Otto Peltzer—gay, androgynous, intellectual, and modern—represented a new model of male perfection in Weimar Germany.
From the start of the Enlightenment to the end of World War II, there was hardly a strand of German culture that didn’t look to Ancient Greece for guidance and inspiration. Winckelmann, Goethe, and Wagner were all enchanted by the spell of Hellenism; Hitler contended that Greek civilization had actually been built by a band of wandering Germans back in the mystical depths of Iron Age prehistory. What else, ran his illogic, other than Germanic heritage could have been responsible for the Spartans’ pioneering eugenics, the majesty of golden-age Athens, and Alexander’s epic feats of conquest? To gather proof, he established archaeological digs in Crete, Corinth, Argos, Athens, and several other locations. Unsurprisingly, the excavations turned up little, but the Nazis had other ways of spelling out the Führer’s theory—chief among which were the Berlin Olympics of 1936.
Ever since Baron de Coubertin had launched the modern Olympics in 1896, German participation had been highly controversial. Many abroad deemed the nation’s militarism and nationalism contrary to the spirit of the movement, and plenty of Germans considered the Olympics an internationalist carnival of wet liberalism, a corruption of an admirable Greek tradition rather than its resuscitation. Hitler described the Los Angeles games of ’32 as a “plot of Freemasons and Jews.” Four years later, though, he’d recognized the Olympics’ potential as a propaganda tool. Preceded by a torch relay that stretched from Olympia to Berlin, the ’36 games provided an emphatic symbolic message about the supposed genetic thread that connected the original Olympians with the people of the Third Reich. Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous documentary of the event communicated that the Greek veneration of strength, discipline, and physical beauty was inherently Germanic, and vice versa. When Discobolus comes to life as a young German, toned, muscular, and vigorous, Riefenstahl is telling us that her compatriots had beaten the competition before the starting pistol had been fired: the Germans alone were the inheritors of the minds and bodies that had allowed Greece to soar.
Ironically, the greatest German athlete of his generation—and the nation’s most passionate advocate of the modern Olympic movement—was nowhere to be seen at Berlin ’36. For a decade, Otto Peltzer, the world-record-breaking middle-distance runner, had been one of the most celebrated sportsmen on the planet. In Europe and the United States, he was famed as a highly eccentric and exciting competitor. Whenever he raced, thousands came out to see him emerge from the back of the pack in the final lap and tear into the lead with his devastatingly fast sprint finish. Yet, under the Nazis, his was a chest that did not belong in a German vest.
A grandstanding, charismatic showman, Peltzer was a perfect fit for the new era of sport as mass spectacle. But where some saw a heroic emblem of the new cosmopolitan, internationalist, liberal Germany of the Weimar Republic, others, on the left, saw only a bourgeois capitalist, promoting individualism over social justice; others still, on the right, thought him a degenerate traitor who supported the march of Americanization and all its moral perversions. By the time Hitler’s Olympics came around, his abrasive personality and unusual beliefs had made him persona non grata; he never got the chance to fulfill his ambition of Olympic glory. The strange, sad, discomfiting story of his life encapsulated the odd contradictions of the society in which he lived, one that walked an uneasy route between conservatism and radicalism, the veneration of the ancient and the ceaseless search for the modern. Those curious cultural tensions helped him touch greatness—and guided him into the hands of the Gestapo.
Born in 1900 into bourgeois rural wholesomeness, Peltzer was always considered the family’s rough edge, a headstrong boy who walked his own path and squirmed in the grip of adult authority. A fist fight with his French teacher topped a list of teenage misdeeds that made his parents despair of their son who seemed congenitally incapable of backing down from an argument and holding his tongue. Young Otto’s father was happy that his son was eager to always be outdoors, but forbade him from taking up the vulgar Anglo-American pursuit of competitive sport. Otto ignored him. By the time he reached the capital in 1921, he was one of the country’s outstanding athletics prospects, but kept it hidden from his parents—at least until his successes found their way into newspapers. The necessity of hiding parts of himself was something Peltzer learned early. There was no way of being “out” in provincial Pomerania during World War I; it was a very different story in Berlin. There Peltzer discovered a place as off-kilter and disputatious as he was, and he lived his sexuality as openly as was possible at the time.
As he rose through the ranks of German middle-distance running, Peltzer studied for a Ph.D. in eugenics, a discipline that had yet to acquire its dark resonances but was still an outré field of inquiry well suited to a young man drawn to the heterodox, fixated with modernity and “progress.” Berlin pulsed to the rhythm of mechanized precision, and the games of track and field—which quantified success in feet and inches, and split seconds into fastidious tenths—befitted the city’s exactitude. Peltzer was one of the first athletes to make use of Berlin’s German College of Physical Exercise, a pioneer of what we now call sports science. Contrarian that he was, however, he also swore by such unscientific pastimes as sunbathing and rolling naked in the snow.
He completed his Ph.D. in 1925, and the following year he dashed to global fame, competing in seventy-six races, achieving four national records, three world records, and beating two reigning Olympic champions. His racing style was brash and incautious, reckless even, relying on his blistering pace on the home straight to seal victory. It mirrored his combative personality; his on-track success was accompanied by stories of frequent confrontations with coaches, teammates, opponents, and the stuffed blazers who ran German athletics and whom Peltzer openly defied and derided for their conservatism.
If few athletes have enjoyed such a stellar season, fewer still have so personified their era. To millions, he was a new type of hero for a new type of Germany: modern, expressive, individualistic, one who could do battle against other nations without doing harm. As sleek and rapid as the Mercedes-Benz cars that began tumbling off the production lines that same year, Peltzer, the spiky intellectual turned sporting showman, embodied the preoccupations of Weimar Berlin as much as a Weill score, a Brecht play, or a Dietrich movie. The moment seemed to be in his very bones. With long, loping limbs, and milk-white skin stretched like Saran Wrap around his skinny frame, the man whose family called him “The Stork” was an intriguing new model of masculine perfection in a time and place when the norms of physical beauty, sexual desire, and gender identity were being tossed into the air. The playful androgyny that generations of artists, from Auden to Bowie, have found in Berlin’s nightspots was plainly evident in its stadiums, too. As Erik Jensen’s studies of Weimar relate, writers welcomed the rise of track and field jocks—not just Peltzer, but also “slender, quick-as-an-arrow … taut-breasted girls.” They seemed daring, transgressive, and conspicuously unlike the Siegfrieds and Brünnhildes that had previously been the German models of male and female.
Peltzer was thrust into a welter of new ideas and competing sexual philosophies. In 1919, Magnus Hirschfeld, a torchbearer in German gay rights advocacy, had founded his Institute of Sexology, which sought to uncover the scientific secrets of human sexuality and also offered sex therapy and education, medical treatment, and family planning to anyone who wanted it. Like the Olympians, Hirschfeld drew inspiration from both razor-edge modernity and classical Greece. After publishing an influential pamphlet titled Sappho and Socrates, he’d devoted himself to attempting to overturn Paragraph 175, the notorious section of the German penal code that outlawed male homosexuality. Hirschfeld argued that gay men were a third sex, innately effeminate and genetically distinct from “ordinary” men. It was only one theory circulating among Berlin’s gay activists; others looked to examples from Greek history to claim that homosexual men were actually more masculine than heterosexual ones. After all, the indomitable warriors of Sparta—so admired by Hitler—proudly took male lovers.
It’s likely Peltzer took an avid interest in Hirschfeld’s work—certainly he was enthralled by classical ideas of masculinity. Following his rise to stardom, he declined gigantic financial offers to tour the United States to take up a modestly paid teaching position at the Wickersdorf School, which practiced Jugendkultur, a liberal, child-centered way of learning that repudiated the authoritarianism, nationalism, and xenophobia that permeated much of the German education system. Borrowing from the Ancient Greeks, the school stressed the importance of “pedagogic Eros,” intense personal bonds between adolescent boys and adult male teachers. Radical and left-leaning, Wickersdorf became a bête noire of Germany’s rowdy right-wing press, especially when, in 1920, its founder, Gustav Wyneken, was forced to resign after being convicted of having sexual relations with one of his students. (He and parents of Wickersdorf pupils protested that the case was politically motivated.) For traditionalists, Wickersdorf came to symbolize the depraved madness that had swept the country since armistice. Peltzer’s association with the school, and the open secret of his homosexuality, earned him suspicion and enemies, and the nickname “Otto the Strange.” As reactionary forces grew emboldened during the crises of the late twenties, Peltzer became a marked man.
Having been banned from the 1920 and 1924 events, Germany was allowed back to Olympic competition at Amsterdam ’28. At the start of the year, Peltzer held five world records and was the favorite for the 800- and 1500-meter gold. Then his chances evaporated: he injured his foot during an ill-advised game of handball at Wickersdorf. Though he recovered well enough to participate that summer, he failed to make any finals. Four years later, he arrived in Los Angeles in good form and confident of victory—only to discover that the long spikes he was accustomed to wearing on cinder tracks were useless on the hard surface that had been laid in LA. He searched frantically, but every pair of short-spiked shoes in California had been purchased by rival athletes. It was a farcical end to his Olympic ambitions, which certain journalists interpreted not as freakish bad luck but evidence of a fundamentally irresponsible character, a man who failed to take his patriotic duties seriously. In recent years, there had been—usually inaccurate—stories of Peltzer refusing to race, creating rifts among his teammates and making outrageous financial demands from race organizers and team officials. He had even been briefly suspended from international competition for supposedly harming the nation’s reputation following an argument with a shop assistant in Java. He had been with his boyfriend on that trip, a fact that wasn’t reported but was known to journalists and the top brass of the German athletics federation, and may have been part of the “incorrect behavior” for which he was punished. The ban was swiftly overturned, but the mud stuck. In the pages of an increasingly morally conservative and nationalistic press, Peltzer went from Otto the Strange to Otto the Most Hated.
While Peltzer scrambled for running shoes in LA, back in Berlin the Nazis became the largest party in the Reichstag, doubling their share of the vote in federal elections. Six months later, in January 1933, Hitler was named chancellor, and Berlin’s permissive era was over. On May 6, a hundred Nazi youths smashed up the Institute of Sexology and staged a public burning of all its books and photographs. Over the next few weeks, gay bars across Berlin were ransacked and closed down. In the Night of the Long Knives, twelve months later, Hitler brutally dispatched of Ernst Röhm and the other homosexual men in his clique.
High-profile outsiders like Peltzer and radical institutions such as Wickersdorf were next in the firing line. In an effort at self-preservation that alienated many of his friends, Peltzer joined the Nazi Party and the SS. It didn’t do him any good; he was incapable of keeping his mouth shut and obeying orders. He publicly criticized the state’s handling of young athletes and ridiculed Hitler’s ideas about racial purity, and soon there was a knock at his door. An interrogation by Himmler about his private life was eventually followed by prosecution under Paragraph 175, as well as on charges of sexual contact with boys under the age of fourteen at Wickersdorf. In open court, some of the pupils concerned (now all adults) requested that their testimony against Peltzer be retracted and ignored. The judges declined, and convicted Peltzer on all counts. He and those close to him maintained that the claims of child sex abuse were a Gestapo fabrication, intended to punish a famous dissenting voice beloved by the public but despised by the Nazi elite.
Oddly, Peltzer served only thirteen months in prison, despite being found guilty of what the Nazis’ had previously called “vulgar, perverted crimes” punishable by “banishment or hanging.” He was released on August 4, 1936, the fourth day of the Berlin Olympics in which he stood no chance of participating. He moved to Sweden in an attempt to stay off the Nazis’ radar—at least until 1940, when he published articles in Swedish newspapers that criticized the Nazis and lambasted Hitler for his insane wars. In 1941, he was seized by the Gestapo and sent to Mauthausen concentration camp for what Rudolph Höss called “salvation through work”—a ceaseless, agonizing regime of hard labor designed to crush homosexual urges. Peltzer slaved at a quarry; he was made to race younger prisoners for the amusement of the guards; he was the victim of savage beatings. Somehow he survived. The camp was liberated in 1945, after which Peltzer and the rest of the nation attempted to start over.
Following the war, the classical world lost its grip on the German imagination. There were new civilizations to inspire post-Nazi reinvention: in the West, the liberal democracy of the United States; in the East, the communists of the Soviet Union. Yet Germany’s fractious relationship with the Olympics continued. The country was banned from London ’48, immersed in the DDR doping scandals; and when the Games went to Munich in ’72, the event was swamped by the massacre of seventeen innocent people.
Peltzer never had any further meaningful involvement with the competition. Upon his release, he discovered that many of those who had targeted him under the Nazis had been allowed to step back into their old positions, leaving him no chance to clear his name and rebuild his life. He wandered from Iran to Iraq and across Asia, looking for somewhere to settle. He eventually found acceptance in India, where he achieved great results coaching the national athletics squad. He died on a visit back to Germany in 1970. In 2000, the German Athletic Association awarded the first Otto Peltzer Medal to honor outstanding achievement. At last, more than three decades after his death, the stains are being removed from his name—even as his nickname persists. Those who know him at all know him as Otto the Strange.
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.