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.
Propaganda Quotes in The Boys in the Boat
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.