The Boys in the Boat

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While the majority of The Boys in the Boat is about the American crew programs of the 1930s, the rest of the book is about the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, Germany, hosted and organized by the Fascist government of Adolf Hitler. Working with his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, and the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler instituted a top-to-bottom makeover for Berlin, which manipulated thousands of foreign athletes, politicians, and diplomats into thinking that the city—and, by extension, Nazi Germany—was the height of civilization and enlightenment. The book poses two important questions about the 1936 Olympics: first, what strategies did the Nazi propaganda apparatus use to disguise Germany’s human rights abuses and make Germany appear tolerant?; second why were these strategies effective in fooling so many people?

In part, the fact that so many people left the 1936 Berlin Olympics impressed with Nazi Germany testifies to the disturbing ingenuity of Nazi propaganda. At a time when Hitler was instituting a series of brutal, repressive laws, Goebbels essentially rebuilt the city of Berlin to make it appear as open and inviting as possible. Goebbels passed ordinances to evict homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, the disabled, and dozens of other groups that Hitler had targeted, and send these groups far from Berlin. In doing so, he ensured that there would be very few people in Berlin who could testify to the full cruelty of the Nazi state. Goebbels also stocked bookstores with works that Hitler had banned previously—in all, making Berlin seem to be a city of happy, tolerant people, rather than the nightmarish police state Hitler had created. At the same time, the Ministry of Propaganda endeavored to make Germany seem strong and imposing. The director Leni Riefenstahl made films that glorified the Aryan racial ideal, around which Hitler had constructed his government. The Ministry also designed a massive Olympic stadium whose proportions symbolized Germany’s awesome power. In a way, the Nazis’ Olympic propaganda was an extension of Hitler’s foreign policy in the mid-1930s: showcasing Germany’s strength while also emphasizing its benevolence. Because of the contributions of Riefenstahl, Goebbels, and other Nazi propagandists, the 1936 Olympics successfully convinced powerful foreigners that the Nazi regime should be respected and admired.

But Nazi Olympic propaganda didn’t succeed simply because it was ingenious. The disturbing truth is that many people praised Hitler’s Fascist state after the Olympics because they weren’t interested in protecting the groups Hitler targeted, or even shared some of Hitler’s hatred for these groups. During the 1930s, anti-Semitism was rampant in Europe and the United States, and plenty of powerful people were willing to ignore Hitler’s long, unambiguous record of hatred for the Jews. Even after thousands of prominent Jewish writers and intellectuals called for the United States to boycott the 1936 Olympics, Avery Brundage—the president of the American Olympic Committee, and a notorious anti-Semite himself—insisted that America would be attending. Brundage offered a series of flippant, offensive justifications for his decision, betraying his indifference to Jewish rights and arguably his approval for Hitler’s racist policies. As Brown makes clear, Brundage was far from an outlier in the 1930s—there were far too many powerful anti-Semites in America at the time. While very few of these people would have approved of the Holocaust, many of them were willing to look the other way at Hitler’s early anti-Semitic policies. In all, Nazi Olympic propaganda succeeded in fooling the public because it was designed by masters, but also because it appealed to people’s willingness to be fooled. One could say the same about propaganda in general: it caters to people’s indifference and their tacit tolerance for injustice.

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Propaganda Quotes in The Boys in the Boat

Below you will find the important quotes in The Boys in the Boat related to the theme of Propaganda.
Chapter 1 Quotes

And Hitler, as he listened to Goebbels, and knowing full well what he had planned for Germany in the days, months, and years ahead, had slowly begun to recognize the value in presenting a more attractive face to the world than his brown-shirted storm troopers and his black-shirted security forces had displayed thus far. At the very least, an Olympic interlude would help buy him time—time to convince the world of his peaceful intentions, even as he began to rebuild Germany's military and industrial power for the titanic struggle to come.

Related Characters: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

Although the majority of the book is about Joe Rantz and his teammates at the University of Washington, the book’s other plotline concerns the Third Reich led by Adolf Hitler. Hitler rose to power around the same time that Joe Rantz enrolled at the University of Washington. Assuming (as Brown does) that Hitler had all of his future actions already planned out, he realized that he needed to trick the world into believing that he was a peaceful, benevolent leader, so that they would appease him for as long as possible. With the advice of his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler decided that he would host the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, thereby using the Olympics as a political weapon. The Nazis were masters of propaganda: they understood that they could use mass media to lie about their motives and the concrete realities of their country. During the games, Goebbels arranged for Berlin to be portrayed in the most favorable light possible, obscuring the barbarism of Hitler’s regime.

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Chapter 12 Quotes

It was Brundage himself, however, who came up with perhaps the most twisted bit of logic to advance the antiboycott cause: "The sportsmen of this country will not tolerate the use of clean American sport as a vehicle to transplant Old World hatreds to the United States." The trouble—the "Old World hatreds"—in other words, came not from the Nazis but from the Jews and their allies who dared to speak out against what was happening in Germany.

Related Characters: Avery Brundage (speaker)
Page Number: 226
Explanation and Analysis:

As the 1936 Olympic games approached, there was a widespread American movement to boycott the games. Jews, academics, Catholics, and union organizers were particularly active in the boycott; however, their efforts didn’t pay off, because the only person who was in a position to make the decision, Avery Brundage, was dead-set on sending American athletes to Germany. Brundage, it’s strongly implied, was an anti-Semite himself. His reasons for ignoring the demands to boycott would have been laughable had the situation not been so dire: he claimed that the Jews who wanted to boycott Berlin were just bringing in “Old World hatreds,” when, of course, they were reacting to Hitler’s “Old World” hatred of the Jews.

Avery Brundage may have been a particularly obtuse, stubborn figure in the American establishment, but he wasn’t unique. Far too many powerful Americans and Europeans were willing to ignore Hitler’s anti-Semitism—had some of them stepped up and opposed Hitler more adamantly, it’s entirely possible that Hitler wouldn’t have been able to maintain power in Germany, and wouldn’t have enacted the policies that resulted in the deaths of six million Jews.

Chapter 15 Quotes

They were now representatives of something much larger than themselves—a way of life, a shared set of values. Liberty was perhaps the most fundamental of those values. But the things that held them together—trust in one another, mutual respect, humility, fair play, watching out for one another—those were also part of what America meant to all of them.

Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:

As the University of Washington rowing team approached the date of its Olympic competition, the athletes began to realize the gravity of their situation. They’d competed in plenty of important races before, but they’d never thought of themselves as representatives of an entire country. In Germany, especially considering the delicate international political situation at the time, the American team members would be representatives of their country’s athletic programs, but also of their country’s values. In particular, Brown argues, the boys in the boat felt that their sense of unity and brotherhood—the very quality that made them such good rowers—was a distinctly American feeling. While the reality is that all great rowing teams, American or otherwise, feel the sense of brotherhood and unity that Brown alludes to in this passage, the Washington crew team may have felt that, as Americans, they had a particularly strong bond. Considering that they’d been through the worst of the Great Depression, and had persevered thanks to their optimism and hard work, they may well have been right.

Bobby had been brought up to believe that everyone should be treated according to his actions and his character, not according to stereotypes. It was his father himself who had taught him that. Now it came as a searing revelation that his father had not felt safe enough to live by that same simple proposition, that he had kept his heritage hidden painfully away, a secret to be ashamed of, even in America, even from his own beloved son.

Related Characters: Bobby Moch
Page Number: 280-290
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the chapter, Brown explains how Bobby Moch came to learn that his family was Jewish. Moch was looking forward to visiting his relatives in Switzerland; however, he received a letter from his father explaining that these Swiss relatives were Jewish—which made Moch Jewish, too. Moch was devastated: his family had raised him to believe that Americans were defined by their character, not their race or class. Now, however, Moch realized that his parents didn’t truly believe in what they’d taught Moch: they were ashamed of their Jewish roots, and knew that they might face discrimination for discussing their Jewishness too openly.

The passage exemplifies the atmosphere of anti-Semitism in America and Europe during the 1930s. Jews were persecuted in many different ways, even in the United States, a country that had always prided itself on its commitment to equality. Around the same time, in Nazi Germany, Hitler was orchestrating a series of policies that would isolate the Jews from the rest of the country and eventually relegate them to death camps. It’s important to remember that, although the United States fought against Hitler in World War Two, there was pervasive racism in America too, not just in Fascist Germany.

Chapter 16 Quotes

After the long battle over the boycott issue, Brundage was clearly thrilled to be here. Basking in the applause of his German hosts, he exulted: "No nation since ancient Greece has captured the true Olympic spirit as has Germany."

Related Characters: Avery Brundage
Page Number: 308
Explanation and Analysis:

Upon arriving in Berlin, the American Olympic team, by and large, was bowled over by the scale and magnificence of the Berlin Olympic facilities. Avery Brundage, the president of the American Olympic Committee, declared that Germany had reignited the spirit of the ancient Greeks—the very people who’d first created the Olympics. While Brundage was, in essence, a diplomat (i.e., it was his job to praise whichever country happened to be hosting the Olympics that year), his reaction encapsulated the façade of enlightenment and benevolence that the Nazis used to disguise their genocidal policies. The Nazis recognized early on that hosting the Olympics would trick other countries into thinking of Germany as a peaceful nation, with roots stretching all the way back to the classical era.

Avery Brundage may have been more anti-Semitic than the average visitor to Germany during the Olympics, but his praise for the Nazis better encapsulates the international reaction to the Olympics than any words of condemnation could. By and large, the international community left Berlin impressed with Hitler and his Reich—in part because of the sophistication of German propaganda and in part because they didn’t feel a need to look too closely into the Reich’s blatant anti-Semitism.

The Americans marched awkwardly on around the track and onto the infield to the strains of the "Deutschlandlied." George Pocock would later say that when they heard the strains of the German anthem they began to march deliberately out of step with the music.

Related Characters: George Yeoman Pocock
Page Number: 318
Explanation and Analysis:

During the Olympic opening ceremony, the Americans marched onto the stage as orchestral music played. However, according to some members of the Olympic team, including George Yeoman Pocock, the Americans didn’t simply “play along” with the pomp and formality of the proceedings. Indeed, according to Pocock, many members of the team deliberately marched out of step to the music, thereby signaling their defiance of the Germans.

The passage is important because it suggests that some members of the Olympic team from America had strong reservations (or at least suspicions) about the Nazis. While the truth is that most of the American Olympians who visited Berlin in 1936 were extremely impressed with the Reich, at least a few of them found subtle ways to voice their opposition.

Chapter 17 Quotes

But there was a Germany the boys could not see, a Germany that was hidden from them, either by design or by time. It wasn't just that the signs—"Für Juden verboten," 'Juden sind hier unerwünscht"—had been removed, or that the Gypsies had been rounded up and taken away, or that the vicious Stürmer newspaper had been withdrawn from the racks in the tobacco shops in Kopenick. There were larger, darker, more enveloping secrets all around them.

Page Number: 332
Explanation and Analysis:

During their time in Berlin, most of the American Olympians were extremely impressed with the city’s beauty and organization. Unbeknownst to them, however, Berlin was hiding some dark secrets: Joseph Goebbels had mandated that the city be redesigned to conceal any evidence of Nazi cruelty. Romani people and other “undesirables” were forced to leave Berlin, and many of them were eventually sent to death camps. Furthermore, journalists were subtly prevented from interviewing local Jewish families, who could have told them about the killing and torture they’d witnessed under the Third Reich. In short, the image of respectability and beauty that the American Olympic team perceived during 1936 was just a façade: the reality was that Germany was already a nightmarish police state. However, because of the ingenuity of Goebbels’ propaganda campaign, many of the visitors to the 1936 Olympics had no idea that the Nazis were even at the time planning the expulsion and murder of millions of Jews.

Epilogue Quotes

When Hitler watched Joe and the boys fight their way back from the rear of the field to sweep ahead of Italy and Germany seventy-five years ago, he saw, but did not recognize, heralds of his doom. He could not have known that one day hundreds of thousands of boys just like them, boys who shared their essential natures—decent and unassuming, not privileged or favored by anything in particular, just loyal, committed, and perseverant—would return to Germany dressed in olive drab, hunting him down.

Related Characters: Adolf Hitler
Page Number: 368
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Brown attempts to bring together the two main plots of his book: the “A plot,” in which Joe and his teammates row to glory at the Berlin Olympics, and the “B plot,” in which Adolf Hitler and his team of propagandists tried to use the Berlin Olympics to trick the world into thinking Germany was a peaceful nation. As Brown sees it, the “boys in the boat” weren’t just rowing for themselves, their college, or even their country. By succeeding at the 1936 Olympics, they dealt a symbolic blow to Adolf Hitler himself: prophesizing the terms under which, nearly a decade later, Hitler would be defeated.

Sports are often intensely political: athletes compete on behalf of their communities and their cultures. But the political stakes of the 1936 Olympics were especially large: on the eve of World War Two, the Washington team proved that Hitler’s theories of German superiority were delusional. In short, Brown depicts the “boys in the boat” as unlikely heroes: even if they didn’t realize it, they were warriors, fighting on behalf of their country against the evils of totalitarianism and racism.