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"As Others See It: The Olympic Question"

American college and university students discuss their attitudes toward plans to rescue European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.
The Daily Pennsylvanian

Following the Nazi Party's rise to power in 1933, German authorities issued racist legislation that barred Jews, Roma and Sinti, and others deemed to be "racial enemies" of the Nazi regime from participating in many aspects of public life in Germany. Reflected in the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935, one aspect of these discriminatory policies was a ban of so-called "non-Aryan" athletes from participation in the upcoming 1936 Berlin Olympics.1

Concern over these discriminatory policies and Nazi Germany's aggressive foreign policy caused many Americans to debate the morality of the United States taking part in a competition hosted in Berlin. Some worried about the safety of Jewish American and Black American athletes.2 Others wondered what message American participation might send to democracies around the world. 

This piece from a November 26, 1935 issue of The Daily Pennsylvanian—one of the University of Pennsylvania's student newspapers—illustrates the range of opinions surrounding these issues on campuses in the US. The article gathers voices from a diverse range of universities—from elite, private schools on the East Coast to public and regional institutions in the Midwest and the West Coast. Contributions were written by the editorial board of each student newspaper. These short pieces all wrestle with what is referred to as "The Olympic Question"—a proposed American boycott of the 1936 Olympics.3 

The majority of those quoted in this feature objected to the boycott and supported American participation in the Olympics. For many of these students, the United States had no reason to intervene in the "internal situation" of another "sovereign state." To them, Nazi policy was of little importance to the matter at hand—a sports competition. While some students—like those at Yale University—condemned the Nazi regime, the separation they saw between politics and sports made a boycott pointless.4 Others believed that a boycott could undermine "the purpose and spirit of the games" which promoted "international tolerance."

Many other students grounded their opinions in a belief in the ideals of the Olympic Games. The Ohio State University and University of Cincinnati students cited "sportsmanship" as their primary reason to boycott the games. For these students, Nazi racial discrimination appeared at odds with the sense of friendly competition, cooperation, and mutual respect fostered by the Olympics.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) editorial board, which claimed to have observed no "sign of student sentiment about the question" at all, relayed a more uncommon opinion. While the MIT students say they would not support a boycott, their response suggests that the Olympics were not necessarily a priority for American college students. 

Despite the range of views reflected here, the Pennsylvanian's feature suggests that the racist policies of the Nazi regime did not factor heavily into students' views on an Olympic boycott. For many students at American colleges and universities, concerns about sportsmanship and international cooperation outweighed Nazi racism and the treatment of the Nazi regime's supposed "racial enemies."

For more on the Nuremberg Laws and their impacts, see Marion Kaplan, Between Diginity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). For more details on the 1936 Olympics, see Susan D. Bachrach, The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936 (Little, Brown, & Company, 2000).

In light of legalized segregation in the United States under so-called "Jim Crow" laws, some observers noted the hypocrisy implied in critiques of Nazi racial policies. For example, see the related Experiencing History items, "Can America Afford to Condemn Hitler for His Racial Policies?", and Adam Clayton Powell Jr.: Editorial on the 1936 Olympics. For more on the links between Jim Crow and Nazi race laws, see James Q. Whitman, Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017). 

See USHMM's citizen history project, History Unfolded, to explore more Americans' reactions as printed in newspapers around the country.

For another document dealing with Yale students' responses to the rise of Nazi Germany, see the related Experiencing History item, Letter from Yale Students to Charles Lindbergh.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
The Daily Pennsylvanian
Date Created
November 26, 1935
Page(s) 2
The Daily Pennsylvanian
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Document Type Newspaper Article
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