Jesse Owens, and the black American Olympians of 1936, were not snubbed by Hitler, but by their own society

The Berlin Olympics of 1936 were a showcase for Nazi Germany, and for Hitler personally. Germany won more medals than any other nation at those games. The most famous story emerging from the 1936 Olympics is the triumph of black American athlete, Jesse Owens. The latter, a star track and field competitor for the US team, won four gold medals, thus demolishing the myth of white Aryan racial superiority. Hitler, incensed at this outcome, snubbed Owens and left the stadium.

A nice story – except that it is not true. Owens, and the 17 other African American athletes, were not snubbed by Hitler at all, but by their own government. Not a single US President, until Barack Obama, acknowledged the accomplishments of these 18 black Olympians. They achieved enormous triumphs and accolades in Nazi Germany, only to be ignored and discriminated against by their home nation. Even Eisenhower, in 1955, nominated Owens as an ambassador of sport. That is all well and good, but hardly recognition for the achievements of the African American athletes.

In one of the great ironies of history, the black American athletes lived in a racially integrated Olympic village for the duration of their stay in Berlin. That state of affairs was impossible at that time in the US. Returning home, they had to go back to the legalised racial segregation practiced by their home nation.

John Woodruff, a fellow athlete, won gold in the 800 meters race in Berlin. He explained in an interview decades after the event the feeling of exhilaration, destroying the widely held myth of white supremacy in the heart of Nazi Germany. Yet, when Woodruff returned to the US, he encountered the following:

After the Olympics, we had a track meet to run at Annapolis, at the Naval Academy. Now here I am, an Olympic champion, and they told the coach that I couldn’t run. I couldn’t come. So I had to stay home, because of discrimination. That let me know just what the situation was. Things hadn’t changed. Things hadn’t changed.

While Owens gained international attention after the Berlin Olympics, the accomplishments of the other athletes faded into obscurity. This is unfortunate – while Owens deserves recognition and admiration, the myth of being ‘snubbed by Hitler’ has served to eclipse the equally remarkable sporting achievements of Owens’ athletic colleagues.

In fact, Owens achieved remarkable popularity among the German crowds during his time at the Berlin Olympics. He received ear-shattering ovations, with chants of ‘Oh-vens!’ reverberating throughout the Olympic stadium. The Nazi government, for its part, toned down the antisemitic rhetoric and propaganda posters for the duration of the Olympics.

Hitler, on the first day of the Olympic competition, congratulated only the winning German athletes. The governing Olympic committee advised him that this was against protocol – receive all the winners or none at all. So from the second day onwards, Hitler did not receive any athletes. Owens, who was gaining popularity and being mobbed by adoring German fans for an autograph, was greeted by a Nazi salute from Hitler in the stands. Owens waved back, and continued with the competition.

As Owens explained in the years after the 1936 Olympics, it was not Hitler who snubbed him, but the American president. Franklin Delano Roosevelt pointedly ignored the black American athletes, and invited only the white athletes to visit him in the Oval Office. FDR did not even send a telegram of congratulations to the African American team, Owens commented.

In the decades after his Olympic career was over, Owens worked various jobs. The commercial endorsements, and mini-celebrity status, achieved by retired athletes, was denied to Owens. There were times when Owens was forced to declare bankruptcy. Becoming a heavy smoker, Owens passed away of lung cancer in 1980.

The story of Hitler-didn’t-shake-hands-with-Owens is one of those comforting urban legends. Taking grains of truth from real events, they achieve a life of their own, snowballing into an agglomeration of untruths and soothing falsehoods.

In 1936, America had no inclination to tackle the rising threat of European fascism; indeed, American companies continued to do business with large German conglomerates implicated in supporting the Nazi party and its war machine. Big American companies, such Du Pont, Coca Cola and General Electric, had investments in Nazi enterprises.

Deflecting attention from US involvement in Nazi Germany’s economy, in particular after the full revelations of the horrors of the Nazi-run concentration camps – and their role in provisioning slave labour – the Owens-was-snubbed-by-Hitler story serves as a retroactive application of moral principles. After all, Owens giving Hitler a reason to be incensed, provides Americans with a salve to their collective conscience.

Who need bother with the story of IBM corporation, and its involvement in German enterprises during the Holocaust, when we can soothe ourselves with the knowledge’ that already in 1936, we knew what a bad man Hitler was by the way he allegedly ignored Jesse Owens?

Yes, we all understand the criminal and racist nature of the Nazi party, and the vitriolic ideology of its chief exponent. White supremacist ideology led to the concentration camps. However, let’s examine the history of the US honestly, and learn the lessons it can teach us today.

The Confederacy’s Lost Cause makeover, the slave trade, and the cinematic version of the South

The Confederacy – the slave owning plantation economy which was militarily defeated in 1865 after its secessionist war – may seem to be relegated to the status of a historical curiosity. What contemporary relevance would that entity have? Plenty, actually. The rehabilitation of the Confederacy will not bring back slavery, but it serves as a necessary buttress for the low-level white supremacist insurgency, which exploded with various political forces on January 6, 2021.

One of the participants in the attempted coup d’état by ultranationalist forces on January 6, Kevin Seefried, was sentenced to three years in prison for carrying the Confederate flag into the Capitol Hill building. Brandishing it in the face of a black police officer, Seefried claimed in his defence that he never intended to spread a message of hate. Unaware of its true meaning, Seefried’s legal defence team argued, he was only upholding what he believed to be his heritage.

Let’s focus on his legal defence; Seefried’s team was taking a position that has been used by apologists for the Confederacy at least since the 1960s – defence of Southern heritage. That is quite baffling, considering the abundance of materials, including declarations by the Southern secessionist states, that explicitly state the preservation of slavery as the main reason for the 1861 secession and subsequent civil war.

In December 1860, South Carolina legislators held a secession congress where they repudiated the US constitution, and clearly stated that they were leaving the Union because they wanted to keep slavery. Other seceding states, such as Mississippi and Texas, followed the same proslavery logic as South Carolina.

Once again, let’s reiterate; the American civil war was not fought over states’ rights. The excuse of states’ rights as a reason for secession arose, not during the crisis of the 1850s and 1860s, but from the 1890s onwards, long after the civil war ended. The 1890s marked an upsurge in white supremacist rebellion, the building of Confederate statues, and the search for anything-but-slavery reasons to excuse the actions of the Confederacy.

The claim of states’ rights is a convenient nonracial refuge from the morally repugnant underlying reason – the preservation of slavery. The Southern slaveholders were actually quite happy with federal authority when it suited their interests. The 1857 Dred Scott decision by the federal court, denying black Americans citizenship and compelling the return of fugitive slaves in the North to their owners in the South, was welcomed by the Southern slave holding oligarchy.

In fact, Southern slaveholders dreamt of an international slave owning empire. The racialised transatlantic slave trade was global in scope and operations. As the American frontier expanded in the 1840s and 50s, and the gold rushes became prominent, Southern plantation owners desired the expansion of slavery into these newly opened indigenous territories. Expanding beyond the borders of the continental United States was a long sought after objective.

Let’s say, for the moment, that Seefried is telling the truth; that leaves us with another question – are there Americans who matriculate from the school system unaware of the true meaning of the Confederate flag? Is the education system solely to blame? There is a deeper sociopolitical process here; America’s wars overseas are creating a climate of racism and militarisation at home. The Confederacy was a militarised, autocratic society, intent on expanding its economic interests.

Imperialist wars overseas create and reinforce a political dynamic of their own. In the immediate aftermath of the Confederacy’s defeat, the southern secessionist whites were marginalised. However, gradually, as the US developed imperial ambitions of its own, the Confederacy gained a cultural and sociopolitical rehabilitation.

These are not just my sentiments, but rather the manifestation of the fraudulent Lost Cause mythology. As the defeated Southern secessionists launched their own low-level campaign of domestic terror aimed at African Americans, indigenous people and ethnic minorities, they also perpetuated a reframing of the Confederacy.

Matthew Rozsa, writing in Salon magazine in October last year, notes that while Lincoln never pledged to abolish slavery, only limit its expansion, his election as President in 1860 triggered the treasonous secession of the slave owning states. No, Lincoln did not cause the civil war. The southern slaveholding class were intent on preserving and expanding their slavocracy.

Lincoln himself was not an abolitionist, but once the Southern slaveholders rebelled, he committed himself to the defeat of the white supremacist insurgency – and such a victory could not be achieved without the emancipation of the slaves. The defeated Southerners, in their quest to revive white supremacy, resorted to a systematic rewriting of history. The Confederate flag became, not a symbol of racism and hatred, but of an innocuous Southern ‘pride.’

The Confederate battle flag, rather than being a neutral expression of cultural pride, is actually a symbol of white insurrection. It found adherents on January 6 2021, including South Vietnamese Saigon loyalists. Lost causes find common ground in a collective longing for a mythical past.

There are still thousands of Confederate statues and memorials across the United States. It is more than time for Americans to come to grips with their own history of civil war and white nationalism. Engaging in a cinematic Lost Cause, engaging a neo-Confederate perspective of the civil war, will only ensure that more would-be insurrectionists like Kevin Seefried are produced.

DNA, the genomic age and human behaviour – time to move beyond the framework of the selfish gene

We are all familiar with the dominant paradigm of our genomic age – it’s in the DNA. This claim – it’s in the genes – has washed over the fields of psychology, sociology, biology and everyday conversation. This metaphor is closely related to the tenet of the selfish gene, popularised by Professor Richard Dawkins. Let’s dig deeper into this subject – and by doing so, we will find that we have been thinking about genes and DNA incorrectly.

As Pankaj Mehta wrote in Jacobin, we have resorted to the ‘it’s in the DNA’ as a ready-made, intellectually lazy explanation for the entire gamut of human behaviour:

If you want to understand why humans wage wars, there is a gene for that. Want to understand why men rape women? There is a gene for that. Want to understand why the “national characters” of East Asia, the West, and Africa are different? We have those genes covered too. Indeed, if we are to believe most popular media, there is a gene for just about every inequality and inequity in modern society.

The one book which solidified our notion of humans driven by their DNA is the bestselling book by Professor Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. In that book, Dawkins explicitly summarises the Gordon Gekko ‘greed is good’ philosophy, stating that we are nothing but vehicles for the replication of our underlying genes. Genetic determinism, now backed up by the successful mapping of the human genome in 2003, has made a strident comeback.

The economic and moral framework of our age has been strongly influenced by the selfish gene narrative. Surely capitalism, and the inequalities that is produces, are the inevitable products of our genetic makeup?

This view is not only a misappropriation of biological understanding to justify socioeconomic inequities, as the biologist the late Richard Lewontin pointed out. It is also flawed from a scientific point of view; human evolution, (and evolution generally), rather than being driven by ferocious competition, is actually the product of cooperation and mutually reinforcing networks of life.

When Darwin published his famous book On the Origin of Species, he was unaware of genes passing on adaptive traits. What he did do was incorporate the social ethos of his Victorian England, then an emerging industrial power, with its strict class differentiation. Social classes demonstrated, it was believed, the inevitably hierarchical structure of human society.

The popular notion of ‘struggle of the fittest’ was transposed onto the biological world. In particular, Herbert Spencer, an English anthropologist and philosopher, advocated a view of society as a harsh individualistic competition, where the ostensibly ‘strong’ would crush the ‘weak.’

Social Darwinism may have lost its original allure, given the horrific experiences of the twentieth century, and how sociobiologic misconceptions about race have lead to traumatic outcomes. However, the claim of evolution as competition was provided a boost by the discoverers of the double helix structure of genes.

As we all know, the gene was not popularised until the 20th century, with the publication of the work of the obscure Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel. Working away with peas, he discovered dominant and recessive genes. Dying in 1884, his work remained unknown until the early 1900s. Ironically, he never actually believed in evolution, but his work has done as much as Darwin’s to solidify evolutionary biology in the popular consciousness.

DNA became the most iconic biological molecule, with its deployment as metaphor ubiquitous in modern literature.

When Francis Crick and James Watson (not forgetting the crucial role of Rosalind Franklin) published their findings in the early 1950s, they borrowed metaphors from the newly emerging fields of computing and information theory. Our genes are ‘information’, much like the algorithms of a software platform – and humans are analogous to the computer, which houses and executes that software.

To be sure, the challenge to the idea of evolution as ruthless individual competition came, not from English scientists, but from Russian science. Darwin’s contemporary, the anarchist Peter Kropotkin (1842 – 1921), himself a serious scientist and scion of Russian nobility, presented the findings of his field research. Working the vast lands of Siberia, he found that individual cooperation, not competition, was the norm.

In the harsh geography of Siberia, individual organisms developed networks of cooperation in order to survive. He elaborated his results in his book Mutual Aid (1902). The late biologist and science writer, Stephen Jay Gould, emphasised that Russian scientists – no, not exclusively from the Marxist or socialist tradition – rejected the gladiatorial view of nature propounded by English Social Darwinism.

Kropotkin was not some muesli-eating, hippie-dippie stereotype that we associate with anarchism. He emerged from a serious scientific tradition in Russia, but because of political hostility between the UK and the western world generally against Russia, their scientific achievements, particularly during the Soviet period, are overlooked.

Prokaryotes and eukaryotes

Today, the growing field of epigenetics is a fundamental, if belated, recognition that genes are also influenced by the environment – our behaviours and milieu impact the way genes express themselves. There is no linear relationship straight from the gene to specific human social behaviour.

How about something very basic, such as the transition from single-celled organisms lacking a nucleus, prokaryotes, to multicellular organisms, eukaryotes? Surely there was competition at that level, so many billions of years ago? Yes, there was. However, the change from the overwhelmingly predominant type of life on Earth – prokaryotes – to eukaryotes, occurred not because of vicious competition, but through the emergence of a symbiotic union.

Eukaryotes had been devouring their prokaryotic neighbours for millions of years. However, a type of prokaryote was swallowed – the mitochondrion, and instead of being digested, the eukaryotic host and its new inhabitant began to work together. As every biology student knows, the mitochondrion is an energy powerhouse, and has its own DNA, and multicellular life took off. This is one of the most important transitions in the history of life on earth, and it occurred cooperatively.

Today, the term endosymbiosis is making its way into the popular lexicon. Eukaryotic cells emerged from different types of prokaryotic cells working together – an early biological example of teamwork.

Let’s wrap this up – the notion that we are all the inevitable product of genes which are programmed to reproduce and pass on to the next generation a predestined set of traits is a simple idea. However, it is fundamentally flawed and leads to a serious underappeciation of the role of cooperation in the emergence of life.

When immigrants become propagandists and foot-soldiers for US power – intersectional imperialism continues Cold War practices

Every imperialist empire recruits a section from the oppressed to become its foot-soldiers and propagandists. The ‘native’ recruit absorbs the outlook of imperial power, and does their level best to advocate further imperial expansion. The British practiced this technique, making the Gurkhas an invaluable propaganda tool for empire, as well as a reliable proxy force.

In the days of the British empire, their mandarins were taught all the main works of the Romans. The administrators and foot-soldiers of empire were taught that Rome represented the pinnacle of achievement. This kind of soft power propaganda not only created functionaries for empire, but also convinced selected minorities from the empire’s subjects to adopt the ideology of imperial benevolence.

So it is interesting to read that Kosovar Albanian troops are being deployed to the Malvinas, or Falklands Islands. Ostensibly on a training exercise, the Kosovo soldiers are assisting in solidifying the hold of the British over the disputed Malvinas/Falklands Islands. The latter, located in the South Atlantic, were seized by Britain in 1833.

It is quite reasonable to observe that the Kosovo Albanian troops are being transformed into the new Gurkhas for the British empire, even though the latter is a shrivelled, decrepit shell of its former self. The Malvinas/Falklands Islands, an outpost of British imperialism in the South Atlantic, was the target of an ill-conceived military invasion by the former Argentine dictatorship in 1982.

The military dictatorship which ruled Argentina for so many decades was a violently repressive government. However, most anti-imperialist nations and parties, while heavily rebuking the dictatorship in Buenos Aires, supported the right of Argentina to retake the Malvinas/Falklands Islands. The current Argentine government strongly criticised the deployment of Kosovo soldiers to the Islands, and has refused to send armaments to the US-backed Zelensky regime in Kyiv.

Intersectional imperialism and literary mercenaries

When it comes to the use and scope of soft power, the US empire is preeminent. Deploying weaponised immigrant stories in defence of American imperial interests is a technique of power projection perfected by the US imperial state. A large corporatised bureaucracy of mandarins churn out materials that are propaganda in all but name. Indeed, the correct term encapsulating this soft power projection is intersectional imperialism.

This involves deploying the tactic of diversity to misrepresent the political and economic agenda of imperialist power as inclusive and respectful of minorities. This technique is actually a new iteration of an old Cold War era tactic. Using manufactured dissidents as spokespersons of American empire dates back to the cultural and economic warfare of the US against the Soviet Union.

As veteran journalist and political commentator Yasha Levin writes:

These weaponized immigrants don’t get a lot of attention, but they are extremely important. They form the backbone of our Empire’s sprawling, multi-billion dollar soft (and not so soft) power apparatus. They inhabit everything from positions within the foreign policy structures of our government, to traditional media outlets and newspapers, to cleaned-up CIA fronts like Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia, to privatized spook ops like the National Endowment for Democracy, to all sorts of oligarch funded non-profits and smaller regime change lobbies like Free Russia and the Uyghur Congress — and all the way down to half-forgotten rebranded Vietnamese terror groups and bizarre Chinese and Iranian cults.

This construction of a sophisticated imperialist soft power propaganda machine, pioneered by the CIA and conservative think tanks, has continued until today. The little-known National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is basically a second CIA, a repository of weaponised immigrant personnel churning out propaganda for empire.

Utilising ultranationalist and Nazi collaborator migrants from Eastern Europe, the US government provided a media platform for these ultrarightist insurgents to spread their messages of hate. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has its origins in this soft power propagandist campaign. Such outlets have promoted immigrant stories not out of any sense of multiculturalism, but as ideological weapons against the Eastern bloc. Such propaganda tactics have expanded to include migrants from a range of nations outside Eastern Europe.

It is one thing to oppose the policies of the Chinese government. Whether you agree or disagree with the Communist Party of China is a subject up for debate. However, the ultranationalist fanatics at the US-sponsored World Uyghur Congress (WUC) are doing much more than merely expressing their opinions. They are engaging as foot-soldiers and propagandists for a war with China. Beneath a veneer of respectability is an ideological commitment to Pan-Turkic racism, viewing themselves as the eastern most branch of an envisioned Pan-Turkic empire.

As an arm of imperial regime change, the Uyghur separatists have their political origins in the Turkic far right. One of the pioneers of this brand of separatism, Erkin Alptekin, has not only sought the resurrection of a greater Turkish empire encompassing all the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. As one of the first presidents of the WUC, he fully supported the US war on Vietnam. It is customary for the functionaries of empire to support imperialist wars fought by their benefactors around the world.

Questioning the pro-war narratives of the empire’s weaponised propagandists is a necessary condition to build an anti-war movement. Let’s avoid tobogganing towards further catastrophic wars by breaking down the corporatised imperial propaganda which saturates our lives and constructs a pro-war public.

The Holocaust is not only about the past, but also about how we understand the present – we can start by teaching about it in school

January 27 is the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Every year, there are commemorations of the victims of the Holocaust. World leaders pay their respects to all victims of the genocidal policies of Nazism, and commemorative programmes abound. That date was chosen because on that day in 1945, Soviet troops liberated the survivors from the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Auschwitz has become the preeminent symbol of Nazi racist barbarism. Initiatives such as the January 27 Remembrance Day are intended to remind the world of the aphorism Never Again. Through knowledge and understanding of the past, we can chart a humane course for the future. However, here is something to consider – we never actually learned about the Holocaust in school; not even in senior high school.

To be sure, the details of the Holocaust can be emotionally distressing. However, school kids need to learn an accurate account of our history, including that of dispossession, colonialism and genocide. After all, succeeding generations are going to confront the disturbing realities of contemporary society. They need to have the information at hand to better prepare themselves for such confronting topics.

During World War 2, the United States and Canada refused to take in European Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. The reasons that Washington and Ottawa gave for denying sanctuary to Jewish refugees have similarities to contemporary anti-immigration and anti-refugee rhetoric from rightist politicians.

After 80 years, there is little to no excuse to remain ignorant of the Holocaust. Why 80 years? Writing in an article for the Guardian, Lindsay Hoyle observes that in 1942 (her article was published in 2022), then British foreign secretary Anthony Eden gave a speech to the House of Commons detailing the deportation and mass killings of Jews in German-occupied territories.

Information about what was happening in the concentration camps steadily filtered out of Europe. James Bulgin, head of public history at the Imperial War Museum, notes that while Hitler and the Nazi party advocated genocidal antisemitism, it would be a mistake to write off responsibility for the Holocaust exclusively as the deranged vision of one man. The perpetrators of genocide had many willing accomplices, particularly in the Baltic states and Eastern Europe. Ultranationalist Nazi collaborators helped construct the pathway to the Holocaust.

An extensive survey commissioned by Deakin University explored just how much Australians know about the Holocaust. The results were reported in the Sydney Morning Herald in January last year, and they demonstrate appalling results. The surveyors found that as many as one in four Australians have little to no knowledge of the Holocaust. The survey, conducted by researchers from Deakin, derived their results from 3500 respondents.

One of the largest studies of its kind undertaken in Australia, it makes for shocking reading. For instance:

It found one in four Australians could not identify basic facts about the Holocaust, including that 6 million Jewish people were murdered; that the Final Solution was the pursuit of the elimination of Jewish people from Europe; that Adolf Hitler rose to power through a democratic election in Germany, and that the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was in Poland.

Mary Pat Higgins, president and CEO of the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, wrote a powerful article in the Dallas Morning News regarding the maintenance of the memory of the Holocaust’s victims. She makes the basic point that the January 27 day includes honouring all victims of the Holocaust; Slavs, Roma, the LGBT community, among others.

Attributing the genocide of European Jewry to the singular evil of Adolf Hitler makes us miss a crucial feature of the Holocaust; the Nazi party’s ideology found fertile ground for acceptance. Higgins wrote:

The Holocaust did not occur randomly or in a vacuum; it was the culmination of cultural developments, political events, religious prejudice, fascist ideology, propaganda and millennia of anti-Jewish discrimination and marginalization. Coupled with modern “race science” the Jews were marked as “other.” This dehumanization led to the genocide of the Jews and from here moved on to affect other marginalized groups.

There are lessons for today, especially in monitoring racism and xenophobia. The rehabilitation of Baltic, Ukrainian and Eastern European ultranationalist Nazi collaborators is not only a deliberate falsification of history, but also helps to revive racist doctrines in contemporary politics.

Since the dissolution of the USSR, there has been a resurgence of fanatical ultranationalism in the former Soviet republics. Numerous fratricidal ethnic conflicts, such as the continuing dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the contested status of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, have their origins in the breakup of the Soviet Union. Ultrarightist nationalism on both sides has resulted in the duration of that conflict, with pogroms and atrocities committed by both sides.

Georgian dissident and first postcommunist president of that country, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was a fanatical racist who made numerous blood-curdling statements against the ethnic minorities in Georgia. Promising to cut up and burn out the non-Georgian nationalities, such as the Abkhazians and South Ossetians, the latter minorities broke away from Georgian control in the 1990s, effectively seceding.

Their cases have parallels in with the secessionist Kosovar Albanians, and the Russian speaking minority in the Donbas in Eastern Ukraine. While we cannot adequately address all the post-Soviet territorial changes in one article, we can make a number of observations here. The growth and eruption of fratricidal ethnic conflict in the former Soviet republics contains warning lessons in relation to a repeat of pogroms and ethnic cleansing.

I am not suggesting that another Holocaust-magnitude atrocity is on the horizon. However, we do need to exert greater efforts to educate ourselves, unlearning any kind of racial or ethnic hatred drilled into us by rightist authorities. Let’s take steps to construct a better future.