Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series; the next installment will focus on Ohio’s own Jesse Owens in the Olympics.
Not only did Nazi Germany rely on ethnic/racial hatred of the Jews, Gypsies and other groups as well as Aryan superiority to motivate the German people to follow Nazism, it developed a program called Strength through Joy (in German it was “Kraft durch Freude”, or “KdF”).
According to the Wikipedia article by that name, it was, “Set up in 1933 as a tool to promote the advantages of Nazism to the German people, while also being utilized to ease the process of rearmament of Germany. It was also intended to compensate for the poor increases in wages and for the loss of trade union rights. Through its structure of organized events and promotion of propaganda, it was also intended to prevent dissident and anti-state behavior. By 1939, it had become the world’s largest tourism operator.”
This program had many branches and goals to improve life for the German people. A major one was to bridge the class divide by making middle-class leisure activities available to the masses, and it was very successful until the outbreak of war in 1939.
Official stats show that in 1934, 2.3 million Germans took KdF holidays, and by 1938, 10.3 million had.
With the outbreak of war in 1939, most of the programs were discontinued, the building of holiday resorts terminated as well as other infrastructure undertakings.
There was a strong belief among the Nazi hierarchy that a key feature of a successful military population was the overall good physical health of the population: “In addition, it was believed that if workers were given sufficient leisure time and provided with cleaner workplaces morale and productivity would increase, aspects needed of the working class for the rearmament.”
It was clear that all policy for several years was concerned with preparing for the military undertakings which constituted the expansion of greater Germany.
The list of activities provided to the German citizens through these programs is simply incredible; it was a serious effort to make life enjoyable. “… following its inception, KdF began to provide a wide range of activities at an affordable price, ranging from concerts and theatre trips to weekend trips and holidays. Workers could enter KdF competitions and win prizes that would send them and their families to local events, or on extended trips either in Germany or abroad. Many of their events occurring after the work day and on weekends, the government sought not only to create a positive and productive environment, but also to dissuade potential anti-state activities.”
It was believed that participation in sports would result in better health and a positive spirit. The National Socialist League of the Reich for Physical Exercise saw to it that physical training was implemented in factories and employers were pushed to build recreation facilities on work grounds. “Official estimates by the German Labor Front show that by 1939 approximately 3,000 sports facilities were created and other 12 million sports courses were organized through these efforts.”
These efforts to prove racial superiority via physical prowess were challenged during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Because of the human rights policies in Germany there were several efforts to cancel the Berlin Olympics, especially by the U.S., but in the end 49 countries showed up in Berlin. Germany had the largest number of participants with 348 with the US second with 312.
“Germany emerged victorious from the XIth Olympiad. German athletes captured the most medals, and German hospitality and organization won the praises of visitors. Most newspaper accounts echoed the New York Times report that the Games put Germany ‘back in the fold of nations’ and even made the Germans ‘more human again.’”
How wrong could the Times have been? Just three years after the 1936 Olympics Germany invaded Poland and unleashed World War II, showing the true nature of the Nazi state.
Neil Snarr is Professor Emeritus at Wilmington College.