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The Week in Death: The First Muslim Female Olympian Snubbed Adolf Hitler


The Week in Death: The First Muslim Female Olympian Snubbed Adolf Hitler


Halet Çambel, who has died aged 97, was an Olympic fencer and the first Muslim woman to compete in the Games; while she failed to take home a medal from the Berlin Olympics in 1936 she won international acclaim by refusing to meet Hitler. Post-war, she became a renowned archaeologist.

The 20-year-old Halet Çambel represented Turkey in the women’s individual foil event. She already held reservations about attending the Nazi-run Games, and an introduction to the Führer was a compromise too far. “Our assigned German official asked us to meet Hitler. We actually would not have come to Germany at all if it were down to us, as we did not approve of Hitler’s regime,” she recalled late in life. “We firmly rejected her offer.”

Halet Çambel was born on August 27 1916 in Berlin, the granddaughter of Ibrahim Hakki Pasha, the Ottoman Ambassador to Germany. Her father, Hasan Cemil Çambel, was the embassy’s military attaché and a close associate of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic.

As she grew up in Berlin with her three siblings, her parents became concerned by her frailty (she suffered with typhoid and hepatitis). “They always looked at me as if my days were numbered,” she remembered. “They would dress me up in layers of jumpers and woolly socks. As I was not happy with this, without my family knowing, I removed these heavy clothes at school and decided to increase my strength. And I also began to exercise. The German books I read contained stories about knights. I was very impressed by them, this is why I took up fencing.”

In the mid-1920s the family resettled in Istanbul, where, prior to the founding of the Republic, Halet Çambel was “shocked by the black shrouded women who came and visited us at home.” Part of Ataturk’s legacy was to expand the rights and possibilities of women. Participation in sport contributed to this emancipation.

She acknowledged the amateurism of her country’s Olympic bid. “We did not prepare,” she said. “Everybody would train in their own spare time.” After an unhelpful spell with a Hungarian coach in Budapest, she arrived in Berlin. She was present when a furious Hitler stormed out of the Olympic Stadium after America’s black athlete Jesse Owens won the 100m sprint.

On her return from the Games she met Nail Çakırhan, a Communist poet and later a celebrated architect. As her family were unimpressed by Çakırhan’s Marxist beliefs, the couple wed in secret. She went on to read Archaeology (along with the Hittite, Assyrian, and Hebrew languages) at the Sorbonne in Paris before gaining a doctorate at the University of Istanbul in 1940. In the immediate wake of the Second World War she studied with the German professor Helmuth Bossert, and in 1947 assisted on his excavation of the 8th-century Hittite fortress city of Karatepe in the Taurus Mountains of southern Turkey.

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  • Heinz Catsup

    Too bad the counter jihad movement won’t pick up on this

  • Tighe McCandless

    “Well, first of all what the *?#{ is an anarchist regime??!”

    An excellent question; I’ve no idea why I decided to write the words ‘anarchist’ and ‘regime’ together in that manner. I’d actually started my response a day or two ago and only got around today to finishing it. I didn’t bother to go back and reread what I’d written for whatever reason.

    “…if someone does not want to do any of these things, which most who call themselves communists today do not, then why would you compare them?!”

    You seem to be under the impression I do not think Communists can be good people or do good things. This is not true. But politics are a very strange animal; yes, they’re all that you mention (organization, etc.) but they are also implementation. Even if modern day Communists abhor the regimes that existed in the U.S.S.R., etc. if they can provide no other real world look at how their ideas would be put into place, it simply doesn’t bode well for the ideology at all.

  • After reading a little more on the subject, I would tend to agree with the overzealous inclusion of that statement, and removed it.

    I want my comments to be useful and entertaining, and there is nothing that says useful and entertaining need be dishonest. Thanks for the correction.

    Her not being in the position to have to flee in some ways only increases my admiration for her action. Thank you for pointing that out. While we are sometimes capable of great things when our backs are put to the wall, seldom is a person who has actually attained and retained some semblance of security or position in this world make use of it to do good at the risk of losing it or worse. There also can be no fault to her for not having suffered more, that would be a cruel way to view a persons life.

  • Tighe McCandless

    “I think you’re confusing two separate criticisms…”

    I think we’re half way talking past one another. I’m largely in agreement with your first point here, but the way in which I was taught about the segment is reflected in the paragraph you were responding to. Admittedly, I’m not the best at articulating what I mean all the time. Thank you for at least explaining it a bit further.

    “I assume you mean social democracy (the oft-celebrated example being Scandinavia), i.e ‘big government’ liberalism…”

    I’m aware that socialism is viewed as simply a ‘stepping stone’ towards the end goal of Communism, which is what you described there. In hindsight, yes, I do suppose I was talking about Scandinavia (though not exclusively; I don’t know enough about European politics to feel safe about making any sort of judgment about how effective or ineffective aspects of it are). I view it – at the very least – as at least having the realistic chance of being implemented and even potentially succeeding.

    “To be sure, everybody uses these words in different ways, but your usage is confusing.”

    I didn’t say that no one could talk about Stalinism, etc. You can talk about whatever you want. I’m more concerned, however, with practicability. It’s true that there’s no accounting for ‘taste’ and that people who would identify as, say, socialists may not care for any of the systems that are, as you said, social democracies today. That’s fine, I suppose, but not really my concern.

    “…but why should Anarchists and Marxists today, many of whom were murdered in these periods, have to answer for something they are ideologically opposed to?”

    If someone is to say, “I am an anarchist” or even “I am a fascist,” then the inevitable question is going to be, “Well, do you support what happened under regime X, Y or Z?” Certainly not everyone is going to be supportive of the excesses of regimes that happen to claim to share the same set of beliefs. The problem is is that the examples we have of things like fascism, anarchism, etc. do a pretty bad job of endearing those ideologies to anyone. I find talk of, “Well, it wasn’t *really* Communism/whatever” irrelevant. I find that such arguments are very No True Scotsman in nature.

    Communism, its polar opposite Objectivism and anarchism (to name examples) are utopian by their very nature. They assume that human beings will do as they require all of the time and not deviate from the set of instructions they lay down. Human beings are infinitely more complicated than this, for better or worse. As I said, the fact that things like poverty are currently unsolvable inside of our current system does not mean that people can’t dream of something better or that they should stop trying to. Everything fades away – just, too, as capitalism will and (though I find it uncomfortable to consider) things like democracy can as well. It is better to work within the 21st century with new ideas rather than ones from the 19th or 20th centuries.

    You can respond if you like, but I’d rather not continue. I don’t really like debating politics if I can help it and I don’t think you or I are going to really convince one another.

  • Mehdi

    Great post, lots of wisdom, happy to see you on LW, thanks

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