Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
In 1936 Hitler held the Summer Olympics in Berlin, having won the bid for the event over Barcelona. He spared no expense to impress the world with the prowess and superiority of Nazi Germany. He built six gymnasiums, numerous arenas and an enormous track and field stadium (state of the art for its time) with a capacity of 100,000 seats. He commissioned his favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, to create a documentary about the event, called Olympia, which highlighted the talent of the German athletes. The groundbreaking film employed many new techniques that would become the staple of documentaries on athletic events: including extreme close-ups, smash cuts (abrupt changes of scenes without transition), and unusual camera angles that captured the viewers’ attention. Olympia received high praise, internationally.
Daniel James Brown’s new bestselling book, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (New York: Penguin Books, 2014) captures this historic event from an American perspective. The book focuses in particular on the point of view of Joe Rantz, a poor boy from Seattle abandoned by his father and stepmother at a young age and left to fend for himself.
Brown’s prose, reminiscent of another bestseller about this era—Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken—captures with simplicity, eloquence and pathos Joe’s tribulations with his dysfunctional family; his long-lasting love with Joyce, his loyal teenage sweetheart, and the arduous practice with his teammates in preparation for the Olympics.
Offering an engaging perspective on the sport of rowing and a slice of life into the Great Depression in the U.S., The Boys in the Boat also captures especially well the moment in European history when the Nazi regime consolidated power and gained international recognition.
By 1936, Hitler had already instituted the Nuremberg Race Laws in Germany. In 1935, at the annual Nazi party rally held in Nuremberg, he had announced laws that defined the racial concept of a “Jew” and a half-Jew”, excluded German Jews from citizenship, prohibited them from marrying or having sexual relations with Aryans, and imposed numerous economic sanctions and restrictions on German Jews.
The implications of the Nuremberg laws extended to the 1936 Olympics. Hitler desired to ban Jews and black people from the Olympic games. The official Nazi newspaper, the Volkischer Beobachter, explicitly declared that these groups should not be allowed to participate in the Olympic Games in Berlin. Once several nations objected to this racism and threatened to boycott the Olympics, however, Hitler relented. He abandoned the racial prohibitions at the event and even allowed a half-Jewish German woman—Helene Mayer—to participate on the German team. He also ordered the temporary removal of discriminatory signs such as “Jews not wanted” from the streets of Berlin.
The Boys in the Boat delves into Nazi history and propaganda, even capturing the mutual attraction–as well as the tension and competition for Hitler’s favor–between filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Notorious for his voracious sexual appetite and affairs with young movie stars, Goebbels tries to seduce Riefenstahl following their flirtatious interactions. In several dramatically described episodes in the book, Riefenstahl rejects his advances and even complains to Hitler about his interference into her filming of the Olympics. Nonetheless, the author makes it clear that the talented filmmaker and the lecherous Minister of Propaganda share a common goal. Like Hitler, they want to see the triumph of the German athletes.
To the readers’ delight, their desires are frustrated by the unexpected victory of the underdogs. The American team wins despite all odds: despite the fact that two of their rowers fell ill before the race; despite the fact the home crowds cheered for Germany, and despite the fact they were given the worst lane. Italy gets second place and Germany comes in third. In some ways, the American athletic victory is conveyed not only as the personal triumphs of Joe Rantz and his teammates, but also as a political victory over Nazism of sorts, as Hitler is described leaving the balcony in fury over his country’s loss. The Boys in the Boat thus transforms an American personal interest story into an unforgettable part of world history.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon