Review of Six Minutes in Berlin

Socolow, Michael J. Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2016. Pp. 288. Notes and index. $95.00 clothback, $24.95 paperback, $22.46 ebook. 

Reviewed by Cat Ariail

Michael J. Socolow seems to epitomize the unlucky, under-appreciated academic.  As he wrote at Insider Higher Ed, he “got scooped.”  After discovering the largely forgotten story of the U.S. eight-oared crew team that won gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Socolow believed he had found a historical narrative that would appeal to a popular audience.  In Berlin, the crew, composed of working-class boys from the University of Washington, captured a thrilling come-from-behind victory over the Italian and German squads as the Führer watched from the stands.

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University of Illinois Press, 2016.

Yet, as he recounts, Socolow struggled to find a publisher.  Eventually, Slate agreed to publish an article on the 1936 Olympic regatta as part of their 2012 Olympic coverage. The success of the article seemed to presage publishing possibly until the appearance of Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat in 2013, which soon rocketed up the New York Times best seller list, stealing Socolow’s thunder.  Fortunately, he persisted, revising his manuscript in order to appeal to an academic audience.  Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics testifies to the importance of his efforts and, somewhat contradictorily, the fortunate existence of The Boys in the Boat.

In his review of The Boys in the Boat, the New York Times’s Timothy Egan shares his shock at the success of a work of historical non-fiction.  “The Boys in the Boat is about who we used to be. And who we still could be. Like the best history, it’s then and now wow factor is both embarrassing (to the present) and inspiring (to the future),” writes Egan. Yet, Soclow demonstrates that the story of gold medal winning crew from the University of Washington is more than a stirring historical lesson. He instead explores the historical significance of the crew, producing an excellent work of analytical sport history.

Socolow situates the story of the Huskies’ triumphant gold medal in context of 1930s collegiate crew, the broader circumstances of the 1936 Olympic Games, and, most insightfully, the development of international broadcast radio. He successfully uses the story of the Husky crew to offer new contributions to sport history, highlighting the centrality of collegiate crew and the 1936 Olympics to advancements in broadcast radio. He also addresses with nuance the complications raised by the Nazi Games. Six Minutes in Berlin shows that sport is not a separate world that simply produces stories of inspiration; instead, sport is integrated with, and even integral to, social, political, cultural, and technological currents.

Chapter One, “Rowing, Radio, and American Sports Broadcasting, 1925-36,” describes the relationship between rowing and radio that preceded the 1936 Olympics, particularly as it manifested at the Poughkeepsie Regatta, annually held on the Hudson River.  The structure and culture of the sport, with its regional rivalries and tendency for dramatic finishes, made it well suited for radio broadcast experimentation. Due to its proximity to New York City, NBC and CBS used the Poughkeepsie Regatta to train their announcers and test their technological capacity.  Competition between the broadcast networks resulted in the national dissemination of the races, thus reinforcing the sport’s popularity.  The intensity of the broadcasting rivalry, however, paled in comparison to the intra-team rivalry of the University of Washington’s crew team.

Although a work of analytical history, Socolow compelling narrates the story of the Husky oarsmen.  Ahead of the 1936 season, Washington coach Al Ulbrickson favored his sophomore boat, believing them Olympic material.  But the Huskies’ senior boat took exception to the assumed superiority of the underclassmen, repeatedly bettering them in practice and competition, eventually forcing Ulbrickson to name the seniors, who rowed the Husky Clipper, as the varsity boat.  The eight oarsmen were Herbert Roger Morris, Chuck Day, Gordon Adam, John Galbraith, James McMillin, George “Shorty” Hunt, Joe Rantz, and Don Hume, with Bob Moch serving as the coxswain.  In June of 1936, the squad headed east for the Poughkeepsie Regatta and Olympic Trials, which were to be held in Princeton, New Jersey.  Socolow captures the excitement of their victory over their western rivals, the California Golden Bears, at Poughkeepsie to close the chapter.

He continues to trace the Huskies’ quest to earn a trip to Berlin in Chapter Two, “‘Let’s Go to Berlin’: The Olympic Trials, the Boycott Movement, and Broadcast Preparation.” After recounting the Husky Clipper’s Olympic Trials triumph, Socolow illuminates the role of radio broadcasters in influencing public understanding of the prospect of an Olympic boycott, which emerged due to concerns about the increasingly anti-Semitic and authoritarian practices of the German state.  While debates raged in print, both NBC and CBS attempted to adopt a neutral postures. However, Socolow reviewed internal communicated at NBC that showed an intense debate about coverage of the boycott.  Ultimately, the network’s chief programmer decided that broadcasts should to “keep as far away from controversy as possible,” (pp. 71).

CBS likewise avoided addressing the boycott, although the network devoted significant airtime to anticipatory Olympic coverage. A year before the Games, Bill Henry, a Los Angles Times columnist who opposed the boycott, traveled to Berlin as a CBS correspondent to preview the Olympic facilities.  The network aired Henry’s enthusiastic reports from Berlin. Later that fall, NBC broadcast a speech by General Charles Sherrill, a member of the American Olympic Committee (AOC), that authoritatively promoted American participation in Berlin. Thus, despite internal misgivings, neither network aired content that highlighted the concerns raised by the Berlin Games, thereby offering listeners a largely uncontroversial understanding of the 1936 Games.

In late 1935, the AOC confirmed American participation in Berlin, with AOC president, and noted anti-Semite, Avery Brundage using strong-arm tactics to quash the boycott.  Regardless, participation pleased the athletes who, according to Socolow, were apolitical.  In a interview, coxswain Bob Moch told Socolow, “I didn’t give a damn about Hitler,” (pp. 76). However, Socolow notes that “despite their attempts to be as apolitical as possible” some athletes discovered anti-Nazi propaganda pamphlets in the rooms on board the Manhattan as they sailed to Germany.  While the athletes immediately turned them over to Olympic officials, “the pamphlets reminded the departing Olympic contingent that they could not ignore their representational role as political – and national – symbols,” (pp. 81).

In Chapter Three, “Berlin 1936 as Global Broadcast Spectacle and Personal Experience,” Socolow further shows the degree to which politics pervaded the Berlin Games.  Socolow captures how the Nazi regime expertly used the Olympics to captivate visitors, allowing especial freedoms, like jazz music and Coca-Cola, to present a more amenable image of German nationalism.  American radio broadcasters, more aware of the Nazi horrors than impressionable young athletes, thus faced moral questions as they navigated their responsibilities.  Socolow chronicles the specific situations of individual broadcasters, such as NBC’s Max Jordan and CBS’s Ted Husing, who realized that producing successful broadcasts that would thrill fans in the states required cooperating with the Nazi-controlled broadcasting company Reichs-Rundfunk-Geselllschaft (RRG), which, in turn, implicitly would condone Nazism and contribute to Hitler’s propaganda goals. The “most technologically sophisticated broadcast operation ever assembled” made evident the Germans’ aims, illuminating the how sport and politics intertwined to produce technological and communications progress (pp. 105).

Socolow further details the innovations that greeted NBC’s and CBS’s radio men, convincingly showing that “innovative technical and programmatic endeavors marked the Berlin Olympic Games as a milestone in the history of telecommunication,” (pp. 108).  The exacting broadcasting preparations at Grünau, the location of regatta, confirm the Games’s technological stature, as well as the importance of rowing to the western sporting world.  The U.S. oarsmen likewise surveyed the scene at Grünau, evaluating the racecourse and analyzing their opponents before then heading back to Berlin for the opening ceremony. As the Husky crew assembled with other athletes ahead of the opening parade, the American broadcasters prepared for their first live test. Although both NBC and CBS missed the U.S. team’s entry into the stadium, the “broadcast proved to be one of the finest shortwave relay productions in the first decade of U.S network radio,” (pp. 129).

In Chapter Four, “Live from Hitler’s Reich: Transmitting the Games and the Listener’s Experience,” Socolow continues to chronicle the experiences of American broadcasters in Berlin, highlighting their successes and shortcomings as they wrestled with constant scheduling challenges.  He emphasizes the most influential broadcast moments that occurred during the Olympic fortnight, such as the unreserved excitement demonstrated by British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) broadcaster Harold Abrahams’s call of New Zealander Jack Lovelock’s victory in the 1,500-meter final.  Socolow asserts that the call “provided the template for all future iconic sports broadcasting moments,” by “combining authenticity, individuality, and enthusiasm,” (pp. 142).

Soclow also interestingly argues that radio produced a “racial paradox.” Broadcasters racially-labeled all athletes, which “conjured ethereal hierarchies of athletic achievement,” (pp. 147). Yet, the radio also subjectified black athletes, as interviewers treated black Olympians respectfully.  By celebrating black athletes as American athletes, “CBS and NBC sportscasters subtly transgressed established modes of racial representation on U.S airwaves,” (pp. 147).  A similar circumstance emerged with female athletes.  Although broadcasters took care to emphasize that American female athletes “remained[ed] segregated, protected, and above reproach,” broadcasts that reported on both male and female athletic achievement “were somewhat futuristic in their implicit promotion of gender equality,” (pp. 149). These subtle recognitions of significance represent some of Socolow most compelling arguments, demonstrating the ideological changes communications technology made possible.

He also captures the emotional resonance of these interviews, describing people across the nation gathering together to listen to athletes offer messages to their families and hometowns, thereby “developing seemingly personal links to [Jesse] Owens and others who appeared personable and approachable on the airwaves,” (pp. 159). In contrast, listeners to Olympic broadcasts did not hear much about controversies or conflicts.  Socolow finds that Olympic broadcasts were “more notable for what they omit than for what they contain,” with both NBC and CBS avoiding addressing any athletic or political issues (pp. 152).

For Chapter Five, “Six Minutes in Grünau: The Olympic Regatta as the High Spot of the Berlin Games,” Socolow returns to rowing.  He engagingly details the American oarsmen’s preparation for the regatta, especially the concerns raised by the inability of Don Hume to shake the illness he acquired on the trip across the Atlantic. After barely bettering Britain for first place in their preliminary race, the American men earned a bye, much appreciated due Hume’s continued sickness.  However, despite scoring the fastest qualifying time, the Americans were placed in lane six for the final, a distinct disadvantage due to a promontory and hillock that protected lanes one and two, which were awarded to Germany and Italy.  The Germans, therefore, proved well-positioned to please Hitler, who was in attendance for the final and presumably expected to watch his nation capture another rowing title.  Yet, in an exceptional display of perseverance, especially by the still ill Hume, the Husky Clipper triumphed.   Socolow effectively conveys the race’s intensity and excitement, demonstrating that a work of analysis need not sacrifice emotionalism.

But, in the U.S. in 1936, only those listening to CBS could participate in this triumphant thrill.  A personnel change and scheduling snafu caused NBC the miss the anticipated race, while CBS would have missed it if not for a last minute rescheduling effort by broadcaster Caesar Saerchinger.  The relationship between radio and rowing, therefore, lacks the expected climax. “We cannot establish with certainty how many people head the broadcast, and how many missed it, but it nevertheless is clear that a scheduling error caused NBC to hand CBS one of the most dramatic and memorable exclusive Olympic programs in U.S. broadcasting history,” asserts Socolow (pp. 201).

This contention fails to convince. While Socolow successfully shows the symbiotic relationship between radio and rowing in the U.S. in the years ahead of the Olympic Games, he fails to persuade that the Olympic regatta coverage was central to the radio’s significance at the 1936 Olympics.  Rather, the radio interviews he emphasizes in Chapter Four appear better to illustrate the revolutionary quality of Berlin’s radio broadcasts. Clearly, radio and rowing were both prominent aspects of the Berlin Games. But their intersection seems not to have had a consequential influence on the intertwining of sport, politics, technology, and communications inaugurated in Berlin.

In his conclusion, Socolow successfully evinces the role of the radio in celebrating the gold medal winning oarsmen, with radio programs contributing to the momentary national fame they gained.  The crew also encouraged the expansion of collegiate rowing broadcasts, which peaked in 1938.  Socolow also underscores the unique compatibility between radio and rowing, noting that the sport failed to recover its popularity after the disruption of World War II due to the rise of television.  The stories of “anonymous, cooperative teamwork” that emotionally resonated through the airwaves did not have such affective power on screen (pp. 205). Socolow then chronicles broader changes in sports radio in the immediate postwar moment before returning the legacy of the Berlin Games.

Socolow offers a measured, nuanced analysis, appreciating the significance of the innovations introduced at the Berlin while also recognizing their problematic relationship to Nazism. “Contextualizing, and accurately crediting, Nazi achievement remains a fraught and sensitive issue,” writes Socolow. “Yet the Berlin Games were, by far, the most complex and multi-lateral global broadcast occurring before the Second World War,” he asserts (pp. 211).   Socolow also skillfully addresses the issue of collaboration, arguing that NBC, CBS, and other foreign broadcasters both bolstered and contested the aims of the Nazi regime. He recognizes that while the American networks produced broadcasts in cooperation with their German counterparts, they also aired material inimical to the aims to Nazism, such as interviews with African American athletes.  He insists, “This is the paradox of the Berlin broadcasts: They simultaneously promoted, and undermined, the Nazi mass communications message,” (pp. 214).

Socolow likewise resists coming to uncomplicated conclusions throughout his book. Although his work emerged from a desire to tell the story of Husky Clipper’s journey to a seemingly improbable gold medal, he ended up producing a historical work that offers broader contributions to sport history – highlighting the interrelationship between rowing and sports radio broadcasting and appreciating the technological and communication innovations pioneered in Berlin in 1936. While the rowing story may be Socolow’s passion, his conclusions about the development of international broadcast radio are more significant. Radio proves an unlikely but insightful lens for exploring and critiquing the navigation of the moral issues raised by Nazi Olympics.  The success with which Socolow uses technology to offer fresh perspectives of the much-analyzed 1936 Games also underscores the potential of combining the study of technology and sport.

And although Six Minutes in Berlin may not immediately appeal to the lay reader captivated by The Boys in the Boat, Socolow’s clear, engaging prose makes his work accessible to a broader audience. It also makes the book an interesting teaching tool.  Reading Six Minutes in Berlin alongside The Boys in the Boat (and possibly also viewing the upcoming movie) could serve as fruitful exercise for upper-level undergraduate or entry-level graduate courses on sport history methodology, allowing students critically to assess the strengths and weakness of and differences between popular and analytical sport history.

Cat Ariail is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of the University of Miami. She researches gender, race, and nationalism in mid-twentieth track and field. You can contact her at cat.m.ariail@gmail.com.

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