Leni’s Infamous Photograph

During the mid-1930s, the world’s best sculler in the single was without doubt Gustav ‘Gummi’ Schäfer of Germany, being the winner of both the European title in 1934 and the Olympic title in 1936 – see entry on 6 October, ‘The German Champion Gustav Schäfer’. As he was representing Nazi-Germany, I think that many interested in rowing and Olympic history still today look upon Schäfer in disbelief and with a critical eye.

One of Reichkanzler Adolf Hitler’s favorites was film director Leni Riefenstahl, who, in 1934, had made Triumph of the Will about the Nazi Party’s congress in Nuremberg. For the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Hitler asked her to shoot a propaganda film about the Games, which Riefenstahl did. The result, Olympia (1938), is remarkable for its technical innovations. She has to be regarded as a pioneer in the film business, and the 20th century’s most prominent female filmmaker, despite her association with the Third Reich.

In my earlier entry about Schäfer there is a short video clip from the Olympic final in the single sculls showing the German winning easily. What we do not see in this video clip is when Gustav Schäfer, after having received the laurel wreath for champions, giving the so called ‘Hitler salute’ with his right arm raised. This image, from Riefenstahl’s Olympia, has become famous, if not villainous. Does this make Schäfer evil? The thing is that many of the German champion oarsmen gave the ‘salute’ already when they crossed the finish line, as did the whole entire German contingent of athletes when they walked in at the opening ceremonies. But in Schäfer’s case, now being an infamous photograph, the picture still causes grief and pain. See the photograph here.

One example is that when the rowing exhibit Let Her Run at the National Rowing Hall of Fame at Mystic Seaport opened in March, 2008, the photograph of Schäfer was in one of the display cases. Sadly, the photograph had to be removed later due to complaints from some Museum staff and visitors.

It is tricky to balance what is showing a historical event and what might cause too much pain doing so. I do not have an answer.

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