1936 Olympic Games: Parvis e Glandibus Quercus*

Bobby Moch, USA coxswain, receives a Hitler Oak in the Olympic Stadium on 15 August 1936.

Greg Denieffe writes,

The 1936 Olympic Games, held in Berlin, Germany, were certainly controversial and memorable and they have long fascinated me. Many books have been written about how the world gathered at the heart of the German Reich and how the Games were hijacked by Adolf Hitler, albeit reluctantly at first.

The ’36 Games consisted of a total of 129 events in 19 sports. There was a dead-heat in weightlifting, resulting in 130 Gold Medals being awarded and each gold medallist was also presented with an oak sapling. They have come to be known as Hitler Oaks despite the fact that they were awarded by the German Olympic Committee and ‘were a gift of the German people’. The oak saplings of about 50cm high were each in a terracotta pot adorned with the Olympic Bell and on which was written the motto ‘Grow in the honour of victory! Summon to further achievement!’

Germany topped the overall medal table with 33 Gold, followed by USA with 24 and Hungary with ten. Great Britain finished 10th with four Gold. The rowing table was even more decisive with Germany winning five of the seven events with Great Britain and USA winning one each.

The recently published The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown (here seen with the British cover) has at its heart the 1936 rowing eights final and tells the story of the working class heroes from the University of Washington, Seattle, and their successful quest for Olympic Gold. 

The central character in Brown’s book is Joe Rantz. As he was the only member of the victorious USA crew returning directly home, he ended up bringing the oak sapling back to Seattle where it was planted on campus at the University of Washington. The tree survived for many years despite being moved to several different locations but eventually it died. In 2008, Joe’s daughter, Judith Willman, organised the planting of a replacement oak tree outside the Conibear Shellhouse, home of the Huskies crew. The 2013 UW varsity crew have certainly lived up to the original motto on the terracotta pot.

The photograph of Bobby Moch (on top) appears on page 352 of The Boys in the Boat and I am grateful to the author for the scan. This is how he describes the presentation:

As they lined up next to the German and Italian crews, Olympic officials went down the American line, hanging gold medals around the boys’ necks and placing small laurel wreaths on their heads. Then Bobby Moch, the shortest among them, stepped up onto the highest platform on the podium. One of the boys behind him wisecracked, “You just wanted to win this thing so you could be taller than us for once, didn’t you?” Someone handed Moch a sapling oak tree in a pot. Their names suddenly appeared on the enormous, forty-three-foot-wide announcement board at the eastern end of the stadium. “The Star-Spangled Banner” began to play, and the American flag slowly ascended a flagstaff behind the announcement board.

HTBS has written briefly about the Hitler Oaks before here (Jack Beresford, GBR rowing) and here (Jack Lovelock, NZ athletics).

Jack Beresford’s victory in the double sculls with Dick Southwood was his fifth Olympic medal and in his own words was his greatest and sweetest. I recently discovered an article in the Bedford School magazine, The Ouzel (March 1996), which adds greatly to my previous post and which is transcribed below.

THE HITLER OAK
A story concerning Jack Beresford and the Hitler Oak came to light when the Secretary was contacted by a Mr H. Huntington, who was an apprentice with the firm of Beresford and Hicks, Furniture Makers of Shoreditch. They produced furnitureof quality, and apparently not only are there examples of their craftsmanship in Buckingham Palace, but they also produced furniture for the Coronation of George VI. Mr Huntington well recalls Jack Beresford returning to the factory following his 1936 Gold Medal at the Berlin Olympics and showing the employees the famous oak sapling which had been presented to him by Hitler (sic). Mr Huntington enquired as to the current whereabouts of the tree. It was originally planted on the West side of the School Field near to where the cricket nets now are, but on the outbreak of war it was felt prudent to move it a less conspicuous position, and it was planted on the mound behind the Gymnasium. It remained there until the late 1970s when the construction of the new Swimming Pool necessitated the removal of the mound, and the oak was felled. A certain amount of the wood is still held in storage, and is used primarily for rowing plaques and honours.

As an unusual postscript to the story, Mr Huntington was in the army during the Second World War and found himself fighting northwards through Germany. During a particularly heavy bombardment he took hasty refuge in a ruined building, only to find that it had obviously been a printers. There, on top of the rubble was the picture of Beresford and Southwood winning the Gold Medal. Coincidence indeed… The picture, which has been given to the School by Mr Huntington and to whom we record our grateful thanks is reproduced opposite.

The photograph in question is well known: it shows Beresford and Southwood turning the boat after receiving their victory wreath following a thrilling race in which Germany lead to 1,900m but were rowed down by the wily British double.

Another photograph accompanied the above article: it is rather less well known but just perfect for this blog post. It shows Jack Beresford handing over the oak sapling to Mr Humfrey Grose-Hodge, Headmaster of Bedford School. Whilst most of the oak saplings have died or have been felled, one has to wonder what became of the terracotta pots that they were originally presented in.

Germany won the other five rowing events; single sculls, coxed and coxless pairs, coxed fours and coxless fours but I could not find any photographs of any of these crews with their oak saplings.
However, I have collected photographs of various other athletes with their ‘querce’.

Two photographs of Jesse Owens:

In the first, he salutes during the presentation of his gold medal for the long jump, after defeating Germany’s Lutz Long (silver medallist on the right) and Japan’s Naoto Tajima (bronze medallist on the left).

In the second, there are four ‘Hitler Oaks’; Jesse holds two and is surrounded by some of his USA teammates – but are the oaks all his (100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump)?

Watch him receive his oak sapling for the long jump here.

Another American, decathlon champion Glenn Morris, chose to donate his oak tree to his alma mater, Colorado State College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts (now Colorado State University). The above photograph shows Morris (pictured right) at the 1936 “Presentation of Oak” ceremony with College President Charles A. Lory (centre) and William Wagner, a fellow athlete.

Jack Lovelock the darling of New Zealand athletics and subject of Bernard Hempseed’s follow up piece on HTBS. Here he is photographed on the medal podium holding his oak sapling for the men’s 1500m which is now fully grown and still alive in the grounds of his old school, Timaru Boys’  High School. Luigi Beccali of Italy finished second and Glenn Cunningham of the USA finished third.

Indian hockey players at the medal ceremony at ‘Olympiastadion’, Berlin.

Sohn Kee-Chung became the first Korean athlete to win an Olympic medal when he won the gold medal in the Marathon. In 1910, Korea had been annexed by the Japanese Empire, and remained under the control of Japan until Japan’s defeat in Second World War. The Japanese governor in Korea did not permit Sohn and his fellow Korean athletes to compete as Koreans; they participated in the Games as a member of the Japanese delegation, with Japanese names. Sohn was registered under the name Son Kitai.

Despite Germany winning 33 Gold medals, photographs of their athletes with their oak saplings are difficult to find.

Tilly Fleischer, gold medallist for Germany in the women’s javelin, one of only 15 events for women in 1936.

One place you can see the oak saplings being presented is in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938). In a 2011 post called “Leni’s Infamous Photograph”, HTBS editor Göran R Buckhorn wrote, “It is tricky to balance what is showing a historical event and what might cause too much pain doing so“. Nevertheless, Olympia is well worth watching. Various versions are available on YouTube and there are five presentations of oak saplings for the keen-eyed viewer to spot. In Part 1, (Festival of Nations) you will find the presentations to Trebisonda Valla (Italy) women’s 80m hurdles, Jack Lovelock (photographed above), Forrest Towns (USA) men’s 110m hurdles and Sohn Kee-Chung (again photographed above). In Part 2 (Festival of Beauty) you will find the presentation to Robert Charpentier (France) men’s cycling – individual road race.

*Parvis e Glandibus Quercus = Great oaks from little acorns grow.

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