This post was written by Ted O’Reilly, Head of the Manuscript Department.
Within the Historical Society’s holdings is a series of remarkable scrapbooks kept by Charles H. Sherrill, a New York lawyer, later American ambassador to Argentina and Turkey, and a member of the United States Olympic Committee. The scrapbooks begin not long after his graduation from Yale in 1889 (where he introduced the crouching start in track & field) and contain an interesting amalgamation of ephemera, photos, correspondence, and clippings documenting Sherrill’s life and career.
One of the most scrutinized of the modern Olympiads is the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the preparations for which occurred during Sherrill’s tenure on the USOC. In his capacity, Sherrill negotiated with German officials over concerns that the Nazis would bar Jewish athletes from the Games, a symptom of the party’s tightening grip on Germany and a precursor to the succeeding horrors. Many of the articles pasted into the scrapbook portray Sherrill as the white knight advocating for Jewish inclusion. Ostensibly he was successful; Germans allowed Jewish competitors from other nations while answering critics by appointing two Jewish athletes to the German team. Truth be told, those athletes were half-Jewish, and historians have noted Sherrill’s avowed support for Jewish interests seemed to wane as time wore on.
This is where it gets especially interesting. It’s possible that some of Sherrill’s unwillingness to push the envelope further stems from his opinion of Adolf Hitler, whom he met with on two occasions in 1935. Sherrill drafted his observations (two copies of which appear in the scrapbook) after his initial meeting which he sent to Nazi officials for publication. Although outwardly the topic of conversation was the Jewish Olympics quandary, the piece focuses exclusively on his impressions of Hitler. Sherrill describes him as “an undeniably great leader” and professes a special regard for how he salvaged the nation from the decimation of World War I. Telegrams and a note indicate the approval of Nazi officials, suggesting it was largely a German propaganda piece. Historian Stephen Wenn has described the USOC official as “mesmerized” while highlighting an American diplomat’s claim that the Germans had deflected Sherrill from his primary responsibility simply by exploiting his vanity.
There are many elements to this saga but Sherrill’s captivation with Hitler is nothing short of confounding. Still, it reveals something of his era. Like many of his contemporaries, Sherrill intensely feared the spread of Bolshevism. While a republic was preferable, he saw power centralized in a popular monarchy as a palatable alternative. He presented this theory in The Purple or the Red (1924), a book he dedicated to Benito Mussolini, his inspiration, and whom his dedication described as an “ardent nationalist” and “world leader against the international menace of Bolshevism.” Using this logic, Sherrill and others conceived of strong European dictators such as Hitler and Mussolini as welcome barriers to the “red tide.”
Sherrill’s fawning observations about Hitler are still hard to stomach and his apparent fondness for two of history’s most deplorable dictators suggests a man duped by cults of personality. A poem titled “Confidential report on Salzburg by American reader of ‘My Battle’” accompanies notes on the first interview and may hint at why Hitler’s anti-Semitism wouldn’t have fazed him either. (In deference, it’s possibly he simply copied it but, either way, it is in his hand.)
Old Salzburg’s opera purified!
No splurge of crime or booze.
But – everywhere you walk or sit
Is full of foreign Jews!
We found a decent town
The days that we drove in,
But nearer to a synagogue
Than ‘tis agag with sin.
Clearly, what’s perhaps most interesting about this material is that it survived at all, assuming that anyone who witnessed the events of the following decade would destroy such mementos. Indeed, Sherrill died a little over a month before the opening ceremonies in Berlin and so never lived to see the terrible events that would unfold in the next decade.
Ironically, the karmic retribution is that Sherrill’s own hands etched his naiveté into history. But there is an odd redemption in the fact that he also presented us with an important historical lesson in the precariousness of accepting a presumed lesser evil.