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."
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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