Heinrich Ratjen

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Dora Ratjen

Heinrich Ratjen (20 November 1918 – 22 April 2008),[1] born Dora Ratjen, was a German athlete who competed for Germany in the women's high jump at the 1936 Summer Olympics at Berlin, finishing fourth, but was later determined to be male and/or intersex.[2] In some news reports, he was erroneously referred to as Hermann Ratjen and Horst Ratjen.


A file containing the findings of an investigation conducted in 1938 and 1939 into Ratjen's life was made public by Der Spiegel in 2009.[3]

Ratjen was born in Erichshof, near Bremen, into a family described as "simple folk". The father, Heinrich Ratjen, stated in 1938: "When the child was born the midwife called over to me, 'Heini, it's a boy!' But five minutes later she said to me, 'It is a girl, after all.'" Nine months later, when the child, who had been christened Dora, was ill, a doctor examined the child's genitalia and, according to Heinrich, said "Let it be. You can't do anything about it anyway."[clarification needed] Dora stated, also in 1938: "My parents brought me up as a girl [and] I therefore wore girl's clothes all my childhood. But from the age of 10 or 11 I started to realize I wasn't female, but male. However I never asked my parents why I had to wear women's clothes even though I was male."[3]

Ratjen's winning 1.63-meter jump at the 1937 German Athletics Championships.

In his teens, Dora began competing successfully as a girl at sports, apparently being "too embarrassed to talk about what was happening to him". In 1936, he took part in the Olympics, his teammate Gretel Bergmann stating: "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. We just thought, 'She's strange. She's odd'... But no-one knew or noticed anything about her different sexuality."[3] In 1938, Ratjen competed at the European Athletics Championships, and won the gold medal with a world record jump of 1.67 m (5 ft 5.75 in).[4]

In 1939 he broke the world record in the high jump.[5] But Dorothy Tyler-Odam was suspicious of Ratjen, saying, "They wrote to me telling me I didn't hold the record, so I wrote to them saying, 'She's not a woman, she's a man'. They did some research and found 'her' serving as a waiter called Hermann Ratjen. So I got my world record back."[5] Odam's world record was formally recognized by the sport's world governing body, the IAAF, in 1957.[5]

Gender controversy[edit]

On 21 September 1938, Ratjen took an express train from Vienna to Cologne. The conductor of the train reported to the police at the station in Magdeburg that there was "a man dressed as a woman" on the train. Ratjen was ordered off the train and questioned by the police. He showed his genuine documents which said he was a woman, but after some hesitation, admitted to being a man and told his story. A physician was summoned and after an examination pronounced Ratjen to be male. However, the physician described Ratjen's intersex genitalia as having a "coarse scarred stripe", and stated his opinion that with this organ sexual intercourse would be impossible.[3]

The athlete was arrested, and sent to Hohenlychen sports sanatorium for further tests, with the same results. Criminal proceedings continued until 10 March 1939, when the public prosecutor stated: "Fraud cannot be deemed to have taken place because there was no intention to reap financial reward." Dora promised the authorities he would "cease engaging in sport with immediate effect". The athlete's father, Heinrich Ratjen, initially insisted that Dora should continue to be treated as female, but on 29 March 1939 wrote to the police chief of Bremen: "Following the change of the registry office entry regarding the child's sex, I would request you change the child's first name to Heinrich." The gold medal won by Ratjen was returned and his name expunged from the records.[3][6]

Later life and confusion[edit]

According to Der Spiegel, Dora, then Heinrich Ratjen, who later called himself Heinz, was issued a new ID and work papers and taken to Hanover by the Reichsarbeitsdienst "as a working man". He later took over the running of his parents' bar, and refused requests for interviews before his death in 2008.[3]

However, in 1966, Time magazine reported that, in 1957, Dora had presented as Hermann, a waiter in Bremen, "who tearfully confessed that he had been forced by the Nazis to pose as a woman 'for the sake of the honor and glory of Germany'. Sighed Hermann: 'For three years I lived the life of a girl. It was most dull.'"[7]

In 2009, the film Berlin 36 presented a fictionalised version of the story presented by Time magazine. In the version of Ratjen's story presented as background to the movie, the Nazis supposedly wanted to ensure that Hitler would not be embarrassed by a Jewish athlete winning a gold medal for Germany at the Olympics, and Gretel Bergmann was replaced in the team by Ratjen. In 1938, Ratjen was supposedly then disqualified after the European Championships when a doctor discovered that he had strapped up his genitals.[8] Asked for comment following the movie's release, Bergmann said she had "no idea" why Ratjen did what he did.[9]

Der Spiegel disputed the assertion that Ratjen was a tool of the Nazis, as presented by Time and the movie, stating:[3]

It's not clear if Time ever spoke to Ratjen. The information about him in the article is meager and imprecise, to say the least... Unfortunately this portrayal was the one that was circulated from that moment on, and repeated elsewhere in the press... For researchers and reporters who have looked into the Bergmann case and therefore also that of Ratjen, the story being served up for cinematic consumption simply doesn't match the facts. Experts who conducted background research for the movie have grave doubts. Sports writer Volker Kluge advised the makers of Berlin 36. His verdict is damning. "On the basis of the available documents, I think it is completely out of the question that the Nazis deliberately created Dora Ratjen as a 'secret weapon' for the Olympic Games."... Historian Berno Bahro wrote the book accompanying the film. He speaks of "clear deviations between reality and the cinematic representation"... He urged the filmmakers not to sell the movie as a "true story".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Heinrich "Dora" Ratjen
  2. ^ Wallechinsky, David (2012). The Book of Olympic Lists. p. 19. ISBN 978-1845137731.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Berg, Stefan (15 September 2009). "How Dora the Man Competed in the Woman's High Jump". Der Spiegel. Retrieved 31 August 2010.
  4. ^ "Dora Ratjen", Sports-Reference.com. Retrieved 31 August 2010
  5. ^ a b c Steven Downes (30 September 2014). "Dorothy Tyler: High jumper who met Hitler then became the first British woman to win an individual Olympic medal in athletics". Independent newspapers. Retrieved 4 October 2014.
  6. ^ "Caster Semenya expected to be affected by IAAF rule changes". BBC Sport. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
  7. ^ "Track & Field: Preserving la Difference", Time, 16 September 1966, retrieved 18 March 2011
  8. ^ Boyes, Roger "Berlin 36 tells how Nazis replaced Jewish woman athlete for man in drag", The Times (London), 3 September 2009, retrieved 18 March 2011
  9. ^ "The Jewish jumper and the male impostor", BBC News, 9 September 2009, retrieved 31 August 2010