25 January 2023
By Julian Eyres
Julian Eyres continues his tale from yesterday how oarsmen from the Berlin rowing club, Wiking, thwarted the Nazi selection system to represent their country in the eights at the 1936 Olympic Games.
By the spring of 1936, “19 seniors were committed to strict training at Wiking” but as Rieck elaborated, “this number should not obscure the difficulty of properly staffing and strengthening the junior eight of the previous year. And, if things weren’t tough enough, the squad was plagued with boils, with the result that the club doctor became very adept at lancing them with his knife!”
It was around this time that Wiking 1 acquired the name ‘Glider’ which came from the balance exercises their coach Karl-Heinz Schulz (KHS) had them perform on the water. The crew would stand with one foot on the seat, the other holding the oars free of the water and, while balancing the boat, perform exercises. Germany was a leading exponent of glider flight at this time, so the movement of the rowers’ arms forward, sideways and upwards reminded those watching of the signals given to glider pilots just before take off.
Observations in Wassersport, reporting on Wiking’s preseason training, demonstrated the growing interest in the squad’s progression:
….“this year, the Wiking crews are showing considerably longer and yet immensely powerful strokes, making the boat fast”……..
….“What is also surprising is the ease with which the Wiking teams can effortlessly go from 18 strokes a minute to higher rates…..It obviously takes a few years of determined hard and tireless work to learn all this”……
…“One can be curious about the future meetings of the Wiking teams and those of the Berlin Cells.”
Despite these endorsements and a growing number of supporters, controversy remained over the Fairbairn method. There were still a lot of people, Rieck explained, who “would not put up with our rowing style or approach to rowing in general.”
KHS’s crews began their first full season as seniors with a declaration of intent. “The first test against club eights was the 1936 Across Berlin time trial – and how could it be otherwise?”, recalled Ari Rieck. Wiking 1: Rieck, Kuschke, Völs, Kaufmann, Braun, Loeckle, Hannemann, Schmidt, and Mahlow (cox), came first. Wiking 2: Schwing, Thomalla, Weiss, Merres, Meyer, Möller, Knorr, Radach and Winkler (cox) were second.
Potsdam was another resounding success with five Wiking victories. However, a week later at the Mainz Regatta, they came up against the full might of the DRV Cells and were taught, stated Rieck, a salutary lesson, “that it is not a good idea to use the same crews in numerous boat types.”
That weekend Wiking 1 had been entered into two separate first eights events, one on the Saturday, one on Sunday. Five of the crew were also rowing in other boats: three in the coxless four plus the coxless pair. On the Saturday the coxless four won their heat in record time but, mindful of the eights race later, they withdrew from the final, which was eventually won by DRV Würzburg. This decision turned out to be a wise one. Wiking won the eights, 1.6 seconds ahead of DRV Berlin 1, with DRV Berlin 2 following a close third. Their win was narrow, but it was significant: Wiking had, for the first time, beaten DRV Berlin 1. On Sunday Braun and Möller won a place in the coxless pair final but they too withdrew because of the second of Wiking 1’s eights events later that day. This time, however, the sacrifice was in vain. DRV Würzburg won, DRV Berlin 1 was second, Wiking 1 third and DRV Berlin 2 fourth. It seemed apparent that rowing in more than one category, even if only in the heats, could weaken Wiking 1’s challenge to the top DRV boats.
Despite their defeat on Sunday the Wiking 1 boys remained upbeat since they had won on Saturday and finished third on Sunday. They had now beaten DRV Berlin 2 twice and DRV Berlin 1 once. And the lesson learnt about doubling up was now put into practice: Braun and Möller would only compete in the coxless pair, and the four from Wiking 1 would be scrapped.
Meanwhile Wiking 2 was continuing its winning streak by taking first place in both the second senior eights and coxed fours in Frankfurt. Then a week later they added the second senior eight event in Stettin to their growing list of triumphs.
The decision not to use Braun and Möller in the eight at the Great Grünau Regatta had significant consequences. The regatta started with the almost inevitable victory in the second senior coxed four, with the winning crew supplied by Wiking 2. Braun and Möller, now freed from their duties in the eight, just missed out on victory, coming second in their final.
Forced to rethink the line-up for Wiking 1, KHS put Völs, Kaufmann, Kuschke, Rieck, Radach, Loeckle, Hannemann, Schmidt and Mahlow (cox) together competitively for the first time. This crew won the eights, defeating both DRV Berlin 1 and 2 by four and seven seconds respectively.
Sunday, and it was déjà vue for Wiking’s opponents. Wiking 2 carried off the laurels in the second senior eights event again and Wiking 1 followed suit in the first eights. Wiking 1’s win was particularly impressive. This time they had beaten not only both DRV Cells from Berlin, but those from Leipzig and the recently formed one from Mainz.
Around this time KHS heard that the DRV considered their own coxless four from Würzburgto be without equal, having won the three major regattas that season, and they were confident that their crew was the obvious choice for Olympic selection.
In typically defiant style KHS decided that he would challenge this assumption. Having beaten the DRV eights, his boys would now take on the DRV Würzburg coxless four and defeat them too, even though this meant reversing his own recently established policy preventing individuals from rowing in multiple boats. He deregistered the first eight for the next regatta in Hamburg and sent Wiking 2 and only the coxless four of Völs, Loeckle, Hannemann and Schmidt from Wiking 1.
It was business as usual for Wiking 2 as they once more won the second eight event, a victory which entitled them to compete in the first eight event the next day, where they finished a creditable fourth behind Kölner RV, DRV Berlin 1 and the winners DRV Würzburg. Despite their exertions rowing in the Wiking 2 eight, Schwing, Mosch, Knorr, Siegler, and Winkler (cox) competed in the second coxed four event and won.
Then, in the penultimate race, the Wiking coxless four trounced DRV Würzburg by 6.8 seconds. KHS had now proved he had a winning coxless four to add to his eight and, with Braun and Möller, a chance of a successful pair. A big showdown was now on the cards for the Nationals.
On the day of reckoning large crowds lined the banks of the Grünau course to see who would carry off the National titles and be Germany’s representatives at the Olympics the following month.
Wiking 2 won the senior coxed four event by five seconds. Whilst not a race for Olympic selection it got the squad off to a good start. Unfortunately, Braun and Möller just scraped into their final and their Olympic dream was then dashed when they finished second.
The next race for Olympic qualification involving Wiking was the coxless fours and it ended in drama that could have been a disaster for their eight. Six boats took to the start but DRV Würzburg and Wiking quickly pulled away from the rest of the field. As they battled up the course DRV Würzburg took a slight lead but at 1600/1700m they drifted towards the Wiking four and Gerd Völs’ blade struck their stern. His oar acted as a catapult and in flash he disappeared into the water with a somersault.
The race was immediately stopped and Völs was fished out of the water, fortunately without injury, but events could so easily have been different. The race was declared void and was rerun the next day, with DRV Würzburg winning from Wiking.
Both Wiking 1 and 2 were entered into the eight event for Olympic selection. Völs, none the worse for his dip in Langer See, was back in action again. In the final all was looking good for the DRV boats at the half way mark with Wiking 1, three seconds adrift. But then, over the next 200 metres Wiking 1 caught and overtook DRV Würzburg and moved on, stroke by stroke, to catch up with DRV Berlin 1’s stern. Then slowly, out of the corner of his eye, Ari Rieck could see seat after seat being passed in the opposing boat.
Then at the 1700m mark the sixth man in DRV Berlin 1 caught a crab that killed their race. Wiking 1 crossed the finish line first and they were ecstatic. Not only had they won the Nationals for the first time in their club’s history, but they were Germany’s Olympic representatives for the eights. The Wiking 2 boat had also battled hard and finished 6th out of the seven boats in the final.
Wassersport’s reaction to Wiking’s victory was mixed. Their rowers it stated, “were not physically very strong or heavy”, however, the article goes on to say in a bombastic tone that “what Wiking has achieved so far in the ‘Olympic world arms race’ on its own, without the advantages of a ‘Cell’ should be a reason to promote it even further.”
For the boys themselves the first hurdle had been cleared and it was time for rest and recuperation. KHS and the boys took a week long retreat next to a small lake hidden away in the forests near Stassberg Peak in Saxony-Anhalt.
On their return to Berlin, the DRV gifted them the new boat and oars that had originally been set aside for one of their own crews. The boat was state-of-the-art and built by Pirsch, the club’s neighbours in Oberschöneweide, after the design had been rigorously tested and approved by The Royal Research Institute for Hydraulic Engineering and Shipbuilding in Berlin. The institute’s work to determine the best design for an Olympic winning boat included creating scale models of this and other designs and towing them in their fluid dynamic water tanks to measure hull hydrodynamics with extreme precision and accuracy. It was far superior to anything the Wiking crew had rowed in before.
Armed with their new equipment the eight went back to training from the Wiking boathouse. Their only contact with the DRV was joint training at the Alliance Rowing Club in fours against Mannheim’s coxed four coached by Fritz Gwinner, a fellow Fairbairnian. This was, according to Rieck, both fun and helpful in spurring on their ambition and fighting spirit.
All the German crews had been briefed by the Third Reich’s Ministry of Sport on what they could or could not say to foreigners throughout the Olympic preparations and Games which, to some outsiders, may have made them appear aloof. Nevertheless, they made time to watch their competitors. Ari Reick says that they, “admired the Japanese with their extremely small boat and corresponding oars. We also learnt how they could have a stroke rate of 54. The counterpoint to this was the strong and super heavy Italians and the beefy Australians, bronzed and powerful. But the Americans and Canadians had also sent correspondingly weighty guys.”
The 1936 Olympic rowing events took place from 11 to 14 August. Fourteen nations had entered eights which were grouped into three heats scheduled to start at 5.15pm on 12 August.
The German eight was in the third and final heat of the day, facing Denmark, Yugoslavia and that year’s Henley Grand Challenge Cup winners, Zürich Rowing Club of Switzerland. The conditions recorded in the official Olympic report were, “slight overcast sky; temperature on land between 23 and 22C; feeble wind blowing sidewards in the direction of the race”.
It soon became apparent that heat three was an all out battle between Germany and Switzerland, with Yugoslavia and Denmark trailing behind. Germany passed the 1000m mark just 1.3 seconds ahead of Switzerland, but the Swiss responded with a big push. The Germans raised their rate to 40 but Zürich RC still caught up with a lower stroke rate of 36. At 1800m, and despite the thousands of German spectators cheering on their home crew, the Swiss took the narrowest of victories, winning by 1/10th of a second. The Swiss were straight into the final on 14 August along with America and Hungary, victors in the other two heats.
What became clear to Ari Rieck and everyone else was that it was going to be “a hot final”. During the heats the Hungarians, British, Italians and Swiss had all broken the previous Grünau course record. The Americans, however, had gone one better by setting a new course record of 6:00.8.
Before the final, however, Britain, Italy and Germany still had to win their respective repêchage heats if they were going to compete alongside Switzerland, America and Hungary.
The first of these heats was held on 13 August at 6.00pm with the other two to follow. The official weather report was, “overcast sky: temperature on land about 16C; scarcely perceptible, diagonal facing wind.”
KHS reckoned that “on that Thursday the first race was rowed into a strong headwind that only eased later.” Of the four crews scheduled for the heat only Germany, Australia and Czechoslovakia would take the start as Denmark had withdrawn. From the start Germany took the lead and held on to win, despite hearty attacks by the extremely strong Australian eight who finished second, with Czechoslovakia third.
“We were in the finals! We had done what no other German eight had ever achieved before. We were all very happy,” Ari Rieck recalled.
American reporter Albion Ross reported on repêchage races in The New York Times. He wrote that “the water was not fast today so there was no question of Britain equaling yesterday’s American record.”
Of Wiking, he said: “The German eight succeeded in pulling into the final this afternoon in a heat which Australia warmly contested. The Germans led by a small margin all the way, being timed in 6.44.9 to Australia’s 6.45.1.”
The sunshine, or ‘Hitler weather,’ promised by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels spectacularly failed to materialise for the rowing finals the next day. Instead, Berlin experienced more than half the normal rainfall for the month in one day. The official Olympic report read, “threatening sky; rather heavy rain during the race, temperature on land between 14/15 C; slight, diagonal facing wind.”
On the day of the finals, Ari Rieck felt that they were rowing into “a pretty strong head wind” which disadvantaged them as they were by far the lightest crew. The crew weight in descending order were Italy, 681kg; USA, 660kg; Great Britain, 653kg; Hungary, 650kg; Switzerland, 637kg; Germany 630kg. To Illustrate how difficult the race was for all competitors, George Pocock remarked that the American cox had to steer five degrees off just to keep to the middle of the course.
Germany were allocated lane one nearest the shore, Italy were next to them in lane two, then Switzerland, Hungary, Great Britain and finally, America in lane six. How the organisers decided on this lane order remains a mystery and to this day no explanation has proved entirely satisfactory. As it turned out the allocation proved irrelevant as all lanes were equally affected by the bad weather.
On that wet and windy day, the crowd had witnessed German rowers win gold after gold, except in the double sculls where the British crew with Jack Beresford and Dick Southwood had beaten the Germans Willi Kaidel and Joachim Pirsch by slightly more than a boat length. The crowd therefore looked forward to the final of the eight with great anticipation, and the race started better than they could have hoped. Having learnt to start fast the German eight was first away along with the Swiss, while the Americans were last.
“From the beginning, everything we could possibly give was put into every stroke”, Ari Rieck wrote. The German boys didn’t feel the waves breaking over them, or the rain because they were, he said, “on fire.”
Much to the relief of both the crowd and the German eight, the Swiss fell back at 500m. For half of the Swiss eight, now in their third final that day, it was all proving too much, and the Italians quickly overtook them. From 700m the Germans fought off the Italians’ attack but by 800m Italy led by a narrow margin.
When the boats passed 1000m, Italy were doggedly chasing the gold they had been denied by the Americans at the 1932 Olympics. A hard charging Germany was second, then came Hungary, Great Britain and America, with Switzerland only just behind.
“Spectators jumped onto their chairs and benches, although the boats were barely visible,” Wassersport stated, “because here comes the USA! They began their mighty sprint a little earlier than in the preliminary race. They sprinted incessantly from 1500m.”
At 1700m Italy and Germany were almost level, with America closing fast. Then the fickle hand of fate intervened and it all went wrong for the German crew.
The weather and the crowd were their undoing. KHS had decided to use electric alarms inside the boat similar to those introduced with great success by the Swiss eight at Henley Royal Regatta that year. Two alarm bells were installed on the Wiking boat at the second and sixth seats. However, when the cox, Willi Mahlow, pressed the alarm to signal their sprint for the finish only one half of the rowers responded. Due to the weather a large amount of water had entered the boat during the race and the alarm bell at two failed to go off. This disaster was further compounded by the huge crowd shouting: “Deutschland, Deutschland, Deutschland,” over and over. Despite Mahlow’s best verbal exhortation to “go”, his voice was drowned out by the thirty thousand ecstatic spectators in the stands and enclosure, cheering them on to victory. “This half stroke and the resulting uncleanliness cost us valuable ground,” recalled Ari Rieck.
The final result: America first, in 6:25.4; Italy second, 6:26.0; Germany third 6:26.4. Only one second separated the three medal winners. Great Britain was fourth, Hungary fifth and Switzerland sixth.
In an article published in Wassersport soon after the Games, KHS reviewed the performances of the Olympic rowing teams and acknowledged that, “The American eight was the ‘rowing machine’ of this regatta. It was a perfect athletic force.”
Of the German eight Wassersport reported, “The Wikings rowed the race of their lives! Karl-Heinz Schulz, their young coach understood how to get his protégés into perfect form on the day, which exceeded all expectations.”
Somewhere in the 1.4 million feet of film footage shot by the director Leni Riefenstahl for her two Nazi- funded films on the 1936 Olympic Games must have been that last section of the race, showing the German eights’ mistimed stroke. Whether this unused footage exists or has perished over time remains a mystery as does what might have been if not for that mistake.
The Wiking crew may have only won a bronze medal, whilst the other German boats won gold and silver, but the fact they did so as outsiders without state support is testament to KHS and his boys’ tenacity, determination, dedication and discipline.
On their three-year journey from 1933 to 1936, they also quietly demonstrated that the Nazi regime that aimed to control all sports could be challenged. The extent to which KHS and his boys consciously set out to fly in the face of the system is not documented but they did – not through words but simply stroke by relentless stroke on the water.
The boys in the Wiking eight rowed at the 1936 Olympic Games with a swastika on their tunics, but they were not rowing for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis but for Germany, their club, for Fairbairnism, themselves and, last but not least, each other.
Editor’s Note: At least seven members of the German crew survived the War. The dates for Wilhelm ‘Willi’ Mahlow and Helmut Radach deaths are unknown.