How a New Orleans industrialist challenged Hitler’s Olympics

Ernest Lee Jahncke (1877-1960)

Ernest Lee Jahncke (1877-1960)

The recent documentary, The Nazi Games: Berlin 1936, which premiered on PBS on August 2nd, describes how members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) conspired to ignore human rights abuses by the Nazi government in Germany and actively collaborate with Adolf Hitler to stage the summer Olympic games in Berlin in August 1936.  In the process, the Berlin games transformed what had been a minor athletic event into the Olympics we know today by pioneering practices like monumental building and spectacle, the torch relay, broadcasting on radio and television, and even evicting undesirable people to make the city more tidy.  Near the close of the program, the narrator briefly remarks how an American member of the IOC named Ernest Jahncke was expelled from the committee.  “He was against the Olympics happening in Berlin and he had made that very, very clear, but because the Olympics in Berlin were such a success, Jahncke’s position was absolutely unsustainable and he was voted out and they gave [Avery] Brundage that job on the IOC as a big thank you,” recounts sports historian Guy Walters.  Jahncke’s brave stand against American participation in the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and his ultimate punishment from the IOC are documented in the Ernest Lee Jahncke Sr. Papers held in the LSU Libraries Special Collections.

Ernest Lee Jahncke (1877-1960) lived almost his whole life in New Orleans. His father was a German immigrant who had made his fortune trading in shell and sand before founding the Jahncke Shipbuilding Company in New Orleans.  After earning engineering degrees at Tulane, Ernest Jahncke ran the family business with his two brothers, earning a reputation as an influential local and national leader.  He was an inveterate joiner in the Crescent City, belonging to dozens of honorary, fraternal, and professional associations, even being selected as King of Carnival in 1915.  A rare southern Republican, Jahncke served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President Herbert Hoover (1929-1933), which was the only period of his life spent outside New Orleans.

Jahncke Shipbuilding Company in New Orleans

Jahncke Shipbuilding Company in New Orleans

Ernest Jahncke was also an accomplished yachtsman, a member of several yacht clubs and winner of numerous national and Gulf Coast races. His success on the water caught the attention of the American Olympic Association (AOA), which convinced him to join in 1926.  He became one of three American members of the IOC the following year.  Unfortunately, Jahncke had no time for Olympic business and tried to resign in 1929, but the IOC would not accept his resignation.  He subsequently failed to attend any IOC meetings outside the United States, but he was present for the summer games in Los Angeles in 1932.

Certificate given to Ernest Lee Jahncke at the 1932 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles

Certificate given to Ernest Lee Jahncke at the 1932 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles

As a German American, Ernest Jahncke had no love for Nazism. He deplored the anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws of September 1935 and was disgusted at the German government’s unwillingness to allow Jews on the nation’s Olympic team, considering it a violation of the standards of fair play.  He expressed his outrage in public letters to Count Henri de Baillet-Latour, chairman of the IOC, and Dr. Theodor Lewald, president of the German Olympic Committee, in November 1935.  He urged the IOC to move the games someplace else and for the United States to boycott them if they remained in Berlin.

Ernest Lee Jahncke's open letters to Henri de Baillet-Latour and Theodor Lewalde protesting the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin

Ernest Lee Jahncke’s open letters to Henri de Baillet-Latour and Theodor Lewald protesting the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin printed in “The American Hebrew”

The movement to boycott the games suffered a crushing defeat on December 8, 1935, when the Amateur Athletic Union narrowly voted to send American athletes to Berlin, a victory for AOA president Avery Brundage, who aspired to replace Jahncke on the IOC. Four days later, a furious Baillet-Latour asked Jahncke to resign, but he now flatly refused.  On December 15, Jahncke spoke before the German-American League for Culture in New York City to denounce the Nazi regime, asserting, “All the more then, it is incumbent on us, who have a spiritual stake in the good name of Germany, to remind the world that Germany is something else than the apparition which is presented today.  The present regime does not typify the spirit of Germany, nor represent the spirit of the German people.”

Jahncke’s dispute with the IOC culminated at a pre-Olympic meeting in Berlin on July 30, 1936, when the committee voted 49-0 to expel him. He was ousted ostensibly for non-attendance at meetings, but everyone knew his intransigent opposition to Nazi control of the games was the real reason.  Brundage was immediately appointed his replacement and led the American team into Berlin’s Olympic Stadium two days later.

 

Sources:

Ernest Lee Jahncke Sr. Papers, Mss. 1713, 1805, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, La.

Lucas, John. “Ernest Lee Jahncke: The Expelling of an IOC Member.” Stadion v.17, no.1 (1991): 53-78.

Walters, Guy. Berlin Games: How the Nazis Stole the Olympic Dream. New York: William Morrow, 2006. [Middleton Library GV722 1936 .W35 2006]

Hans Rasmussen is Coordinator of Special Collections Technical Services in the LSU Libraries.

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