Hitler’s Oaks

A  race-against-time documentary which tries to trace the whereabouts of 130 English oak trees – presented as saplings to gold medallists at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  Each oak has a story behind it - some are unsettling, some inspiring.  Opinion is divided - are they echoes of tyranny, or treasured symbols which have to be saved?

                                    … a sample of featured people, subjects and issues

Hitler and the Nazi elite...

... watched with teeth-grinding agitation as Jesse Owens and a handful of American black athletes won gold after gold, trashing their idea of Aryan supremacy.  Hitler presented the first three gold-medallists – two German’s and a Fin – with their medals and potted oak saplings – but as soon as America’s black athletes started winning Hitler disappeared from view, refusing to acknowledge them.        

The Hero. 

Black American track & field start Jesse Owens did more to upset the Nazis than any other athlete, and has subsequently become Berlin ‘36’s defining figurehead. (He is pictured [left] holding the oak sapling he was given with his 100m gold medal).  In all, although Owens won 4 golds, and thus four oak saplings, his only oak known to survive came from that sapling – the tree stands in the sports-ground of the Ohio school where he trained [left].

Owens mentions the saplings he was given, where they were planted and the whereabouts of the trees in the 1951 documentary gem ‘Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin’, in which he revisits the scene of his world-famous triumph.  (In a still from the documentary [right] Owens is greeted by the Mayor of West Berlin, who tells him “… fifteen years ago Hitler refused to shake your hand… I now offer you two.”).

Unsavoury Undercurrents. 

The oak tree that stands in the grounds of the University of Southern California [left] is seen by many as a symbol of appeasement.  The U.S. 4 x 100m relay was to include the two Jewish sprinters Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller [right].  As the team was certain to win gold, and with American black athletes sweeping the board, the U.S. selectors decided on ‘replacements’ to spare Hitler the ‘indignation’ of seeing two Jews on the podium.


The only memorial to car mechanic Harold Whitlock is the recently-discovered unmarked tree-stump in the grounds of his old school in Hendon, North London – once a thriving oak that blossomed from his sapling.  Whitlock’s achievement is astounding given the intimidating atmosphere that confronted him at every turn of his victorious 50km race walk – German soldiers lined the route, as if to dare him to win.


New Zealand’s 1,500m gold-medallist Jack Lovelock would not have dreamt that 7 years after he stood on Berlin’s podium [with his medal and sapling, left] his brother Jim, an allied pilot, would be killed in a bombing raid over the same city.  ‘The Lovelock Oak’ [right] stands today at Timaru High school – a national treasure - a country’s remembrance of its great runner, and an inspiration to the many children who come from around the country to gather its acorns to take home and plant.

Treatment Copyright © Film Nouveau, 2012