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Book Review


Large, David Clay.  Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936.  (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007).  401 pp, $27.95.

     The Olympic Games are politics by other means, and the 1936 Berlin Games are a perfect example.  The official website of the International Olympic Committee opens its brief article on the Berlin games by declaring that they are best remembered for the Nazis failed attempt to use the games as a propaganda tool.  David Clay Large, however, challenges this supposed "failure," and asserts that the 1936 games were a tremendous success as a tool of propaganda and legitimation.

     Nazi Games contains nine chapters, book-ended by an introduction and epilogue that frame his argument nicely.  Large argues that the Olympic Games, contrary to IOC creeds and statements, have been and remain heavily influenced by global politics.  Large demonstrates the value of the games as propaganda by telling the story of the XI Olympiad in Berlin as a case study.  The Nazi Games, according to Large, were not only a propaganda success, but perhaps one of the Nazis biggest propaganda successes of the Reich.  Not only were the Olympics the Nazis "first big international show—their coming-out show on the world stage," (12) but the games also had major goals to accomplish in the domestic sphere in generating support for the new regime. 

     Additionally, according to Large, the games are too often remembered only for Jesse Owens's performance and the blows his victories struck at Nazi Racial theories.  Large demonstrates that although racial issues were central in the planning and execution of the games, the Olympics marked a triumph for Nazi racial ideology rather than a defeat for several reasons.  First, Owens may have dominated in his events, but at the end of the games the medal count by country put Germany in first place, serving as a vindication of Nazi ideology rather than a challenge to it.  After the games, eugenicists in Germany and even the United States were quick to explain how black athletes like Owens could dominate in events that involved only basic physical prowess due to the "primitive" structure of the African physique, while in more civilized sports, equestrian events for example, white athletes still dominated.

     Second, and even more important, Large discusses the role of anti-Semitism in the games.  The United States, along with many other nations, led a movement that threatened to boycott the Berlin Games as a protest of Nazi persecution of Jews. Large points out the hypocrisy of the movement, especially in the United States where racism towards African-Americans was fierce. Additionally, he argues that the triumph of the Nazi Games as a tool of propaganda and legitimation came with the failure of the boycott movement.  Essentially, the boycott's failure acknowledged that although the world may not have been happy with Nazi racism, it was not willing to do anything about it.  Large takes this analysis a step further by comparing it to the Munich Conference of 1938.  Scholars agree that by the time of Munich, it was too late to prevent war by standing up to Hitler at the conference table.  Yet a boycott of the games in 1936, according to Large, would have dealt a crushing blow to the regime both on the domestic and international levels.  Large does not venture far into the realm of "what if" history with these assertions.  However, he makes a valid argument that before the games took place, Germany was in a precarious political situation. A strong global condemnation of the regime, he argues, would have had much more impact then as opposed to when Europe did finally take a stand several years later.  It was crucial, therefore, that Germany be allowed to host the games, and to host them well.  In that regard, Germany succeeded completely.

     The last one-third of the book is dedicated to the events themselves; who won, who lost, and any interesting anecdotes along the way.  With the exception of the final chapter (which discusses Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl's film about the games) this section is devoid of analysis or discussion, but offers an enjoyable narrative of individual events and athletes.

     In his epilogue, Large ties the case study back to the larger context of the games as a propaganda tool.  His most potent discussion in the epilogue pertains to other Olympic games, most notably the 1972 games in Munich (as a legitimizing tool for West Germany) and the 1980 games in Moscow.  The United States actually boycotted Moscow in 1980, claiming to have learned the lessons of 1936, but Moscow in the 80s was not Germany in the 30s, and although the boycott weakened the games the sheer fact that they were held benefited the Soviet Union.  Large concludes with the 2008 games in China.  Once again a nation that has received serious negative global attention because of its domestic policies is being given the chance to host the Olympics.  Large points out that critics have voiced concerns over Beijing just as they did over Berlin, Munich, and Moscow, but as he has shown throughout the book, the Olympics, as a supposed tool of peace and goodwill, always trump the Olympics as a propaganda and legitimizing tool.  Despite politics, the games must go on.

     In his introduction, Large states that his work is intended for a general audience, because at present there are no comprehensive works directed at non-academics. Despite this intention, however, Large organizes substantial archival and secondary research to make several arguments that contribute to the scholarly literature as well.  In terms of its potential in the classroom, any reader can digest Large's work, but its length unfortunately excludes it from being a possible choice as an assigned book for high school or undergraduate courses, except perhaps for a senior seminar.  However, scholars, teachers, upper-division undergraduates, graduate students and interested general readers will find the book both accessible and informative.

     In spite of his intention to aim his book at a general audience, Large states that one of his goals in writing was to create a comprehensive work that makes full use of primary and secondary sources.  Large has done extensive archival research in the United States, Germany, Austria and Switzerland.  Unfortunately, the book does not include a bibliography.  He does include an abbreviation list that serves as an adequate substitute for a primary source bibliography, but without a secondary source bibliography it is impossible to determine the extent to which Large made use of the "vast specialized secondary literature" (13) mentioned in the intro.  A bibliography would have added an extra twenty pages and certainly would have added to the book's authority and value.

     There is another critique that must be made about the sources Large uses in his research.  The Olympics as a topic provides fertile ground to conduct global research on a nearly unprecedented scale.  Indeed, Large's discussion about the Nazi Games as a global propaganda tool necessitates delving into many foreign archives to support the argument.  Large was presented with a unique opportunity, yet in this regard he did not quite measure up.  He has done extensive research, but for a discussion involving a global event his discussion focuses primarily on the Western world.  In his introduction, Large states that the events surrounding the games have much to say about "attitudes around the globe toward Nazi Germany," (12) yet the only comments he makes about non-Western reactions to the Nazi Games refer to China, Japan and India and could fit on a single page.  Naturally, language barriers would present a problem, but a scholar of Large's skill and resources could have made more use of more non-Western archives.  As with many books dealing with global history or the history of major events and their global impact, Nazi Games falls into the trap of limiting "global" to Europe and the United States, despite his comment about exploring attitudes from around the globe.

     Despite these drawbacks, Large has written a detailed, readable, and intriguing study that has something to offer any reader, general or otherwise, with an interest in history, political science, communications, or the Olympic Games.  His arguments are provocative and he has skillfully connected his study of the past with issues in the present.  One thing is for certain: no one who reads Large's book will be able to look at the Olympics in the same way again.


Chris Thomas
Texas A&M University


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