1936 Berlin Olympics: How Dora the Man Competed in the Woman's High Jump
The movie "Berlin '36" is currently being screened in Germany. It tells a story of a Nazi plot against Jewish athlete Gretel Bergmann, who was prevented from competing in the 1936 Olympic Games and replaced by a man dressed in women's clothes -- a dramatic story, but probably not an accurate one.
On her last trip as a woman, Dora Ratjen wore a gray two-piece, skin-colored tights, and light-colored ladies shoes. On September 21, 1938 she took an express train from Vienna to Cologne. At the European Athletics Championships in the Austrian capital a few days earlier, she had won gold for the German Reich, clearing the high-jump bar at 1.70 meters, a new world record.
At around noon the train stopped at Magdeburg station. The athlete was stretching her legs on the platform when a policeman approached her and asked to see some ID. A ticket inspector had informed Detective Sergeant Sömmering that a woman sitting on the train was actually a man. Sömmering took a close look at Ratjen and noticed how hairy her hands were. Ratjen pulled out an ID card from the European Championships, but the officer wasn't satisfied. He asked her to take her bag out of the train and accompany him to the police station.
The policeman was determined to find out if Ratjen was a woman or a man. He even threatened to examine her. "And if I resist?" Ratjen asked. Then she would be guilty of obstruction, the detective replied.
The athlete hesitated for a moment, then said that she was indeed a man.
Dora Ratjen was arrested at 12.15pm. Mug shots were taken, the details of the case were noted down, preliminary proceedings were initiated, and Ratjen was charged on suspicion of fraud. The period: 1934 to 1938. The victim: "The Reich" - at least according to the admission papers. Ratjen's gold medal was immediately confiscated.
It was thus that on September 21, 1938 the life of 19-year-old sportswoman Dora Ratjen came to an end, and that of Heinrich Ratjen began; a story that would continue to be spun until his death on April 22, 2008. Ratjen's body lies buried in a cemetery in Bremen, but it still doesn't rest in peace.
The Ratjen case is one of the biggest sporting scandals in which a man dressed in women's clothes managed to fool his rivals. Gender researchers have also taken an interest in the affair. Was Ratjen a hermaphrodite, a transvestite, or simply a boy whose sex had been incorrectly identified at birth? Although his name is not mentioned, Ratjen and his police photos appear in the Atlas of Forensic Medicine under "transvestitism".
For the past few days Dora Ratjen has also been a character in a movie that claims to tell the "true story" with only "minor deviations." "Berlin '36" tells the story of a major plot in which Ratjen is a tool of Nazi racial fanaticism.
The film, which opened across Germany on Thursday, tells the story of Jewish high-jumper Gretel Bergmann, who was grudgingly permitted to take part in the preparations for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, but then squeezed out of the German national squad shortly before the start of the Games. This part of the movie is indeed a true story; a dramatic one, but apparently not dramatic enough.
In "Berlin '36" the Nazis go in search of a replacement for prospective gold-medalist Bergmann, and in so doing find Ratjen, whom they send out to compete against women although they are fully aware he is a man. On the silver screen Ratjen is given the name Marie Ketteler, but it's obvious throughout whom the character portrays. The film begins with original footage from the 1930s showing the two high-jumpers. In an interview shown at the end of the movie, Bergmann speaks about the case from her adopted home in the United States. "She was forced to do it," she says of her erstwhile rival. This moving statement acts like a seal of approval for the movie's authenticity.
"This interview gives everything that came before the appearance of being a documentary," SPIEGEL 35/2009 remarked critically. It isn't easy reconstructing the real life of the woman who was really a man. After World War II, Ratjen refused to answer questions put to her by scientists and former fellow athletes. Now the Department for Sexual Medicine at Kiel University Hospital has provided SPIEGEL with a file containing the findings of an investigation conducted in 1938 and 1939. The head of the department, Professor Hartmut Bosinski, has been researching the case because he says it shows that boys can't be brought up to be girls.
Documents Suggest Nazis Didn't Know Dora Was Male
The previously unknown police file contains statements by Ratjen and his father as well as a lot of material gathered by the authorities, including several letters to Reich Sports Minister Hans von Tschammer und Osten. However it contains not the slightest shred of evidence of the alleged plot. In fact, the documents suggest the Nazis only discovered the true identity of their model athlete much later.
The real drama of the life of Dora Ratjen began in a house in Erichshof near Bremen. The Ratjens were simple folk, and although they later took over a bar, they barely made enough money to live on. The couple already had three daughters when Mrs Ratjen gave birth on November 20, 1918. On September 22, 1938 Dora's father Heinrich made the following statement to the police: "I was not standing at my wife's bedside during delivery, rather I was in the kitchen at the time. When the child was born the midwife called over to me, 'Heini, it's a boy!' But five minutes later she said to me, 'It is a girl, after all.'"
The parents looked at their youngest child. They had their doubts, but decided to take the midwife's word for it. After all, they were living at a time in which people never discussed sex and sexuality in any detail. The midwife reported the newborn to the head of the parish council and the pastor, and the child was duly christened Dora.
Nine months later Dora contracted serious pleurisy and pneumonia. Heinrich Ratjen called a doctor and asked him to inspect the child's genitalia while he was at it. Something wasn't quite right, he told the doctor. In his statement to police, he said: "The doctor replied, 'Let it be. You can't do anything about it anyway.'"
Dora's fate was therefore sealed -- at least for the time being, and the child was raised as a girl. Dora attended a girls' school, was religiously confirmed in 1932 as a girl, and liked playing ball and shopkeeper. "My parents brought me up as a girl," Dora told the police in 1938. "I therefore wore girl's clothes all my childhood. But from the age of 10 or 11 I started to realize I wasn't female, but male. However I never asked my parents why I had to wear women's clothes even though I was male."
A Life of Hide and Seek
Dora started to become particularly concerned when she didn't develop breasts like all the other girls. From the age of 17 onwards she shaved her legs every other day, and sooner or later she experienced her first ejaculation. But she was too embarrassed to talk about what was happening to her. An officer who spoke with the alleged fraudster at length said Ratjen must have felt "sexless," a hermaphrodite forced to accept the cards that fate had dealt. "However because he has lived almost all his life in female circles he thinks he can only live his life from a female perspective."
Ratjen's life became a big game of hide-and-seek; a life among women, first Dora's three older sisters, later with female friends. Dora discovered a love of sport, joined Komet Bremen Athletics Club in 1934, and after graduating from high school she became a packer in a tobacco factory. Surrounded as she was by women, Dora remained a loner. She rarely went swimming because the risk of being discovered was too great. She even avoided parties. "She doesn't really enjoy dancing," her father reported.
By the age of 15 Ratjen was an outstanding high-jumper, and in 1934 she was the regional champion of Lower Saxony and one of the strongest contenders for the German Olympic squad. Dora may have appeared wiry and boyish, but so were many other sportswomen at the time. People sometimes "poked fun" at her, Dora said, but all real female athletes had a deep, husky voice. Indeed in 1938 the detective noted that Ratjen's upper torso was "girlishly smooth."
Germany had begun feverishly preparing for the Olympic Games since the early 1930s, and the Nazi ideologists eventually overcame their reservations about women competing in sporting events. Hitler and his sports minister were greatly concerned about national comparisons, and determined to demonstrate the German nation's sporting superiority. It was at around this time that Germany's top three female high-jumpers -- Bergmann, Ratjen, and Elfried Kaun -- met for the first time. Photos show the three women in cheerful, relaxed mood.
Unfortunately, the joy was short-lived for the Jew among them. Whereas Kaun and Ratjen were among the "chosen," as the German press dubbed them, Bergmann was left out by the Nazis shortly before the start of the Games. Kaun eventually won the bronze medal in Berlin, and 17-year-old Ratjen finished fourth. Leni Riefenstahl's movie about the Berlin Games showed the athlete from Bremen taking the traditional pre-Fosby scissor-jump over the bar.
"I never had any suspicions, not even once," Gretel Bergmann says to this day. "In the communal shower we wondered why she never showed herself naked. It was grotesque that someone could still be that shy at the age of 17. We just thought, 'She's strange. She's odd.'" The athletes were all amateurs, and training camps generally lasted no more than a few days. Kaun thought Ratjen was very masculine, but obviously never dreamt that her fellow athlete was a man. "We had a very good relationship in the training camps, on trips, and during competitions," remembered Kaun, who died in 2008. "But no-one knew or noticed anything about her different sexuality."
- Part 1: How Dora the Man Competed in the Woman's High Jump
- Part 2: Relief at Being Discovered
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