24 January 2023
By Julian Eyres
In a two-part article, Julian Eyres tells the tale how outsiders from Wiking Rowing Club in Berlin thwarted the Nazi selection system to represent their country in the eights at the 1936 Olympic Games.
Daniel James Brown’s book The Boys in the Boat: An Epic Quest to the Heart of Hitler’s Berlin (British title; American title: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics) tells the story of the USA eight that won gold at the 1936 Olympic rowing regatta. A journey no less epic was that of the German boys from Berlin’s Wiking Rowing Club, who finished third, and whose mere qualification for the Games was a remarkable achievement in itself.
This is the story of how eight physically average rowing outsiders, along with their cox and remarkable coach, achieved the unthinkable. They were the only pure club crew to reach the 1936 Olympics in the German rowing team and their inclusion, observed the German rower Dr. Herbert Buhtz, was “a blow for the Nazi selection system.”
A sporting dictatorship had been ushered in almost immediately after Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party seized power in 1933. Without consulting other sporting organisations across the country, the Federations for Rowing, Football and Gymnastics dissolved the German Reich Commission for Physical Exercise as the umbrella organisation of sport, and its functions were surrendered to the Nazi leader for sport, Hans von Tschammer und Osten. As Nazi ideology gradually permeated sport the environment for those involved at all levels was transformed.
By 1935 there were consistent reports of the Nazi authorities exerting their influence. The Times, in July that year, reported the following incident:
“The Blau-Weiss Lawn Tennis club, of Dresden, has been deprived of a victory it won last Sunday on account of the unsatisfactory nature of a political conversation between the players and a local Nazi official after the match. The local Nazi authority who has taken this step justifies it by saying ‘only those can be victors in the Third Reich who have mastered the National Socialist ideological wealth, and show that they can hold their ground, not only in sporting contests, but in national life’.”
Sir Walter Citrine, a British and International Trade Unionist, wrote in his contemporary pamphlet, Under the Heel of Hitler, The Dictatorship Over Sport in Nazi Germany:
“A correspondent of The Daily Telegraph on January 4, 1936, reported that clubs connected with any form of athletics or games must arrange, in future, for political training of its members, and none would be allowed to take part in competitions or even belong to a club without passing an examination on his political views.”
In 1935 Dr. Herbert Buhtz, one of Germany’s elite rowers, took measures to avoid Nazi coercion in sport and work by announcing his wish to retire from rowing competitions and by giving up his hospital job. He successfully opened a private dental practice but was forced by the Nazis to return and compete in a single at the German Rowing Federation’s (Deutscher Ruderverband; DRV) national trials for the Olympics.
For the Wiking Club rowers, “none of whom”, states the current club chairman, Matthias Hermann, “were ever Nazi party members”, it was clear that they would have to tread a very fine line to participate in their sport. It seems likely that their approach would have involved paying lip service to the regime where necessary and keeping out of trouble. Their response to the authorities that wanted their allegiance would be their success on the water.
The Wiking Club was founded in 1896 and was one of many across Berlin. The club had achieved national and international successes in the smaller boat categories but in the eights their crews had never graced any podium step at home or abroad. It is highly unlikely that the Wiking eight could have challenged the might of the Nazi backed training system without their amateur coach, Karl-Heinz Schulz, who led and inspired them. Born on 18 September 1911, he was a keen rower and a student of economics, philosophy and journalism in Berlin when, at the age of 19, he met coach Steve Fairbairn in England. Schulz immediately became a dedicated disciple of Fairbairnism and an enthusiastic advocate of Fairbairn’s method of rowing. KHS, as he liked to be known, soon gave up rowing himself to concentrate on coaching the Wiking juniors and by 1935 was also listed as coach for the Wiking senior coxless pair of Herbert Braun and Hans Georg Möller.
Debate as to whether the Orthodox style or Fairbairn’s method of rowing was best had divided the German rowing community. A major criticism by opponents of Fairbairnism, which was seen as more natural, was the curved back. An indignant rowing coach wrote to the DRV’s monthly journal, Wassersport, in 1935, “serious mistakes in posture are nothing but mistakes. This false idea, however, can be remedied.”
Nonetheless, KHS remained convinced that Fairbairnism was superior, and in 1933, in a daring and enlightened move by the Wiking Rowing Club, the young coach and his juniors set off on a three year “Unorthodox” odyssey.
Hans Hanneman, who rowed at 7 in the Wiking Olympic eight, said of their coach:
“KHS’s psychological talent was the decisive factor on the way to the 1936 Olympic Games. He taught us that rowing alone is not enough, that the ninth engine in the boat is enthusiasm, fighting spirit, dynamism, flexibility, trust, the emotional connection between the coach, the team and the rowers themselves.”
Fritz Brumme, a contemporary and fellow rowing coach, greatly admired KHS and said of his friend, “that guy could do anything.”
Doctor Oskar Ruperti, President from 1919 to 1926 of the DRV and later its Honorary President, says in his book Rowing for Germany, “Schulz introduced them to the study of Fairbairn’s theories: bowing to no tradition, to no authority.” The crew raced with “the pugnacious recklessness of youth.”
Alfred ‘Ari’ Rieck, who rowed at bow for Wiking at the Olympics, recalled later of KHS, “He taught us that only a really well practised team can be strong.”
Both Hannemann and Rieck recalled the answer KHS gave to a bemused journalist who asked where his unexpectedly successful crew had suddenly come from:
“How did we get our crew? In 1933 we were in our gig-eight on the Langer See in Grünau, close to the Sportdenkmal Monument. The first successes of our new rowing style were behind us. Then the thought popped into my head: we’re going to train for the Olympic Games in 1936! That’s what we did, nothing more.”
The plan was simple but outrageously ambitious: gather a squad, train and row for two years as juniors then, in their first senior year in 1936, win the German National Championship Eights and with it the right to represent Germany at the Olympic Games. Armed with the Fairbairn maxim ‘miles make champions’ and enough juniors in his squad to field two eights, KHS had three years to prepare them.
Ari Rieck says that they were laughed at for their “peculiar style” but, according to Hans Hannemann, “KHS did not allow himself to be put off, especially in the first year.”
If KHS thought their competition would just come from the many rowing clubs across Germany, he was wrong. In 1934 the DRV announced that they would be creating a national team comprised of the country’s best club rowers and coaches. The selected rowers for this DRV national squad would be given the best possible preparation for the two major sporting events: The European Rowing Championships in 1935 and the Olympic Games in 1936.
A state selected and funded National Olympic team was not a new idea in Germany. It had first been proposed and adopted by the Germans after the Olympic Games in 1912. The outbreak of the First World War postponed the plan, but in 1933 it was resurrected by the Nazis. Pierre Arnaud and Jim Riordan in their book, Sport and International Politics – The Impact of Fascism and Communism on Sport (1998; 2003), state that, “whoever was preselected for the German Olympic team, in some cases as early as 1934, received favourable working conditions in the various services of the public sector, thus providing the basis for as much free time for training as necessary.” The Wiking boys could only dream of such a luxury. Some were students and the rest were in full-time employment.
Despite the formation of a National Rowing Squad, the door was still left open for an outsider. Retaining the process whereby the winners of the German National Championship would represent the country may have been an oversight on the part of the DRV, but then again, who, they thought, would ever beat a team of ‘all stars’.
By the end of 1934 KHS’s 1st junior eight of Grassnik, Voigt, Ziegler, Boenig, Kuschke, Rieck, Hannemann and Radach, coxed by either Mayer or Winkler, was undefeated, with eight junior regatta victories to their credit and five wins when entered as junior fours. After these victories, “Nothing”, Ari Rieck said, “could shake the faith in our rowing style or the faith and trust we had in KHS.” He goes on to say that they were “never arrogant. Every success was just a confirmation that we were on the right track and this spurred us on even more.”
There was, however, one major hurdle the Wiking juniors had to overcome before the next regatta season; the transition from fixed to rolling seats. Rieck recalled those days, “Heavens, when I think of our first ‘walking attempts’! We felt as if we had started all over again. And then everything was back again as suddenly as we thought it was lost and yes, much more besides!”
Daily 20km sessions on the water in fours and eights, with two-minute sprints and races between the crews were followed by balance training. There were sessions in the water tank, football on Sundays and even cross country skiing. KHS, Hans Hannemann recalled, “did not think much of heavy weights training. The rower becomes immobile.” Instead, KHS, loved rope skipping, training with 2kg dumbbells to build up the wrists, and forest running over long distances”. According to Rieck, on one occasion KHS turned them into mini marathon runners. He told the squad that they were going to run, “from our boathouse in Niederschöneweide in the direction of Spindlersfeld, then on to Köpenick and the regatta site in Grünau!” The distance, there and back, was approximately 18kms (11miles) and, to avoid the possibility of his boys giving him any grief over the exercise, KHS led the way, storming off at top speed.
‘’Almost every day in the evening, despite the darkness, the Wiking eights took to the water! An outsider might shake their head in incomprehension. For us, however,” explained Rieck, “it brought us advantageous seconds and no other junior eight could catch us.”
New recruits Schmidt, Knorr, Schwing, Meyer and Loeckle joined that winter, while Grassnik and Voigt retired from rowing for professional reasons.
In early 1935, the DRV announced the formation of Cells, which would be comprised of rowers selected from five cities in Germany, and from these the Olympic crews would be chosen. Initially, six DRV Cells were formed, two in Berlin, and one each in Leipzig, Würzburg, Giessen and Königsburg. Mainz and Lübeck were added later. Also, that spring students from Berlin University were given the opportunity to be assessed as to their suitability for inclusion in the national squad.
The Berlin Cell boats, DRV Berlin 1 and 2, were given the use of the Dresdner Bank Boat Club in Grünau. They also had access to the Zandersaal Medical-Mechanical Institute on Potsdamer Strasse, Berlin, which was equivalent to an exclusive, modern fitness centre.
(The following five images show the Sports and Recreation Centre, where Dresdner Bank Boat Club was located, in Grünau. The DRV Berlin crews used the club as their training centre in 1936.)
While the DRV was setting up its National Squad, KHS and his boys were getting their 1935 season off to a flying start. Wiking 1, with Rieck, Boenig, Ziegler, Schmidt, Kuschke, Loeckle, Hannemann, Radach and Mahlow (cox), won the Across Berlin 8.5km time trial by one second.
Wassersport reported: “The three fastest teams Wiking, Berliner RC and Berliner RK Hellas, whose times differed by a total of only three seconds, showed quite remarkable contrast in the way they rowed. If it is true that the Wiking team only used blades 14cm wide, it is quite conceivable that they owed their victory, albeit a narrow one, to this circumstance.” This slightly derogatory report was written by Robert Rauscher, the editor of Wassersport, who was permanently at loggerheads with KHS. What Rauscher failed to mention was the fact that the Wiking 1 junior crew, competing in a racing eight for the first time, had won outright, beating the times of all the other junior and all senior crews. Rowing up a class, Wiking 2 had also done well, finishing two minutes behind their teammates to claim fourth position overall and third place in the senior category.
The Wiking juniors also achieved another substantial result by finishing third in the senior coxed fours, fifty seconds behind the winners. KHS’s juniors were certainly punching well above their weight.
They continued to do so at the Berlin Spring Regatta at Grünau. KHS entered Wiking 1 as juniors and, to get the measure of the new DRV cells, he entered the Wiking 2 eight in the senior category, but they failed to reach the final. The senior eights victory went to DRV Berlin’s boat 1 with the time 6:23.2 and Berlin’s boat 2 came in second with 6:29.2. The Wiking 1 crew were victorious both in the junior coxed fours and eights. Their eight completed the course in 6:28.8, faster than DRV Berlin’s second boat but slower than their first by 5.6 seconds.
Then, in a May edition of Wassersport, the engineer and former racing rower Joseph Fremersdorf revealed the results of his extensive scientific study of rowing styles. In his article he reported that he could categorically confirm that the Fairbairn method of rowing used the body’s strength to a much greater degree for the stroke than the Orthodox style. This must have been a massive boost to the morale of KHS and his boys. Science said they were right. Now they just needed to keep proving it.
At the Frankfurt an der Oder Regatta in early June, Wiking 1 repeated their success at Grünau by again winning the junior eights and fours. In the second senior categories, Wiking 2 finished second in the finals of both the eight and the fours.
One week later at the Great Grünau Regatta, KHS and the Wiking boys had the chance to watch and study their state sponsored rivals from the shore because the DRV had created an invitation only race. Six DRV eights raced against three German clubs: Mannheimer RV Amicitia, Mainzer RV and Berliner RC, plus København Rowing Club from Copenhagen. The three German clubs selected had proven track records of producing winning crews at national and international level and were therefore a good way to measure the progress of the DRV Cell eights. In rough weather conditions DRV Berlin 1 came first with DRV Leipzig second and, surprisingly, Mannheimer RV Amicitia third. Seeing a club crew successfully challenge the strength of the DRV Cells must surely have boosted the confidence of KHS and his crews.
Wiking’s own results were equally impressive that weekend. Wiking 1 secured another victory in the junior eights, Wiking 2 won the senior eights by 1/10th of a second, and there were also two victories in the fours.
These successes did not go unnoticed by the DRV who, after the Great Grünau Regatta, promptly banned them from competing again in the junior eights. Rieck said that “it was not the victories that were our undoing but rather the superiority with which they were achieved.” Rather surprisingly, the fours were allowed to continue competing as juniors in both the coxed and coxless categories.
If those who had endorsed the ban felt that this would somehow curb or even curtail the success KHS and his crews had enjoyed so far, they were soon to be disabused.
On Sunday 23 June, Wiking 1 and 2 were successful at two different regattas. In Potsdam Wiking 2 won the second senior eight while on Lake Hengstey Wiking 1 triumphed in the junior coxed fours and the senior eight. The satisfaction of winning the latter was enhanced by the prize – a trip to Copenhagen International Rowing Regatta later in the year. In retrospect this victory may have been seen as a double edged sword. On one hand it enabled KHS and his boys to experience international competition for the first time, on the other they unwittingly became temporary ambassadors in tracksuits for Nazi Sport in the run up to the European Championships and the Olympic Games.
A week later, at the combined Hannoverian and German Universities Regatta, Wiking 1 continued its winning streak. Wassersport reported that they chalked up “a superior victory” in the first of two eight events and won the second in “wonderful style.” They also added another win to their tally in the junior coxed fours.
Also competing that day, and undoubtedly noticed by KHS, were two students, Franz Westhoff from RV Munster and Gerd Völs from Angaria-Hannover. They placed first and second in the singles race that day and then paired up to win silver in a double at the 1935 International University Games in Budapest a fortnight later. Here was a pair of “quick oars”, the kind that, as Rieck would later write, was lacking in their squad. Ultimately Westhoff went on to row for the DRV in Berlin, but KHS would manage to recruit Völs to Wiking, thus helping to piece together his ideal crew.
A mighty battle with the DRV squads at the next regatta on the river Alster in Hamburg was an enticing prospect but, according to Ari Rieck, it was “a washout”. Saturday started well with Wiking 2 winning the second senior four and the second senior eight events. Their victory in the eight promoted them into the first eight event with Wiking 1 the next day. However, during a practice run Rieck, in Wiking 1, caught a crab and damaged his oar. He showed it to KHS who then proceeded to make the break even worse while trying to fix it. Remarkably, they had come without a spare and were forced to borrow one. The replacement, Rieck explained, was even worse and “must have come from a diving family as it kept pulling me down! I just made sure that I got the oar through the water reasonably well. A sensible stroke was out of the question.”
Ari recalled that the race “went well for 200m, we were in the lead with Mannheimer RV Amicitia, then it happened, a capital Alster crab! I was lying flat out in the boat, desperately trying pull ups on the oar above me. After the race KHS said to me, ‘If only we had tied it with a bit of string!’”
A composite of DRV Berlin 1 and 2 won by two lengths, Berliner RC was second and DRV Lübeck third. In joint fourth, 1/10th of a second behind, were Wiking 1 and Mannheimer RV Amiticia while Wiking 2 finished last. “Even though we were annoyed,” Rieck reflected, “we did not take it as a tragedy. Our time was yet to come.”
Their intense rivalry with the DRV eights was temporarily paused as the crew from Wiking 1 travelled to Denmark for the Copenhagen regatta and their first taste of international competition. A poor start cost Wiking 1 the race. It was not a case of nerves but simply misunderstanding the signal to start. Reick later explained that they only noticed from the noise of the other two eights that the race had started. Despite this they rowed for all they were worth and finished second, beating Hungary but not the Danes.
Dismayed but not downhearted, their spirts were revived with the news from Germany that Wiking 2 had beaten DRV Lübeck at the Schwerin Regatta. Only the previous week Wiking 2 had placed last and DRV Lübeck third. Both Wiking crews, technically still juniors, were now producing exceptional performances that put them, if not at the top, then definitely in the mix for the upcoming Nationals.
Their high hopes, however, were soon dashed at the Nationals in Essen as the Wiking squad was roundly beaten in all categories; the coxless pair of Braun and Möller, the four from Wiking 2 and both eights. Of the four boats in the eights final three were DRV Cells. DRV Berlin 1 came first, DRV Berlin 2 second, then a club eight from Mainzer RV and DRV Leipzig last.
Despite their disappointing performance they remained extremely optimistic. On seeing the DRV Cell crews in their smart new blue track suits on the podium, Herbert Schmidt from Wiking 1 turned to his team mates and said, “let them wear the blue suits this year, we’ll wear the white ones (specially designed for the German Olympic team’s athletes) next year!”
Nonetheless, that day Rieck considered the Berlin Cells to be unbeatable, and what was made obvious to him, KHS and the other Wiking boys “was what we were still missing: a good start and a quick pair of oars”.
What Wiking lacked was reinforced three weeks later at the 1935 European Championships, held for the first time in Germany, on the Grünau Regatta Course. The fastest times both Wiking 1 and DRV Berlin 1 had previously achieved on that stretch of water were eclipsed by Hungary who retained their title with a course record of 6:09.2. DRV Berlin 1 finished with an improved course time of 6:14.2 but that only placed them fourth, behind France and Switzerland. It was clear to all German crews that the bar had been raised and there was plenty of strong competition from international crews who would, like them, be gearing up for the Olympics the following year.
After the poor performance of their eight at the European Championships, the DRV instructed Mainzer RV, who finished third at the Nationals, to form yet another Cell eight. Soon afterwards a frustrated member of Mainzer RV questioned the move in a Wassersport article on the basis that the club had limited resources and the DRV had offered no guidance as to which style of rowing they should adopt.
If the DRV lacked a coherent strategy that was certainly not the case for KHS and his boys. The end of 1935 into 1936 brought, “winter training without rest and quiet, because”, as Ari Rieck recalled, “we wanted to be at the Olympics! But that was only possible through the National Championship. So, there was only one thing for KHS; row, row, row, row…… tirelessly he honed and improved, tirelessly we gave our best. ‘Catch the water’, became our constant training companion. Line-ups were tried out until the right mix was found. Both eights were very good regardless of the line-up. We pushed each other in training, always struggling to make ourselves better.”
This all proved too much for some. Boenig stopped training during the holidays and Hecht had to take a long break due to illness. However, the quick rower Gerd Völs, from Angaria Hannover Rowing Club, whom KHS had noticed the previous year, was a new and welcome recruit to the squad.
The second part will be published tomorrow.
Fascinating story. Thanks.
Wow! What a brilliant story. I knew nothing of this. I have read Boys in the Boat and am very much looking forward to the George Clooney film coming out but I had no idea about the background to the Germany 8+ Many thanks. Looking forward to tomorrow’s part 2! Best wishes from Frankfurter Rudergesellschaft Germania 1869 e.V.
Excellent, I particularly like the beginning of the first part and the choice of fotos and illustrations. I wonder if the upcoming film will be able to reflect any of this at all.
Of course, I’m only guessing, but I don’t think that we will see much of the German eight in the upcoming film. Probably only as a boat in one of the lanes in the Olympic eights final.