1936 Berlin Olympics How Dora the Man Competed in the Woman's High Jump

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Part 2: Relief at Being Discovered


Yet Dora's sexuality must have become more and more obvious to her. She lived a dual life: One public, as a successful and acclaimed athlete, the other, private one full of hide-and-seek. Her unmasking in September 1938 was therefore a liberating experience. "Ratjen openly admits to being happy that 'the cat has been let out of the bag,'" noted a police officer after her arrest. "He has been waiting for this moment for a long time because he was well aware that he wouldn't be able to compete as a woman forever." Ratjen told the police officers that she had slept in women's dormitories during competitions, but was at pains to point out that she had "never committed any crime."

On September 22 a police physician arrived from Magdeburg to determine Ratjen's sex, and came to the unambiguous conclusion: "The secondary sexual characteristics are entirely male. The named person can unambiguously be considered a man." However the doctor did note one distinctive feature: "A thick band of scar tissue running backwards from the underside of the penis in a relatively broad line. It is therefore questionable whether this band of scar tissue would allow him to engage in sexual intercourse in a normal manner." This anatomical anomaly probably explains the confusion about Ratjen's gender at birth.

However the Ratjen case was no longer solely the concern of doctors and the police. The very same day, a radio message was sent to Berlin: "Women's European high-jumping champion Ratjen, first name Dora, is not a woman, but a man. Please notify the Reich Sports Ministry at once. Awaiting orders by radio."

Reich Sport Minister Tschammer und Osten reacted immediately. The senior officer called the criminal investigation division in Magdeburg personally and demanded the arrested athlete be sent to Hohenlychen sports sanatorium for further tests. But the results were the same: Ratjen was a man.

The investigation was therefore closed, although the criminal proceedings weren't shelved until March 10, 1939. "Fraud cannot be deemed to have taken place because there was no intention to reap financial reward," the responsible senior public prosecutor noted. After all, Dora had never been told he was a man. "His activities and relations were always feminine."

For a long time, no-one was sure what to do with Ratjen. Dora promised the authorities he would "cease engaging in sport with immediate effect." Ratjen's family was afraid of being disgraced and losing the family bar, in which Dora's sporting awards were on display. Speaking to the Bremen health authorities, Heinrich Ratjen insisted "Dora shouldn't be allowed to wear men's clothing under any circumstances because she couldn't urinate while standing. Nor would he permit Dora to take a man's job." For her part Dora's mother told police she still hadn't come to terms with her child's "transformation from a girl into a man."

A bitter tug-of-war ensued. Ratjen's father initially even objected to a change of name, while civil servants argued about how Dora's name should be changed. Correcting a person's name and their sex posed a considerable problem for the authorities. It therefore wasn't until January 11, 1939 that staff at Verden district court amended the entry for the girl Dora into "A boy." Two months later, on March 29, 1939, Ratjen's father wrote to the police chief of Bremen: "Following the change of the registry office entry regarding the child's sex, I would request you change the child's first name to Heinrich." And he ended his letter, "Heil Hitler!"

No Attempt at Cover-Up

Little is known about Heinrich Ratjen junior's later life. The last note in the police file is dated August 22, 1939. It states that Heinrich Ratjen, who later called himself Heinz, was given a work book, invalidity papers, and membership of the German Labor Front; the amalgamated trade union. With the help of the labor office he was issued with new ID and work papers and taken to Hanover "as a working man," according to the document. This note was sent to the Reich Sports Ministry, various police stations, and the relevant courts. There is therefore nothing to suggest that senior civil servants tried to keep the case a secret or restrict the number of people who were aware of it.

And yet the case was clearly important to the Nazis themselves, as attested by the five-page report signed personally by security chief Reinhard Heydrich and sent to chancellery chief Hans Heinrich Lammers. This letter too (headed: "Athlete Dora Ratjen, Bremen -- Discovered to be a man following a medical examination") contains no evidence of any previous manipulation. In fact the report provides an amazingly frank summary of events, including the comment that the case "did not prompt undesirable public debate or even conflict in the international sporting arena."

Damage limitation was conducted behind the scenes, just as the Ratjens had requested. Germany openly returned its European Championship gold medal, and the runner-up in Vienna was crowned the victor. Ratjen's record was struck from the books. Specialist track-and-field magazine Der Leichtathlet ran a short piece stating simply that Ratjen would no longer be permitted to take part in the women's competition following a medical examination. After the war Heinrich Ratjen took over the running of his parent's bar. Numerous attempts to interview him about his former life failed.

Gretel Bergmann emigrated to the United States in 1937. She found out about the allegedly deliberate Nazi mega-plot from a magazine she came across during a visit to the doctor in 1966. "I had to screech and laugh. Everyone thought I was insane," she recalls. In its September 16 issue, Time magazine ran a report about a number of sporting scandals and about men who had competed as women. The article also mentioned Dora Ratjen, who broke the women's high-jump record in 1938. Time devoted just a few sentences to describing how Ratjen had "tearfully confessed" that the Nazis had forced him to represent Germany as a woman "for the sake of the honor and glory of Germany." The magazine finished the segment with an alleged quote from Ratjen: "For three years I lived the life of a girl. It was most dull." It's not clear if Time ever spoke to Ratjen. The information about him in the article is meager and imprecise, to say the least. The author mistakenly calls him "Hermann" rather than Heinrich, and claims that 19 years after his world record he was working as a waiter in Bremen. Unfortunately this portrayal was the one that was circulated from that moment on, and repeated elsewhere in the press.

Bergmann Convinced of Nazi Plot

Meanwhile Gretel Bergmann -- the woman who really was the victim of devious Nazis trickery that robbed her of her opportunity to take part in the Olympics -- is now giving interviews herself. She says not only that the Nazis had deliberately kept her from competing in the 1936 Games but also that Ratjen was a part of their plan. Indeed this is how she has repeatedly portrayed the affair, and this is the version of the story she refuses to relinquish. Only last week she insisted in a conversation with SPIEGEL's New York correspondent Klaus Brinkbäumer: "I'm certain. The plan existed."

For researchers and reporters who have looked into the Bergmann case and therefore also that of Ratjen, the story being served up for cinematic consumption simply doesn't match the facts. Experts who conducted background research for the movie have grave doubts. Sports writer Volker Kluge advised the makers of "Berlin '36". His verdict is damning. "On the basis of the available documents, I think it is completely out of the question that the Nazis deliberately created Dora Ratjen as a 'secret weapon' for the Olympic Games." Nevertheless, he says it is conceivable that the Reich Sport Ministry was aware that Dora was a "borderline case." Unfortunately most of the ministerial files have been destroyed.

Historian Berno Bahro wrote the book accompanying the film. He speaks of "clear deviations between reality and the cinematic representation." His book describes the Ratjen case as precisely as possible. Bahro also read the Heydrich report and therefore left lots of question marks throughout the story. He urged the filmmakers not to sell the movie as a "true story."

Asked to comment, director Kaspar Heidelbach said he had made a feature film. He says he believes in his story -- and points to his eyewitness in America.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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