The Myth of Adolf Hitler refusing to shake the hand of Jesse Owens

The Myth of Adolf Hitler refusing to shake the hand of Jesse Owens

Once again the Olympic Games have been taking place: this time in China. Predictably the jewish and Israeli media has been making much of an obscure historical claim that is resuscitated wholesale by journalists and popular writers every few years. (1) It is also a claim that is so often repeated in history textbooks that it has come to be regarded as a cliché. (2)

The popular claim is well summarized by Garden as follows:

‘Hitler was always dismissive of non-whites, as was evident in his reaction to the American Jesse Owens winning the medals in the sprint events of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.’ (3)

The problem with this is, of course, that it simply isn’t true. Jesse Owens himself does not mention it and nor do any of the accounts from the Third Reich. (4)

To quote Weber’s summary of the reason that Hitler didn’t shake Owens’ hand immediately after he had won the gold medal in the 100 metre sprint:

‘The only other scheduled event that day was the high jump, which was running late. When all the German high-jumpers were eliminated, Hitler left the stadium in the dark as rain threatened and was not present to greet the three winners – all from the United States, and two of whom were black.

Hitler left because it was late, not because he wanted to avoid greeting anyone. Besides, at the time he left Hitler could not know whether the final winners would be black or white. Count Baillet-Latour, president of the International Olympic Commission, sent word to the German leader that, as a guest of honor at the Games, he should congratulate all or none. So when Jesse Owens won the final of the 100 meters the next day, he was not publically greeted by Hitler – nor were any other medal winners of that or any of the following events.’ (5)

Furthermore Walther Tripps, a member of the 1936 German Olympic track team, testified in a letter in March 1984 on behalf of himself and other then living former members of the German Olympic team that Owens had in fact been personally congratulated by Hitler later in the Reich Chancellery. (6)

Owens himself had nothing but praise for Hitler’s conduct towards him (7) and despite the steadfast propagation of the myth by his daughter. (8) There is a good amount of evidence to suggest that Hitler did indeed congratulate Owens and never snubbed him.

In addition to even this we have the famous German 1936 documentary film ‘Olympia’, which was intended as a spectacular demonstration of the nature and beauty of National Socialism to both domestic and international audiences. (9) This film, contrary to popular belief and assorted unsourced claims, does not conceal the several victories of black athletes including Jesse Owens. (10)

Indeed the opposite is true as Garden explains:

‘Indeed, it almost goes to the opposite extreme. A great deal of time is spent talking about Owens both during the 100 metres and the long-jump events, all of which is very complimentary and almost raises him to god-like status. Likewise, in the final of the 800 metres, much mention is made of the giant American ‘Negroes’ as favourite to win. There is no underlying criticism of their appearance or of their training methods.’ (11)

Given that ‘Olympia’ was one of Hitler’s pet projects and that he had to order Joseph Goebbels to follow through, does it sound like Hitler was angry at Jesse Owens’ victory?

No: it doesn’t.


(1); ;

(2)   Toby Thacker, 2009, ‘Joseph Goebbels: Life and Death’, 1st Edition, Palgrave MacMillan: New York, p. 183

(3)   Ian Garden, 2012, ‘The Third Reich’s Celluloid War: Propaganda in Nazi Feature Films, Documentaries and Television’, 1stEdition, The History Press: Stroud, p. 89

(4) Mark Weber, 1984, ‘Jesse Owens: Myth and Reality’, The Journal of Historical Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, p. 125

(5) Ibid, pp. 123-124

(6) Ibid, p. 125

(7) Ibid.


(9) Mary Elizabeth O’Brien, 2004, ‘Nazi Cinema as Enchantment: The Politics of Entertainment in the Third Reich’, 1st Edition, Camden House: Rochester, p. 125; Linda Schulte-Sasse, 1996, ‘Entertaining the Third Reich: Illusions of Wholeness in Nazi Cinema’, 1st Edition, Duke University Press: Durham, p. 291

(10) Garden, Op. Cit., p. 228

(11) Ibid, p. 229