympics – the greatest of all the Nazi propaganda triumphs. It ran Sunday at the Jewish Film Festival at the Israel Congregation of Manchester, Vermont.

The ‘pawn’ was Gretel Bergmann. Immediately after Hitler took power in early 1933, Bergmann and all other Jews were barred from all German athletic clubs and facilities. Jewish athletes tried to make their own fields and keep up their training, but soon became discouraged and gave up.

Bergmann, then 20, had the chance to leave for the UK. Despite an aversion for school, she enrolled at London Polytechnic and resumed her track and field career. She had run and thrown the discus in Germany. But in the UK she recognized her ‘long legs and big feet’ (size 11, she said in a post-showing interview) gave her an edge in the high jump.

In 1935 she was the UK women’s high jump champion. The day of her triumph she learned from her father she had to return to Germany – at the Nazis insistence – to train for the Olympics. To protect her family, she left the UK.

Most of the Olympic candidates shunned her at training camp. One did not, the future Bronze Medal winner in high jumping. Her roommate, whom she thought bizarre at the time because she wouldn’t shower with the rest, turned out to be a transvestite planted by the Nazis.

Bergmann’s performance earned her, it seemed, a spot on the team. She returned home to await the formal invitation. Months passed.

She did not know until years later that American athletic authorities were debating whether to participate in the 1936 Olympics because of the Nazis racial policies and pogroms. The Olympic Committee headed by Avery Brundage (an anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer) was all for participating. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) wanted assurances Jews could compete for Germany.

The Nazi propaganda campaign included assurances in US papers that athletes such as Gretel Bergmann, in particular, would compete. In Germany, the anti-Jewish campaign went on hiatus. Racial hygiene posters and the like disappeared across the country.

Eventually, the AAU capitulated, and the US Olympians took ship for Germany. The day after they sailed, Bergmann received a letter she still has informing her she had not qualified. As a consolation, she was offered a standing room ticket for the Games.

Bergmann knew nothing of why she’d been forced back to Germany or of her role in winning US participation. For 30 years she didn’t know about her roommate. But she did know the Hungarian Jew who won the Gold had only equalled the German national record Bergmann had tied just weeks before.

As ‘Hitler’s Pawn’ emphasizes, the 1936 Olympics were a huge propaganda triumph for the Nazis. The still novel news reels showed to great effect the new German stadia and marching Aryan athletes with outstretched right arms. Leni Riefenstahl’sOlympia’ (1938) gets across the idea, but it doesn’t capture the effect of the contemporary news reel coverage pumped into hundreds of thousands of theaters worldwide.

Americans only think of the 1936 Olympics in terms of Jesse Owens’s four medals putting the lie to Hitler’s race policies. That was not how the world in the late 1930s saw the Berlin Olympiad.

Similarly, for most Americans the Beijing Olympics only stand for some memorable performances. Much of the rest of the world, according to Tom Friedman, sees them as a sign of the shift in power from west to east, I noted in a post two weeks ago. Still for me, the new stadia in Beijing and the peaceful streets around the country had haunting echos of Berlin and Germany 74 years before.

‘Hitler’s Pawn’ offers many fascinating sidelights to pre-war life under the Nazis – some surprising like the story of Bergmann’s neighbor in the SS, to the life of Jewish refugees in America and to the process of reconciliation with Germany. None is more interesting, invigorating, than the face and voice of the 96-year-old Gretel Bergmann who now lives in greater New York.

‘Hitler’s Pawn’ uses some modern documentary techniques I usually dislike. For instance, happy children filmed in Bergmann’s childhood neigborhood and an actress in a 30s track suit suggest events described in the narration. But it uses this footage without phoniness. The recreation of youths clearing a field as Jewish athletes did in 1933 is very moving.

There are some very minor errors in archival film selection – a picture of a post-war displaced persons camp under narration of the pre-war persecutions, for instance.

‘Hitler’s Pawn’ is a fascinating picture of an individual set against events far bigger than she. And yet, is there anything more important than the fact of her survival, her witness and her reconciliation?


H/T: Steve Jacobson, a sports columnist for Newsday first told Gretel Bergmann’s story to the larger audience it deserved. On Sunday, he introduced the film his story inspired and after the showing interviewed by phone his friend, Ms. Bergmann (now Margaret Lambert).

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