Tuesday, Dec 06, 2022

Hitler's Games

Hitler's Games

Berlin Olympics of 1936 finally put to rest the question mark against India's hockey supremacy. Exclusive extracts from this meticulously researched book show the role of Captain Dhyan Chand and Indian Nationalism in the Third Reich...

Exclusive Extracts from Olympics: The India Story by Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta


Nowadays I hear of the princely comforts provided for national teams traveling overseas, and the fuss players raise if they happen to miss even a cup of tea! When we used to travel, the name of our country and the game were the only two things that mattered.

—Dhyan Chand on India’s title defence at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games[1]

‘Will India Lose Under My Charge?'
Dhyan Chand's Delhi Dilemma

Despite having comprehensively beaten the world in 1928 and 1932, India’s supremacy in field hockey was still in doubt on the eve of the Berlin Games in 1936. This was because all of Europe had stayed away from the 1932 hockey competition at Los Angeles on account of the Great Depression and also because European hockey had improved by quite a few notches in the interim. Accordingly, trying to defend the title at Berlin in 1936 was the biggest challenge Indian hockey had ever faced. That India was ready for it was evident when the Indian team won all 48 matches on its tour of New Zealand in 1935. [2]

But it’s the nature of sport that even the greatest of champions can have an off-day. There was a big flutter when the Indian Olympic team, picked after the inter-province trials at Calcutta in January– February 1936, lost 1–4 to a Delhi Hockey XI on 16 June at the Mori Gate ground. This was unprecedented and the shock defeat started dark murmurs. Touring international cricket sides would in later years learn to attribute their defeats in the Indian capital to the mysterious malady called ‘Delhi belly’. Dhyan Chand, the newly appointed captain of the national team, did not, of course, use the same excuse but his bewilderment and shock were there for all to see. In his autobiography, published 16 years later, he beautifully described the after-effect of this wake-up call:

My experiences thus far had been to win matches and not lose them. I remember that in 1932, after our return from the Olympic tour, we beat Delhi by 12 goals to nil. I never recognized Delhi as a big hockey playing center, but on this day they were right on top of us and completely outplayed us. The news of this defeat created adverse opinions about us, and while we were touring other centers before we finally sailed from Mumbai, this particular defeat kept worrying me. For the first time I was captaining the Olympic team; will India lose the title under my charge? [3]

Later generations would justifiably remember Dhyan Chand as a wizard who could do no wrong. But his musings after the Delhi defeat revealed the eternal truth of all sport: even the greatest of legends are only human. By now Dhyan Chand was worried about his legacy and suffered from moments of self-doubt. In the run-up to the Berlin Games, Dhyan Chand’s anxieties were particularly pertinent, for his appointment as captain was mired in controversy. Despite being the best player, Dhyan Chand’s claims for captaincy had been circumvented in 1932 on account of what was seen as his inferior social status. A lowly soldier in the Army, he had been passed up as captain earlier despite being the best player in the team and its talisman. By 1936 the sheer weight of his exploits and his towering presence on the field forced a rethink. But Dhyan Chand was only too conscious of the new responsibility and the tremendous burden on him at a time when social divides still largely governed public life. One small slip, and the knives would be out for him. As he noted, ‘I was bypassed in 1932 possibly because of my academic handicaps and so-called social position in life. I was still an ordinary soldier, holding a minor rank.’ [4] Pawalankar Baloo, the great Dalit cricketer at the turn of the 20th century, whose social origins initially denied him entry into the Hindu Gymkhana in Bombay, would have sympathized. Baloo overcame high-caste derision to become one of the Hindu Gymkhana’s greatest stars in the Bombay Pentangular but was never made captain. It wasn’t until 1923 that his brother Pawalankar Vithal broke the captaincy barrier in cricket.[5] In Dhyan Chand’s case, class barriers had been the biggest obstacle and the fact that he was finally given the captaincy placed him under enormous pressure at Berlin.

To The Führer:
An Indian In Berlin

Of all the Olympics before the world wars, none is better documented on film than the Berlin Games. This can partly be attributed to advances in film technology but a major reason lies in the propaganda value of the Games for Adolf Hitler, who had ridden on the Weimar Republic’s post-Versailles discontent and humiliation to achieve power through the Berlin putsch of 1933.[6] Berlin won the bid for the 1936 Games long before Hitler and the Nazis came to power [7] but for a leader who had just openly repudiated the Treaty of Versailles, the Olympics became an occasion to promote Nazi ideology. [8] Joseph Goebbels, the Reich minister for popular enlightenment and propaganda, played a big part in convincing Hitler of the publicity value of the Games and film-maker Leni Reifenstahl, a favourite of Hitler’s, was commissioned to film them. Her film Olympia originated many of the techniques now commonplace to the filming of sports. [9]

Berlin 1936: The closing ceremony - Indian flag holder

The video archives of the International Olympic Museum contain reams of footage of the Games that captured them in every dimension—both on and off the field. In the IOC videos, Hitler and Nazi officials feature as prominently as the athletes themselves; Wehrmacht soldiers and disciplined rows of volunteers form the backdrop to what German officials wanted to be remembered as the greatest Games ever. Hitler removed signs stating ‘Jews not wanted’ and similar slogans from main tourist attractions. Simultaneously, Berlin was ‘cleaned up’, the ministry of interior authorizing the chief of Berlin Police to arrest all gypsies and keep them in a special camp.[10] All in all, the German government was believed to have spent the then astronomical sum of about $30 million on an event that was meant to showcase the master Aryan race, as Hitler believed the Germans to be, as also to package the progressive and united face of Germany for a global audience.[11]

It was to these Games that Dhyan Chand’s hockey players and the rest of the Indian athletes, still a part of the British empire, now headed. Interestingly, when the Indians, twice Olympic champions, set sail from Bombay on what was perhaps the mission of their lives, there was scarcely anybody around to see the team off. As recounted by one of the team members:

Only the Bombay Customs players, Aslam, Feroze Khan, Jagat Singh and Brewin were with us, so were Behram Doctor and S.K. Mukherjee. The pier was crowded but none took notice of us world champions! Those of us who had been on tour before found this a new experience and not a pleasant one.[12]

The first part of the journey was rough due to turbulent seas and all the players, except C. Tapsell, E.J.C. Cullen and Assistant Manager Pankaj Gupta, were seasick. While most of them recovered in a few days, Joe Phillips and Babu Nimal from Bombay repeatedly requested the team management to send them back. By now the team was worried about this lack of practice. The Statesman correspondent accompanying the hockey players noted that they were used to practising on the deck but the rough seas precluded that possibility until the fifth day of the voyage when they played hockey for an hour. [13]

In fact, only when the boat docked at Aden were the Indians able to practice full throttle. In Aden, the Indians had four hours on shore and kept themselves busy. The seriousness with which the hockey players were approaching their title defence was apparent from the fact that even on this small break in their voyage all they wanted to do was play. Soon after arrival the visitors went looking for a hockey ground and found the regimental training field of the 5/14 Punjab Regiment, which was then stationed at Aden. Members of the regiment, who had no prior knowledge of the arrival of the Indian Olympic team, were puzzled but elated at suddenly seeing their countrymen. This episode was documented by one of the players in his diary:

We left the boat with hockey sticks in hope that some hockey field or a plot of ground might be available where we could stretch our limbs. We asked the bus driver to take us to a hockey ground and he took us to a sandy plot of land, level but full of pieces of bricks, which we afterwards found to be the regimental ground. [14]

Once the nets were put up, the Indians asked the officer present if the ground could be used for practice. An unnamed Indian player later recounted to a newspaper reporter that at first, ‘He hesitated but as soon as he discovered we were the All-India team and that Dhyan Chand was with us…he allowed us to play.’[15] The name of Dhyan Chand worked like a charm and once the regiment learnt of the team’s arrival the bugle was sounded; in five minutes the entire battalion came out of its barracks to watch the players. It was a surprise gift for them and many of the subedars and privates who knew Dhyan Chand were pleased to see him in Aden. They felt embarrassed because the Indians had come without prior notice and hastily tried to put together a civic reception for the world champions.

During their brief stay at Aden, the Indian hockey players also found time to watch a game of football and were amazed at the high standard and popularity of the sport. As an Indian player recalled: ‘A football match was being played on an adjoining ground and there were large crowds watching the game. I was surprised to see football popular in a desert and was more surprised to see the Arabs and Somalis play barefeet…The scouts from Calcutta instead of going to Quetta, Rangoon and Banglore would be well advised to come to Aden. I found four players good enough for any Calcutta team. Their dribbling and ball control were revelations to me.’ [16]

Getting Göring and Goebbels’ Autograph:
In the Heart of the Third Reich

For the Indian team, surviving as it was on a budget, the journey to Berlin was not the most comfortable. Having docked in Marseilles late on the night of 10 July, the Indians were to catch a connecting train to Paris en route to Berlin, but they missed the connection. As Dhyan Chand explained: ‘Dock workers there were on strike, and the passengers were put to great difficulty in getting their baggage through. It took us time to unload our luggage ourselves and get it through the Customs and other formalities, and the result was that we missed our train to Paris. We were lodged in an ordinary hotel in Marseilles for the night’. [17] It was only on the morning of 11 July that the Indians boarded a train for Paris. In Paris, as in Aden, not many were aware of their arrival and the players spent a quiet day, undisturbed by the city’s sports media. For some of them ‘this was fame with a vengeance’.[18] In sharp contrast to the luxuries afforded to many modern sportsmen, this team of Olympic champions arranged its own travel at the lowest cost. Dhyan Chand’s recollection of this journey was written in words that leap out of the mists of the past to stab at the heart. As he put it in his usual nonchalant way: ‘We took a night train to Berlin. It was a job even to secure the third class seats provided to us. The night was cold and there was no sleeping accommodation. Cheerfully we forgot all these comforts. We were on a mission for our country’.[19]

The Indians finally landed in Berlin on 13 July and were accorded a splendid welcome at Berlin station. They may not have received a send-off worthy of the Olympic champions in Bombay but in a Berlin striving hard to put its best step forward, they were received as heroes. Dr Diem, chairman of the organizing committee of the Berlin Olympiad, welcomed the Indians, his speech being relayed through a microphone to a large waiting crowd. In a reminder of the fact that they were playing on behalf of the British Indian empire, ‘God Save the King’ was played, and a band escorted the Indians to a bus, which drove through the streets of Berlin to the city hall, where the Mayor of Berlin welcomed the Indians according to established Olympic tradition. Each member of the team was presented with an album containing pictures of Berlin, and Dhyan Chand received a medal: [20] his celebrity status had preceded him.

By all accounts, the Third Reich pulled out all stops in welcoming the Indians. Here, in the heart of Britain’s greatest adversary, they were not just colonial subjects but honoured guests. After the welcome ceremony, the Indians were motored to the Olympic village 20 miles from the city. At the entrance to the village, the commandant in charge of security received the team. ‘God Save the King’ was played once again and the Union Jack with the star of India was hoisted next to the village gate. Eleven nations had already arrived and later the band members escorted the Indians to their cottage at the further end of the village. Unlike in 1932, when the team was quartered four men to a cottage, at Berlin the team stayed in one barrack containing 11 rooms and a common room. [21] This was five-star treatment by any standards. Dhyan Chand wrote: The cottage had 20 beds, a telephone and a refrigerator. Everything was kept spick and span, and every minute detail of our comforts had been attended to. Two stewards were there to look after us. One was Otto, an old-seasoned sailor who had visited India several times and spoke English well. The other was named Schmidt, and he spoke English haltingly. [22] In a reflection of the importance accorded to the Olympiad by the top brass of the Third Reich, the Games Village was often visited by top dignitaries. Hermann Göring, whose Air Force just four years later was to launch the London Blitz, and Joseph Goebbels, who had designed much of the propaganda around the Games, took personal interest. A bemused Dhyan Chand noted, ‘One day while we were in the dining hall, who should walk in but the burly Hermann Goering, clad in his military attire! We were after him in a trice to get his autograph. Later some of us obtained Dr. Goebbel’s autograph.’ [23] The Indians, it is evident from contemporary reports, were impressed with the arrangements and there was no grouse except on the question of distance.

But there was a hockey title to be defended. The day after they arrived in Berlin, the Indians went out to check the venue for the hockey competition. An unnamed player noticed the differences between the facilities at Los Angeles and Berlin: ‘The Olympic stadium here is a bit smaller than the American one. There is one advantage here—all the stadiums are located on one big plot of ground, whereas in America, barring the swimming and the main stadium, the others are quite apart.’ [24] The Indians also had to adjust to the weather. Writing to his family back home, an Indian player mentioned that the climate in Berlin was chilly and on days it rained consistently. A military officer had been appointed as the attaché of the Indian team and they were being well looked after. This was essential as the city was far away and the team was feeling a bit out of sorts because of the distance. [25]

A member of the Indian delegation and other participants

‘The Shock of Defeat’:
They Could be Beaten

Dhyan Chand’s team had begun its tour preparations with a shock defeat to a local team in Delhi. Now in the first warm-up game on German soil, the team lost again. The Indians suffered a shock defeat against a German XI, losing 1–4. The Delhi defeat could have been dismissed as a one-off, but it had already planted the seeds of doubt in Dhyan Chand’s mind. This German blitzkrieg in Berlin was more serious and it served as a perfect wake-up call. The Indians now knew that they were not invincible and the Europeans had caught up. It retrospect, it served Dhyan Chand well because it led to a complete reappraisal of team strategy. Sixteen years later, the proud Indian captain wrote:

As long as I live, I shall never forget this match or get over the shock of defeat which still rankles in me. Hitler’s Germany had made great strides in their game…The result of the play shocked us so much that we could not sleep that night. Some of us even did not have our dinner. At night Pankaj Gupta, Jaffar and myself went into a conference, in which Jagannath also joined. We were unanimous that a substitute be obtained in place of Masood. That same night Gupta rushed to Berlin and sent a cable to Kunwar Sir Jagdish Prasad, president of the IHF, asking him to send Dara, failing whom Frank Wells or Eric Henderson, and also Pinniger. We decided that if Pinniger was not available, Cullen of Madras should be posted as center-half and not Masood. This we did until Dara arrived just a day before we played France in the semi-finals.’ [26] Dara was a Lance Naik stationed at Jhelum and was familiar as an inside forward with Dhyan Chand’s play. [27] Money was short but such was the urgency that the federation tried to arrange Dara’s passage by air so that he could reach Berlin before the Olympic matches began on 2 August. Despite the best efforts of the IHF, Dara had to wait in Karachi for nine days before he managed a seat in an aircraft. He left by Imperial Airways, entrained at Brindisi, reached Rome, rested there for a day and finally reached Berlin by air to play in the semi-final against France the next day. This was still considered quick work and the team thanked the federation for this admirable handling of Dara’s last-minute inclusion. [28]

The psychological impact of that early defeat was enormous and it set off a great deal of criticism. The Statesman, which had a correspondent covering the hockey team’s travails, now devoted an entire special report titled ‘Why SOS Cable was sent to India’. The dispatch from Berlin began with the following post-mortem:


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