Sports as a political tool in Inter-War Period Europe

Sports as a political tool in Inter-War Period Europe

During the 20th century, sporting fever was in the air. For the first time, national feelings were being boosted by some of the finest sports performances. This century also took politics to the sporting arena. Never before the world had seen such a competition in raising a few well-fed and well-built athletes that could capture hearts of millions of people. The intensity of this phenomena simply went out of control between 1919 and 1939-the Inter-War Period-when governments decided to control the sporting arena. At a time when the Great Depression had pushed most of the voters towards political extremes, states claimed more control over the lives of the citizens. Politics became more authoritative and states went on to find new ways to dominate the thinking process and imagination of their citizens. Sports soon came to be seen by strategists as perfect fields for a battle to dominate imagination of their fellow countrymen. All developed nations acted as ruthlessly as they possibly could. But fascist regimes were exceptional in their affair with sports and they developed techniques that allowed them to use achievements made in sporting arena to inspire people within their geographical boundaries and impress those beyond these boundaries. A fanatic love with sports was developed and through it, symbols of nationalist socialism were entrenched.

Benito Mussolini used public money to build sporting machines and made Italy’s football team a foreign policy tool. Bill Murray in his book, The World’s Game: A History of Soccer, asserts that Mussolini’s fascist regime was the first to use sports as an integral part of government. The Italians made sports a special source of pride and used it against their cultural and national rivals in Europe such as France, Spain and England.  In 1936, John Tunis, an American sports writer, in his article “The dictators discover sports” mentioned that an Italian triumph in football, cycling, tennis, or any other sport, particularly if over old rivals like the French, is seized upon, written up and paraded as proof of race superiority and its governing principles. Techniques that Mussolini invented were soon placed in other countries. While Mussolini was using sports to further his international political agenda others used sports to deal with internal problems.

But no one was able to exploit the full political potential of sports better than Adolf Hitler. In his book, Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote, “Give the German nation six million bodies of flawless athletic training and in less than two years, we will have an army.” One German sportsman who received exceptional international attention was Max Schmeling. In June 1936, Schmeling defeated American heavyweight champion Joe Louis in one of the century's most spectacular fights. Before standing against Schmeling, Louis had defeated almost every heavy-weight contender except him. Nazi Germans, who had accused Schmeling of demeaning the white race by accepting to fight a black, declared him a national hero. In the summer of the same year, international athletes converged to Germany for the 11th Olympic Games. Robert Michells was a member of England’s water polo team. In an interview with the BBC, he explained, “We were taken directly to the Olympics village. Obviously, it was a beautiful village built in woods. We were trying to pretend to Germans that we were not impressed. But I think all of us were impressed.”

The opening was a carefully staged spectacle to lend a glow of Olympian majesty to the Third Reich. The audience was stunned when men packed in military gears jumped into pools before the official start of competition. It was meant to show the world that a police state was parenting sports. A twenty years old man called Firtz Schilgen was selected for the final lag and he was nothing but a living symbol of Hitler’s ideal ‘Aryan’. Firtz Schilgen had all of it. Germans teams would line up in front of their leader to give him a Nazi salute and to sing Nazi propaganda jingles. By the end of the event, Hitler was able to successfully blend nationalist socialist ideals with the Olympics. But it was not enough for the state that wanted to show its real power. The power of state management became overwhelming when blazes of Olympics fire went out and utter silence set in with one hundred thousand men raising their hands to salute the Führer.

For the time being, war became a source to feed the appetite for real life adventure and love for the sports.

The writer is a business and data sciences student with an interest in history. He can be reached at