Sex and Gender in Hitler's Shadow: Dora Ratjen and the 1936 Olympics

Ahead of the 1936 Olympics, Dora Ratjen was one of Nazi Germany's great medal hopes. She failed to live up to her Olympic billing, and soon found her gender and identity under devastating scrutiny.
August 11, 2016, 2:05pm
Via Wikimedia Commons

Gretel Bergmann had something to tell her parents.

"Dora is a little weird," said the 22-year-old said when asked about Germany's pre-Olympic training camp. Bergmann had been sharing a two-bed room with fellow high-jumper Dora Ratjen.

But not showers.

Bergman told her family how, while the rest of the women's team washed together after training, the quiet Ratjen, clad in swimming shorts, would sneak into a small private bathroom that was officially off limits to the athletes. What Bergmann did not know was that, away from prying eyes, Ratjen would also skim the stubble from her face with a razor.

This was eighty years ago. A German team preparing for Berlin rather than Rio. The 1936 Games have since been mythologised as black American sprinter Jesse Owens burying Nazi Aryan philosophy under a heap of precious metal. That Owens returned to the United States and declared Hitler to be "a man of dignity" does not fit so well with that simple fable. Neither does the fact that he took greater offence from the lack of a White House invite than the Fuhrer's failure to press post-race flesh.

The high jump competition for which Ratjen and Bergmann had been preparing took place on the same day Owens won his fourth and final gold medal of the Games. And, like his victories, the result obscured a more complex story.

Dora Ratjen in 1937 // Via

Bergmann, who had never wanted to represent Germany at the Games, ultimately didn't.

As a German-Jewish student in London, her victory in the 1934 British Championships had caught the attention of German officials. They presented her with the choice; either return home and join the German Olympic training programme or leave her family at the mercy of the internal furies that had been released in the country. But the Nazis really wanted Bergmann – who had hoped that she might represent Great Britain – to help them clear political barriers, rather than jump any herself.

Back in 1931, the International Olympic Committee had awarded the Games to a Weimar-era Berlin famed for debauchery and a gender-bending sex club scene. The Games were intended to be confirmation of Germany's return to the international fold after the First World War. Hitler became Chancellor two years later, the political landscape started to slide and the IOC was forced to consider whether the Games should go ahead at all.

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The American Amateur Athletic Union was separately debating whether its team would boycott regardless. Bergmann was rustled up as evidence of Germany's compromise on its ban on Jews competing in sport. Since joining up with the German team, she had matched the national record of 1.60m. She was ranked in the top five women jumpers in the world.

But she was just a part of the window dressing – a temporary spruce to the unsavoury truth.

As soon as the the American team were safely onboard the SS Manhattan and Berlin-bound, Bergmann was dropped from the Olympic team. A Nazi regime fixated on showcasing the vigour of its people could not risk the possibility that a Jew might do just that.

Berlin's Olympic Stadium in 1936 // Via

"It was all a big lie," Bergmann reflected last year. "There was a standard letter saying I had not been chosen because I was not good enough. I watched the Games and hated every minute of it."

What she saw was Ratjen, weighed down by expectations of being German champion, finish fourth in a competition won by Hungarian Ibolya Csak. It was the last time that the two former roommates saw each other. Three days after the end of the Games, Bergmann went to the American Consulate in Stuttgart to start the process of emigration.

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By 1937 she completed it, setting sail for New York with four dollars – the standard amount that the Nazis allowed Jews to take out of the country – and not returning to Germany for 62 years. Ratjen's life was also to be changed by a journey.

With Bergmann gone and still not out of her own teenage years, Ratjen had developed into the undisputed German great in the the event. She had got a tobacco-packing job with a company that cared more about her presence on the start line rather than production line. She had always had sharp, angular features but, able to train more, her thighs and hamstrings thickened with muscle and she achieved new heights.

She set a new German record (1.63m) and matched the world record (1.65m) before claiming exclusive ownership of it with leaps of 1.66m, 1.68m and, finally, 1.70m in 1938. Her fateful trip was from the European Championships in Vienna – where she set that last world record – to her hometown of Bremen.

Ratjen at the European Championships in Vienna // Via

The train stopped briefly at Magdeburg station and Ratjen, dressed in a smart grey two-piece outfit and flat shoes, took the chance to stretch her legs. As she did so a policeman approached and asked to see her identification papers. The nation was on edge as Hitler negotiated with Neville Chamberlain for the Sudetenland, and Sergeant Sommering had received a tip from a ticket inspector that there was a man in women's clothing on the train.

Instead of a British spy, he had uncovered the true identity of Dora Ratjen.

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After the briefest questioning, Ratjen confessed that she believed herself to be a man. A doctor's examination the next day revealed that a midwife's initial lack of precision, a genital abnormality and his family's collective and wilful ignorance had led to Ratjen living the first 20 years of his life as a woman.

Initial charges of defrauding the Reich were dropped as the Nazis instead went about removing all traces of Ratjen from their sporting past. Ratjen was stripped of European gold and the world record set in Vienna, he promised never to take part in competitive sport, and was renamed Heinrich and packed off to Hannover to lie low. He escaped the Second World War unscathed by Allied bombing raids and untouched by the Nazis' own lethal fascination with rare medical conditions. Then he disappeared into obscurity, taking over the bar in Bremen that his parents had filled – and then stripped – of cuttings and trophies from Dora's career.

Hitler and Göring at the Berlin Olympics // Via

With Ratjen apparently unwilling to tell his story, others stepped in.

In September 1966 Time magazine quoted Ratjen as saying that "for the sake of the honour and the glory of Germany, for three years I lived the life of a girl. It was most dull."

A month later Life, also part of hawkish Republican magazine magnate Henry Luce's stable, described Ratjen as an "out-and-out fake forced to compete by the Hitler Youth Movement to win medals for the Third Reich".

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The sudden pithiness of Ratjen's words, the inaccuracies in Time's story and the easy ammunition it gave to Cold War sniping over Soviet athletes Irina and Tamara Press' absence from competitions with stricter sex test rules, means many doubt he ever confessed to a wider scheme. If he did, it was a brief bout of honesty and openness.

Until his death in 2008, Ratjen was the target of repeated requests for interviews from German journalists, authors, film-makers and medical experts. His former room-mate Bergmann sent him a private letter asking for a explanation of what happened.

He never answered any.

In one sense, that is a great shame. Issues of sex, gender and legality will rear their head again in Rio.

Caster Semenya has faced invasive scrutiny of her gender in the past // EPA Images/Abdelhak Senna

Caster Semenya is favourite for the women's 800m after re-finding the form that deserted her after her breakthrough victory in the 2009 World Championships. During those intervening years, the South African was demeaned by opponents and underwent a battery of tests to discover if there was any truth behind the cruel nudges and winks.

The process may have be more refined than the trouser-drop of the first half of the 20th century, but the modern media spotlight was unrelenting. Her form dipped. Possibly because of the pressure she was under, possibly because of the hormone treatment that she was believed to have had to to rein in her higher-than normal testosterone readings or a combination of the two.

In 2015, though, Indian sprinter Dutee Chand successfully challenged the use of testosterone levels alone as the bar to women's competitions. Semenya, free to race without rebalancing her body chemistry, thrived once more.

Athletics is faced with the awkward reality that the more we understand about the complex interplay between the genetics, hormones and physiology that make up who we are, the more arbitrary a binary divide between the sexes seems. Ratjen – whose "girlishly smooth" torso was remarked upon in the police notes – was not given such careful consideration at the time of his arrest.

Eighty years on, though, as the sepia shots of Berlin 1936 spin once again, the twin tales that emerged from his and Bergmann's room deserve mention alongside the inevitable reviews of Jesse Owens.