At this year’s Winter Olympics, much was made of the participation of North Korea, which took the opportunity to score propaganda points. In Berlin, 1936 (recently published in English translation), the historian Oliver Hilmes tells the story of an attempt by another totalitarian regime to use the Olympics to show its best face to the world. Liam Hoare writes in his review:
The Summer Olympics of 1936, [held in Berlin], were a moral disaster and thus a political and diplomatic smash for the Nazi regime. Jesse Owens’s achievements notwithstanding, Germany ranked first in the medals table, far ahead of the United States, reinforcing the myth of German or Aryan racial superiority. For the city of Berlin, the increase in visitors made the games highly profitable. More importantly, “Hitler and his regime were able to present themselves as peace-loving, reliable members of the family of nations,” Hilmes writes, giving many the impression that “Hitler can be trusted to keep his promises.” . . .
In competition, spectators witnessed fencer Helene Mayer, who had left the Third Reich for California in the fall of 1934 due to her status as a “half-Jew,” win silver for Germany. The Nazis allowed her to compete under their flag as a sop to the international community and those who had tried to organize a boycott of the games. Outside the stadium, for the duration of the Olympics, the Nazis suspended the publication of the anti-Semitic rag Der Stürmer and took down the issues that were usually displayed prominently in public spaces.
So successful was their propaganda—and the willingness of the International Olympic Committee to look the other way—that at the same time as the games were taking place, the regime was brazenly constructing a concentration camp, Sachsenhausen, barely 22 miles north of Berlin. The city’s gypsy population, meanwhile, had been removed and deported to a single encampment on Berlin’s eastern outskirts.