Jesse Owens and Hitler Shook Hands at the 1936 Summer Olympics? –

HANSEN: There is a story that many people tell, and it’s a different story, about how after winning his gold medals, Jesse Owens was snubbed by Adolf Hitler. Is it true?

Mr. SCHAAP: It’s not true. You could say that Adolf Hitler could have found a way to congratulate Jesse Owens, to acknowledge the fact that he was dominating these Olympics games. But what happened is much more nuanced, like most of the myths that have risen up from those games. What happens, and I’ll try to be succinct, on the first day of games, two Germans win gold medals. Hitler congratulates them in his box in front of everyone, 110,000 people in the stadium. He also congratulates the Finns who finished one, two, three in the 10,000 meters, who look more blond and Aryan than the Germans, in fact.

By the time Jesse’s teammate, the African-America high jumper Cornelius Johnson, wins the gold medal that night, Hitler has left the stadium. If anyone had the right to say he was snubbed, it was Cornelius Johnson. Although the Germans say Hitler was strictly adhering to his schedule, that he had to leave the stadium. And in fact, the high jump competition did run long. But the head of the International Olympics Committee is so upset by the implication that perhaps Hitler had snubbed Cornelius Johnson that he tells Hitler, look, you’ve either got to congratulate everyone or no one.

And by the time Jesse Owens wins his first gold medal the next day, Hitler is honoring his pledge, believe it or not, to the head of the International Olympic Committee. This is at a time when Hitler is eager to make friends with as many people as possible. And he is actually compelled officially from congratulating Jesse Owens. And Jesse Owens tells everyone who will listen, look, Adolf Hitler did not snub me. But nobody wanted to hear that story. And the story proved remarkably durable, and persists to this day.


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