The 1936 European Figure Skating Championships

The winner's table... Karl Schäfer, Maxi Herber, Sonja Henie and Ernst Baier in Berlin. Photo courtesy National Archives of Poland.

Prior to the 1936 Winter Olympic Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, many of Europe's top skaters got their first taste of what competing in Nazi Germany would be like at the 1936 European Figure Skating Championships. 

Photo courtesy Národní muzeum

The event was held from January 24 through 26, 1936 at the Berlin Sportpalast. As at the Olympics, the arena was swimming with S.S. Guards. High-ranking Nazi officials including Reich Minister Of Propaganda And 'Public Enlightment' Paul Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Wilhelm Göring and Hans von Tschammer und Osten watched from the stands.

Christine Engelmann, Karl Schäfer and Sonja Henie in Berlin.  Photo courtesy National Archives of Poland.

In Berlin, the amateur statuses of both Sonja Henie and Karl Schäfer were hot topics. Reporters jumped on a rumour that ISU officials were investigating "the conditions in which Schäfer's name was used in an advertisement in a sporting goods publication" but nothing ever came of it. If Schäfer kept his mouth shut, Sonja Henie took the opposite approach. Calling a press conference, she denied rumours surrounding her amateur status and announced to reporters, "I will defend all my titles for the last time this year then withdraw from active sport to do only fancy skating for my numerous friends in the world. Preparations for competitions take too much time." Let's take a look at how things played out in Berlin that year!


Violet and Leslie Cliff in Berlin. Photo courtesy National Archives of Poland.

Seven teams vied for supremacy at the Sportpalast. Skating to music specially composed for them by Rudolf Zeller, Maxi Herber and Ernst Baier easily defended their European title with first place ordinals from all seven judges. With four second place ordinals, Violet and Leslie Cliff, who trained at the Westover Ice Rink in Bournemouth, narrowly defeated Hungarian siblings Piroska and Attila Szekrényessy for the silver. Ilse and Erik Pausin and Emília Rotter and László Szollás, the teams who would win the silver and bronze in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, did not participate.

The January 27, 1936 issue of the "Wiener Sporttagblatt" offered a review of many of the pairs performances: "The mood in the audience was understandably a very good one as we knew that Herber-Baier, the German couple, had to win. The bad luck of the excellent Hungarian siblings
Piroska and Attilla Szekrényessy was to continue, though some of the judges changed their view of them. The Hungarians are very good, have a lot of energy, but despite bringing difficult figures an interplay doesn't exist at all. Second to skate were the Czechoslovakian combination of [Vera] Treybal and [Josef] Vosolobe. It was evident they had not trained at the Sportpalast. Besides, Fraulein Treybal fell once, so no favourable overall was made. Herber-Baier came next with cheers. With powerful energy, they performed a nice spiral, original pirouette combinations, an Axel Paulsen and new lifting figures. The lifting figures do not quite work out, but they are amazing. Surprisingly, many irregularities were observed as [other teams] attempted them. After the masters the Polish combination of Stephanie and Erwin Kalusz. They skated a really nice program without big highlights but with strong effect in some positions. The audience loved the Berlin couple [Eva] Prawitz and [Otto] Weiß and rightly, since [their program] was formulated according to the Viennese Waltz. They had excellent pirouettes and a lot of difficulty. The couple Violet and Leslie Cliff were next. He was tall and strong, she small and graceful. Despite their differences, they were excellent. Three times, he turned her in a deep pirouette. The Belgians [Louisa] Contamine and [Robert] Verdun skated a light program, but this was almost error-free. The judges completely disregarded the fact that the Hungarians should have been second and the Berliners third."


Karl Schäfer and Sonja Henie in Berlin.  Photo courtesy National Archives of Poland.

Unphased by the rumours surrounding his amateur status and clearly in a class of his own, Karl Schäfer was unanimously first in both the school figures and free skating on every judge's scorecard in Berlin. However, he struggled on the final two of his six figures. Once Marcus Nikkanen and Freddie Tomlins took themselves out of the running with dismal showings in the school figures, the battle for silver became a four way one between Ernst Baier, Henry Graham Sharp, Felix Kaspar and Elemér Terták. The German judge actually tied Kaspar with Schäfer in the free skate, but three judges actually had Terták second in that phase of the competition. However, once the marks were all added up, Sharp was in second, Baier third, Kaspar fourth and Terták fifth. Despite rallying back with a fine free skate, fifteen year old Tomlins was only able to finish seventh behind Nikkanen and Japan's Toshikazu Katayama, who had learned to skate largely by studying a translated copy of T.D. Richardson's first book. Belgium's Robert van Zeebroeck, the surprise bronze medallist at the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, placed only tenth in a failed comeback attempt. More than twelve thousand spectators watched the men's free skate, many standing as the seats were all taken.

The January 27, 1936 issue of the "Wiener Sporttagblatt" offered a review of many of the men's free skating performances: "First, [Ernst] Baier skated into the arena and brought in his elegant, somewhat feminine way, a program which was meant for the audience. His soft, round movements remind one somewhat of [Gillis] Grafström. He was not fully acknowledged by the judges, as his program was full of poses although his program contained the most difficult figures. His Axels were flawless, free and perfect. His varied pirouettes found colossal applause. Kaspar's skating seemed wonderful. His jumps were of a fantastic height and had an unmatched security. His rapid succession of pirouettes had an excellent attitude and technical skill... He made just one mistake but his program was not well distributed. He piled the jumps at the beginning... The German and Finnish judges gave him for the contents the maximum score of 6.0. Nevertheless, that score was not quite right as there was no doubt in the rink he was the second best man in the place. [Freddie] Tomlins (England) skated surprisingly well. To be against the temp was nothing to complain about and his program was good. [Marcus] Nikkanen also received applause, especially for his peculiar zigzag steps and change-over pirouettes. He related extremely well to the audience. The Pole [Walter] Grobert and Berliner [Herbert] Haertel were pretty weak. Then came Schäfer... He received giant applause and showed a fine attitude, security and boldness in his program's conception skating to a combination of waltzes and modern music... He received the mark of 6.0 for both content and execution from the Austrian and Czechoslovakian judges. [Robert] van Zeebroeck skated with an injured foot and failed to make an impression... [Freddy] Mésot was even weaker. [Jean] Henrion skated very slowly, without any momentum. Then came the Hungarian [Elemér] Terták. He showed a program of good humour but without much difficulty. His jumps and repeated pirouettes pleased the audience and the judges were met with curses and whistles for their marks."


Sonja Henie and Howard Nicholson (left) and Megan Taylor (right) in Berlin. Photos courtesy National Archives of Poland.

Sonja Henie won the school figures with first place ordinals from five of the seven judges. British judge Ian Home Bowhill and Austrian judge Fritz Kachler gave the nod to Cecilia Colledge, with Bowhill actually placing Henie in third behind Colledge and Megan Taylor. Controversially, Bowhill placed Austria's Liselotte Landbeck only twelfth in the first phase of the competition... while every other judge had her in the top five.

Jackie Dunn, Cecilia Colledge, Victoria Lindpaintner, Maxi Herber and Ernst Baier training in Berlin. Photos courtesy National Archives of Poland.

The free skating results mimicked those of the figures, with five of the seven judges placing Henie first and one placing her second and another third. This time, it was the Swedish and German judges who placed her behind Colledge. Interestingly, that same Swedish judge had Vivi-Anne Hultén only seventh in the free skating and the German judge had Maxi Herber only fifth... stopping any cries of nationalistic judging right in their tracks.

Karl Schäfer, Sonja Henie, Maxi Herber and Ernst Baier in Berlin. Photo courtesy National Archives of Poland.

However, after the marks were all tallied Henie was once again first on every judge's scorecard overall, with Colledge and Taylor a firm second and third. Landbeck settled for fourth, ahead of Hultén, Hedy Stenuf, Maxi Herber and Viktoria Lindpaintner.

In ninth place was Etsuko Inada, the first and only woman representing an Asian country to compete at the European Championships. Crippled by low marks in the school figures, the pint-sized star from Japan became something of a media darling in Nazi Germany after delivering an outstanding free skate.  

The January 27, 1936 issue of the "Wiener Sporttagblatt" offered a review of many of the women's free skating performances: "As the first skater, Pamela Prior with a mourning band on the arm, like all the English women, skated surprisingly well. Her dainty figure came off especially well in the pirouettes in her frilly dress. Sonja Henie came out to some heckling, which was not very nice. She showed a wonderful program, without even the slightest technical mistakes. Her program was not too severe in its difficulty, but was perfectly put together. Especially good with her Axel, loop jumps and ballet steps. When she finished, flowers were thrown down and when the German officials left the place, she still boasted of the applause. [Mia] Macklin (England) fell once. Cecilia Colledge's program was similar to [Karl] Schäfer's with maximum difficulty. She did Rittberger jumps, Axel Paulsens and pirouettes, one more beautiful than the other. Her presentation was just wonderful. On the other hand, [Jacqueline] Vaudecrane was too weak for this competition. The Hungarian Éva Botond was liked. She struggled on an Axel Paulsen, but showed a nice, well developed program. The Swiss woman [Anita] Wageler fell in the same place as the Hungarian. The Englishwoman [Gladys] Jagger was a surprise. She skated very quickly and musically and won over the audience. Maxi Herber skated to a waltz and appeared uncertain in her jumps. Twice she had to lean on the ice to avoid a fall. Her program was well-developed. Megan Taylor's program was full of colossal difficulties. She managed smoothly, only the slow pace harmed the overall effect somewhat. Her presentation was wonderful, especially her ballet and dancing steps. Our little Austrian Hedy Stenuf had a big success. She skated without errors, though perhaps not quite as good as in Vienna. She was applauded for her pirouettes and certainly improved her place. The Swedish woman [Vivi-Anne] Hultén skated disappointingly to Hungarian music. Her tempo and swing left much to be desired and a fall on simple [footwork] decreased the impression of her performance. [Györgyi] Botond skated a light program without dificulties. The Czech [Věra] Hrubá skated smoothly as well. [Viktoria] Lindpaintner brought a pleasant program that was technically up to date. In the case of the Japanese [Etsuko] Inada there were differences of opinion between the audience and the judges. She has in the fourteen days since she has been in Europe improved greatly and her Rittberger and Axel were very nice. After her perfect performance, the audience cheered and cheered and when the marks were revealed, the audience jeered. Liselotte Landbeck was also better than at the competition in Vienna. She brought the usual technically first class program full of difficulties and her pirouettes had great effect. Her performance was excellent."

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