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Uncovering the Innocent Truth Behind New Zealand's Hitler Tree

The Timaru Boys' High School is home to one of the world's last living memories of Hitler, but just don't mention his name.
May 2, 2016, 12:00am

Kids aren't allowed near the Lovelock Oak, aka Hitler Tree, at Timaru Boys' High School. All photos by the author.

"We're very proud of that oak tree. It wasn't given to him by Hitler, by the way."

Well, this was a great start to my investigation into New Zealand's so-called Hitler Oak. I was talking to the secretary of the Timaru Boys' High School about how a Kiwi Olympian named Jack Lovelock had allegedly received the tree as a gift from Hitler. The secretary was polite and helpful, if a little wary, but she was eager to dispel the myth from the get-go. Almost like she knew exactly what I was up to.

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In a nation that prides itself on producing sporting heroes, Jack Lovelock was one of the very first and finest. At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Lovelock won the gold medal in the 1500m sprint, setting a then-record time of 3:47.8. It was New Zealand's sole gold in Germany, our first medal in athletics, and only its third gold ever. The race was one of the defining moments of the XI Olympiad, rivalled only by the glories of Jesse Owens.

On the podium, Lovelock was presented with an oak sapling. After the games, the oak was returned to New Zealand and planted in the grounds of his old high school, in the town of Timaru in the South Island.

Now, here's the kicker: a number of books and articles over the last 80 years allege that man presenting Lovelock with the oak was a certain Adolf Hitler.

I was sent to Timaru, to track down the oak and ask about its history, traditions, and the big toothbrush-moustache-shaped rumour.

I drove to Timaru Boys High School and spoke with Gary Ivamy, the school's director of sport. Gary was typical of Cantabrian blokes (and PE teachers, come to think of it): gruff, but in the friendliest way. All too happy to help, but to the uninitiated you'd think he was pissed off with you. He admitted he'd just recently found out about the Hitler rumour, and was only told that morning that I was coming.

Gary revealed that it wasn't Hitler after all that gave Lovelock the oak, but Dr Theodor Lewald, the chairman of the Reich's Olympic Committee (and who was, ironically, of Jewish descent).

Lovelock's race is featured in Leni Riefenstahl's iconic film Olympia, which also includes footage of the podium presentation. The man handing him the oak is conspicuously un-Hitlerish, but he does indeed resemble Dr Lewald.

The nickname Hitler Oak has stemmed from the image that the games were Hitler's games, a show of pomp and ceremony that promoted the Nazi regime, three years before the outbreak of WWII.

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It's entirely possible that Hitler would have presented Lovelock with the oak, if he hadn't thrown a tantrum in the opening days of the Games. Hitler only wanted to congratulate German athletes, but was told by organisers he could shake hands with either all of the winners, or none. Shockingly, he chose the latter.

The Nazis, before they committed themselves to wholesale genocide, were surprisingly stanch advocates of the green movement, and it was hoped that these saplings would affirm this policy. An irony would be that Nazi oaks would later colonise countries all over the world.

Nowadays, it seems many oaks have been neglected or cut down because of their association with the Reich. The whereabouts of only one of Jesse Owens' four oaks is known, and Britain's last oak was cut down in 2007 due to fungal disease. Myths and legends surround the whereabouts of most of the other remaining oaks. New Zealand's seems to be one of a few left standing, 80 years on.

Timaru Boys' High School loves Lovelock. Here's a sculpture of him.

The tree sits atop a small rise within the school, surrounded by a block of classrooms named after Lovelock. A stone marker at its base reads "LOVELOCK OAK" along with his race time. The frames of all the rectors' portraits are made from a branch cut from the oak, and each year Timaru holds the Lovelock Classic athletics event, where the winner's given a trophy made of oak from the tree.

When asked if the current students knew of the oak's history, or if it was a popular gathering place, Gary was quick. "The kids aren't allowed around it. The grass is sacred ground," he said. "Plus, the acorns dropping on your head are a pain in the arse."

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I wish I'd had a PE teacher like Gary at my high school. It might've motivated me to be more active instead of staring down at a dadbod from age 25.

"We get a lot of visitors from overseas that have heard about it," he went on. "People want to check it out, and his medal collection, and the chalice."

A chalice?

Jack Lovelock's chalice etched with the Third Reich's Imperial Eagle and swastika.

Yes, it turns out that in addition to an oak, Lovelock was bequeathed a large crystal chalice, emblazoned with the Reichsadler and a prominent swastika. A plaque quietly mentions that it's sponsored by Coca-Cola Amatil.

"We've actually got to take it down today, it's the ANZAC service tomorrow. Obviously it offends the old boys."

Gary showed me Lovelock's vast medal collection, and the chalice, I couldn't help but think the chalice was the far more interesting piece, even more so than the oak. You can debunk all the myths of the oak's presentation, and sweep the rumours under the rug, but a big swastika on a chalice is hard to hide.

Gary Ivamy, director of sport, checks out Lovelock's medal haul

After my visit to the school, I drove around the town asking the locals about the tree. None of them knew what I was talking about. I tried the local library, where the only other query I overheard that day was someone asking if they had any Alien Ant Farm CDs on the shelves. The local museum mentioned very little of Lovelock, as they figured his best achievements didn't actually take place in Timaru. No, I didn't understand that logic either.

I couldn't find out much, other than this last sad fact. In 1949, Lovelock, by then a doctor in New York, fell onto the tracks in a Brooklyn subway station and was killed by an oncoming train. There is some controversy surrounding his death, some suggesting it was suicide, others saying is was simply a dizzy spell.

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