On this day March 29: Heinrich Ratjen aka Dora Ratjen

dora ratjen heinrich ratjen march 29

On March 29, 1939, Dora Ratjen’s father wrote to the Bremen police chief: “Following the change of the registry office entry regarding [my] child’s sex, I would request you change the child’s first name to Heinrich. Heil Hitler!” And so, Dora Ratjen, fourth placegetter in women’s high jump at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, became Heinrich Ratjen.

From 1928, when the Olympics first allowed a limited number of female track events, the search was on for male imposters posing as female athletes. Despite numerous nasty fingers pointed at women deemed ‘too masculine’, only one man ever competed in a female event at the Olympics.

And no one knew or suspected.

Heinrich Ratjen won fourth in the women’s high jump at the 1936 Berlin Olympics under the name Dora Ratjen. But it wasn’t his fault. Nor was it part of a dastardly Nazi plot as portrayed in the movie Berlin 36.

1936 Berlin Olympics

Avery Brundage, longtime President of the International Olympic Committee and a Nazi sympathiser, managed to quash a proposed American boycott of the 1936 Berlin Games. He assured Americans that the Germans would not discriminate against Jewish athletes.

Bullshit, of course, and Brundage encouraged the Nazis to provide evidence of Jewish inclusion.

Champion Jewish high jumper Gretel Bergmann had moved from Germany to England in 1934 after the Nazis stopped her from competing. But when they needed to demonstrate a commitment to inclusion, the Nazis threatened reprisals against Gretel’s family unless she returned to train for the 1936 Olympics. After the threat of boycotts passed, they booted her out again.

Elfriede Kaun and Dora Ratjen then competed for Germany in the women’s high jump. Elfriede won bronze, and Dora placed fourth.

Then, in 1938, Dora broke the world women’s high jump record. But in 1957, that record was disallowed.

Dora was a man.

No one suspected anything in 1936, including teammate Gretel Bergmann.

“I never had any suspicions, not even once. 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.”

Elfriede agreed, “No one knew or noticed anything about her different sexuality.”

Berlin 36

But in 1966, Time reported that the athlete “tearfully confessed he had been forced by the Nazis to pose as a woman.”

A great story later made into the movie Berlin 36. But not true. The Nazis certainly robbed Gretel Bergmann of her rightful place in the competition. But they did not intentionally replace her with a man.

Heinrich Ratjen always refused to give interviews and it appears the Time reporter simply invented the story. Factual mistakes included calling Ratjen ‘Hermann’.

So what was the truth?

Years after her birth, Dora’s father said of his child’s birth, “The midwife called over to me, ‘It’s a boy!’ But five minutes later, she said, ‘It is a girl’.”

Although unsure, Dora’s parents took the midwife’s word. In 1918, most people avoided discussion of sexual matters. However, when Dora later became ill with pleurisy and pneumonia, her father asked the doctor to examine her genitalia.

“Let it be,” said the doctor, “You can’t do anything about it anyway.”

The Ratjens, poor and poorly educated, took the word of medical professionals despite their own initial doubts.

Dora later explained her own confusion.

I never asked my parents

“My parents brought me up as a girl… From the age of 10 or 11, I started to realise I wasn’t female… However, I never asked my parents why I had to wear women’s clothes.”

Dora’s confusion increased when her breasts didn’t develop as a teenager. However, she felt unable to raise the subject with her parents. Dora became a champion high jumper and at the age of 17, competed in the Berlin Olympics.

Her career as a female athlete ended on her way home from breaking the world record in 1938. A rail inspector, suspicious of her hairy arms, reported her to the police.

The end of the masquerade pleased the young athlete. One police officer noted, “He has been waiting for this moment for a long time.”

Dora changed his name to Heinrich. He lived and worked as a man for the rest of his life.

Der Spiegel unearthed the original files of his arrest in 2009.

The records show that bad as they were, the Nazis did not pass off Heinrich as a girl at the 1936 Olympics. They didn’t know.

Nor was the fraud malicious. A police physician documented scar tissue running along the underside of Heinrich’s penis. That perhaps indicates a genital anomaly at the time of his birth. However, the doctor also noted: “The secondary sexual characteristics are entirely male. The named person can unambiguously be considered a man.”

The true story of Dora Ratjen is that of a mistaken midwife, parents unsure what to do, and a boy who felt unable to broach a taboo subject with his parents.

Dirk Bogarde, March 28 <— On this day —> March 30, Mehmed II and Radu the Beautiful

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Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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