In the summer of 1935, thousands of young German men were working on the enormous Olympic stadium in Berlin. Nearby, other workers were building a huge limestone bell tower. Ten years later, in the twilight of the Third Reich, some of the same Germans who’d joined the Hitler Youth in the 1930s would sit in the tower, shooting at invading Russian soldiers—and would later be lined up against a wall and shot.
It’s been a few chapters since the book has discussed the state of affairs in Germany; here, Brown reminds readers of the ultimate fate of Hitler’s Third Reich—a decade after Hitler boasted of a thousand-year Reich, his country lay in ruins, and he shot himself in a bunker underneath Berlin.
To the south of Berlin, Germans were building facilities for the rowing competitions. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there had been many rowing clubs in Germany, some of which were exclusively Jewish, and some of which allowed both men and women—but under Hitler, such clubs had been banned. In 1935, workers built a grandstand from which the most powerful men in Germany could watch the Olympic rowing competition.
In the 1930s, Germany was still trying to pass itself off to the international community as a powerful yet benevolent and “civilized” nation; as a result, it took great pains to make its Olympic facilities cutting-edge. At the same time, however, German society was becoming terrifyingly repressive, especially for Jews.
Joe returned to Seattle in September of 1935; he’d earned enough money to support himself through the school year. Meanwhile, Joyce had quit her job as a judge’s maid after the judge made sexual advances. She was now working for another family, though the family was asking her to cook for them—a task she knew nothing about. Joe and Joyce also learned that Harry and Thula had taken to leaving their children at home for days without enough food. Thula had been going on long trips to audition with the great violinist Fritz Kreisler; Kreisler had called her, “the greatest female violinist I have heard.” Now, Thula was performing on Seattle radio; with her new celebrity, she was intent on “getting out of the house.”
Thula’s career was on the rise, but she continued to be a lackluster parent, abandoning her biological children for days at a time to pursue her own dreams. Furthermore, Harry went along with Thula’s bizarre behavior, rather than encouraging her to be a better parent (or spending time with his own children).
Back in school, Joe continued rowing. Al Ulbrickson had not been fired, contrary to what many had guessed, but he now had something to prove—he had to get his team to the Olympics. To do so, he needed to make better use of his ally, George Pocock. He and his wife often dined with Pocock and Pocock’s wife. One evening, Ulbrickson asked Pocock to keep an eye on Joe—Ulbrickson needed to decide whether Joe was Olympic material. Soon after, Pocock invited Joe to survey his workshop. He showed Joe his tools, and explained some of the techniques he used to build shells. Joe was fascinated; he’d always been interested in woodworking, and he respected Pocock’s sophistication. Pocock told Joe that building a boat wasn’t just a technical process; it was also a religious experience—much like rowing. Confused but impressed, Joe nodded and left the shop.
Ulbrickson had a personal stake in sending a team to the Olympics: he needed to reconfirm his status as a great coach for the University of Washington. Ulbrickson demonstrated his talents by using all the resources at his disposal—not least of which was George Pocock. Pocock sized up Joe, and Joe seems to have had enormous respect for Pocock. In particular, Joe identified with Pocock’s characterization of rowing as a quasi-religious experience, not just a science or even an art. Perhaps when he and his teammates got “in swing,” Joe experienced some of the religious intensity to which Pocock alluded.
Around the same time, the Nazi Party staged a rally in Nuremberg. Leni Riefenstahl documented the event, although she never assembled the footage into a feature film. At the rally, Hitler announced three new laws: first, that the swastika would become the official flag of Germany; second, that German Jews were to be stripped of their citizenship; third, that Germans were forbidden from marrying or associating with Jews in any way. The so-called Nuremberg Laws signaled the growing plight of the Jews in Europe: suddenly they had no legal protection from the violence and cruelty of German society or the German state. In the United States, some proposed boycotting the Olympics to protest the Nuremberg Laws.
Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws are often interpreted as the first decisive step against German Jews—previously, Hitler had tested the waters with inflammatory anti-Semitic rhetoric, but now he showed his confidence by putting abusive, totalitarian laws on the book, doing everything short of making it illegal to be Jewish. It’s important to recognize that, even if relatively few Americans took note of Hitler’s actions, there were still many Americans who did and who wanted to boycott the Olympic games.
Joe spent his first weeks back in campus studying engineering and spending as much time as he could with Joyce, whom he hadn’t seen all summer. When he had any free time, however, his top priority was rowing. He enjoyed hanging out with his friends, Roger Morris, Chuck Day, Shorty Hunt, and Johnny White. One day, Joe noticed Jim McMillin, a JV rower from the previous year, working as a janitor. Sympathetic, Joe shook hands with McMillin, and admitted that he, too, had worked as a janitor. Before long, Joe and McMillin had become good friends; Joe would even work alongside McMillin.
Joe continued to bond with his teammates, now cognizant that he wasn’t alone in his working-class roots and humble means of supporting himself. In particular, notice that Joe was no longer shy about talking about his part-time jobs, even though in the past he’d proudly guarded the secret that he had to work at night to pay for his education.
George Pocock continued to spend time with Joe; he asked Joe about his family, and learned that he and Joe had a lot in common—they came from working-class families, and their mothers had died when they were young. He began to understand the “essence of Joe Rantz.”
Pocock seems to have identified with Joe on many different levels as he began to size up Joe and understand how to use him on the crew team.
Varsity practice began on October 21; right away, last season’s rivalries flared up again. Ulbrickson made it clear that he would be mixing different boats to determine the perfect combination. He combined the freshmen champions, now sophomores, as well as the varsity and JV teams. Ulbrickson moved Joe between several boats, none of them first boat. Joe found that he missed rowing alongside his old teammates, especially Shorty Hunt—his only teammate who’d been assigned to boat one.
Ulbrickson continued to fiddle with the boating configurations, showing that he still wasn’t sure how best to triumph at the Olympics. For a while, it seemed that Joe would never get his chance to attend the Olympics, given that Ulbrickson put him in a low-ranking boat.
On October 25, Joe learned that Thula was dead of septicemia (blood poisoning). He was shocked—he’d never really liked his stepmother, but she’d been an important part of his life. Joe told Harry that he was sorry for his loss, and then they talked about Thula’s life for a long time. Suddenly Harry announced to Joe that he was going to build a house for his family—one where Joe would be welcome to live. Joe wasn’t sure what to do; he drove back to school, confused, angry, and resentful.
Joe’s life was full of instability and personal tragedy at this time—Thula, a woman who seemingly never loved him (and who, one can only assume, he never really loved) died, filling Joe with pain and guilt. The passage further implies that Joe’s personal pain prevented him from succeeding as a rower—he couldn’t focus on winning.
For much of the fall, Seattle experienced horrible, rainy weather, and the crew team rowed in cold, miserable conditions. Ulbrickson announced that the last day of training would be November 25, after which the team would have a competition to determine who’d be on the varsity team after Christmas. He insisted that the teams row no faster than twenty-six strokes per minute—he wanted to determine the rowers’ power. Leading up to the final days of training, Joe got the news that his old friend and neighbor, Charlie McDonald, had died in a car crash. On November 25, Joe’s boat came in third. In spite of Joe’s lackluster performances, George Pocock continued to watch him closely.
Joe endured more personal tragedy—Charlie McDonald wasn’t his close friend, but he was one of the few people with whom he’d enjoyed a stable, happy relationship for most of his life. As a result, it’s suggested, Joe continued to falter in the water. However, Pocock now recognized his potential and continued to keep an eye on him, seeing that Joe at his best could be a phenomenally talented rower.
On December 2, Harry acquired property near his son Fred’s house, and began building a house with his own hands. On December 8, the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States voted against boycotting the Olympics. This was a victory for Olympic hopefuls in America, but also for Adolf Hitler, “who was rapidly learning just how ready the world was to be deceived.” While there was a strong anti-Nazi movement in America, organized largely by unions, Jews, Catholics, and academics, it failed to sway Avery Brundage, the president of the American Olympic Committee. Brundage made statements suggesting that Jews were Communists, and that America couldn’t boycott the Olympics since some of its own institutions banned Jews. Most outrageously, Brundage scolded Jews for letting “Old World hatreds” stand in the way of “clean American sport.” In the end, it was decided that America would compete at the Olympics.
Avery Brundage represents the casual anti-Semitism of much of American society during the 1930s. Few Americans would have approved of Hitler’s genocidal policies, but far too many were willing to tolerate or ignore some anti-Semitism. Brundage dismissed Jewish protesters’ demands that American boycott the Olympics as “Old World hatreds”—an absurd claim, considering that the Jews were protesting Hitler’s “Old World hatred” of the Jews. In all, Brundage’s willful obliviousness suggests that Hitler gained power in part because people were willing to look the other way at his racist agenda, or they prioritized other matters, such as athletic achievement.