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A Divided Germany Came Together for the Olympics Decades Before Korea Did

February 12, 2018 in History

By Erin Blakemore

The German Team marching under a unified flag during the 1964 opening ceremony. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
The German Team marching under a unified flag during the 1964 opening ceremony. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

At the opening ceremonies of the XXIII Olympic Winter Games, on February 9, 2018, something spectacular happened: Athletes from North and South Korea, which have been bitterly divided for 73 years, marched beneath a unified flag. Though North and South appear no closer to reunification, the move was seen as an olive branch of sorts that could pave the way for better relations between the estranged countries—and it’s just one example of how the worldwide sporting event can bring people together, if only for a few weeks.

It’s not the first time a divided nation has come together as one Olympic team. From 1956 through 1964, East and West Germany unified as a single team—until heightened political tensions tore the athletic programs apart.

At the end of World War II, the Olympics couldn’t be further from the minds of the German people. Their country had been decimated during the war, and in 1945, after Germany surrendered, the Allies split the country into four occupation zones. There was work to do: Not only did the Allies endeavor to root out Nazism from the remaining population, they also had to deal with millions of displaced persons, whose homes and families had been destroyed during the war and the Holocaust, and stabilize Germany’s collapsed economy.

In 1949, the western Allies—France, the United Kingdom and the United States—allowed their zones to self-govern, and the Federal Republic of Germany was born. Meanwhile, the USSR took over the eastern half of Germany and created the German Democratic Republic, a communist state. As daily life slowly normalized, both nations, which had been banned from competing in the 1948 games, began to look forward to the Olympic Games of 1952, 1956 and beyond.

Road blocks from the Russian-American sector boundary in Germany, 1949. (Credit: Keystone/Getty Images)

The games meant similar things to both countries. They symbolized a celebration of the return of normal life, the end of a destructive war, and recognition of two new nations. But East and West Germany distrusted one another, and the Western world felt that to recognize an East German team would be to normalize and even celebrate the growth of Communism during the Cold War. To make matters even more complicated, …read more


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