When The Indian Contingent Refused To Nazi Salute Hitler At The 1936 Berlin Olympics
The Indian contingent was one of only two national teams to not raise their arm as they marched past Hitler, rare defiance made sweeter by our hockey team beating Germany to win gold.
In January 2020, the International Olympic Committee(IOC) decided against the use of “gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling” in the Tokyo Olympics. Those who break protest rules will face three rounds of disciplinary action by the IOC, the given sport’s governing body, and their national Olympic association. The reason for banning any kind of political gesture was that “sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference”.
Whichever side you are on, taking out sports from politics is impossible. From national teams refusing to tour South Africa during Apartheid to National Football League (NFL) quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking the knee. One of the most iconic images in the history of sports was from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, where track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a clenched fist and bowed their heads during the playing of their national anthem with their medals around their necks as they were protesting against the racial atrocities and unfair treatment towards the African-American community during the civil rights movement in the USA.
In a similar fashion, in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, there were two acts of defiance against the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. One was Jessie Owen’s heroics as his speed silenced the Nazis and he grabbed four gold medals, debunking the myth of “Aryan Supremacy”. The American contingent also refused to do the the raised-arm Sieg Heil salute for Hitler during the march past. However, it was not just the Americans who didn’t salute. The Indian contingent also made a serious political statement by not performing the salute to Hitler at the opening ceremony on August 1, 1936.
For Hitler and his Nazi empire, hosting the Olympics was a great platform to project their mighty strength as well as their ideology of racial supremacy and anti-semitism with many Jewish athletes boycotting the event or getting sidelined. With a giant Zeppelin, the Hindenburg, circling over the stadium, Hitler and his ministers arrived at the grand opening ceremony amid great fanfare. M.N. Masood, a member of the team, left a minute-by-minute description of the opening ceremony that provides fascinating information.
“When the Führer neared the Stadium, a multitude of young boys who were watching the proceedings from outside, saw their idol approaching towards them. With one great cry, they shouted ‘Heil, Hitler!’ and broke the silence of the Maifield,” he wrote.
The Indian delegation was transported to the stadium by army trucks. Dhyanchand, the legendary hockey player, was the flag bearer and the rest of the contingent, according to Masood, were the most colourfully dressed.
“With our golden kullahs and light blue turbans, our contingent appeared as members of a marriage procession of some rich Hindu gentleman, rather than competitors in the Olympic Games,” wrote Masood. But when “the hundred thousand Germans in the Stadium stood to their feet and sang with one voice” their national songs – ‘Deutschland Uber Alles’ and ‘Horst Wessel-Lied’ – Masood spoke of how that fabricated a really “strange impression” on the Indian contingent with “not an eye” left dry.
“India rose before our imagination … somehow the spring of our national feelings was touched, and the unity and solidarity of the people in the Stadium made us look with shame and regret at our poverty, destitution and discord,” he writes.
However, the nationalist desires in no such or way was to support the cause of the Nazis.
In the book Dreams of a Billion: India and the Olympic Games written by Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta, “The Indian decision not to salute Hitler was a grand gesture of defiance, totally in sync with the tenets of the dominant stream of Indian nationalism and the Congress Party.”
“It is significant that G.D. Sondhi, one of the officials accompanying the Indian contingent, was deeply influenced by Nehruvian ideas. In the late 1940s, inspired by Nehru’s internationalist ideals and the dream of pan-Asian unity, he was to single-handedly evolve and create the framework for the Asian Games,” write the authors.
Although there is no substantial evidence that there was a link between the athelet’s stand of not saluting the Nazis and the Congress’ stand on it, “the fact remains that it was a political act, breath-taking in its audacity and in direct opposition to most other contingents at the Games, including the British”.
As Jessie Owen was shutting the Nazis off with his speed, it was Dhyanchand who showed the German team their place in the hockey final as India hammered Germany 8-1 with the magician scoring 6 goals. A group of 40,000 were present in the crowd to watch the two teams clash. In the audience were top Nazi officials like and the Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler. Reportedly, Dhyand Chand played the game bare footed and later with rubber slippers, leaving the audience awestruck with his astute performance. The game ended with Adolf Hitler leaving the stadium in frustration. Later, however, he came back to present the team their medals. The following day Dhyan Chand was surprised to receive a message from the Fuhrer, asking him to come and meet him. Hitler is then believed to have offered Dhyan Chand a high post in the German army on account of his splendid performance in the Olympic finals to which the Fuhrer was witness. Dhyan Chand, however, politely refused the offer saying that his family resided in India and that it would be difficult for him to relocate. The German dictator was understanding towards his position and ended the meeting.
As noted sports write Gulu Ezekiel writes, “While on the track Jesse Owens exploded the many myths of Aryan superiority, which the Nazi forces had carefully propounded, on the hockey field Dhyan Chand created magic.”