At noon on the opening day of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, as the wife of composer Richard Strauss retired from breakfast at her hotel and the American writer Thomas Wolfe arrived to promote his new novel, some 29,000 members of the Hitler Youth held a rally in the city’s Lustgarten park. As the German historian Oliver Hilmes describes in his newly translated vibrant, polyphonic account of those games, Berlin 1936, this mass of people as a show of strength and unity was “a powerful demonstration aimed at foreign visitors.” So went the rest of that August’s festivities.
From China announcing itself on the world stage in 2008 in Beijing to the current demonstrations in Pyeongchang of peace and cooperation between North and South Korea, politics and propaganda are inseparable from the Olympic spectacle—though perhaps never more patently than in Berlin in 1936. “Foreigners are spoiled, indulged, flattered and fooled,” the Jewish journalist Bella Fromm, who would flee to the United States in 1938, wrote in her contemporaneous diary. “The propaganda machinery is trying to give visitors a positive impression of the Third Reich using the Olympics as camouflage.”
These were, after all, the Games which gave the world the relay of the Olympic torch from Athens to the host city, thus linking Nazi Germany with classical Greece, and Leni Riefenstahl’s gargantuan documentary Olympia, applying the techniques Hitler’s favorite director learnt filming Nazi party rallies to athletic competition. Fromm—one of Hilmes’ most cutting, pointed voices—observes of Riefenstahl as she filmed Olympia, “Every now and then she’d sit down next to the Führer. She had a curdled smile like on the cover of a glossy magazine, and her head was crowned by a halo of importance.”
In competition spectators witnessed fencer Helene Mayer, who had left the Third Reich for California in the fall of 1934 due to her status as a “half-Jew,” win silver for Germany. The Nazis allowed her to compete under their flag as a sop to the international community and those who had tried to organize a boycott of the Games. Outside the stadium, for the duration of the Olympics the Nazis suspended the publication of the anti-Semitic rag Der Stürmer and took down the issues that were usually displayed prominently in public spaces.
So successful was their propaganda—and the willingness of the International Olympic Committee to look the other way—that at the same time as the Games were taking place, the regime was brazenly constructing a concentration camp, Sachsenhausen, barely 22 miles north of Berlin. The city’s gypsy population, meanwhile, had been removed and deported to a single encampment on Berlin’s eastern outskirts. “Living conditions in the camp were catastrophic,” Hilmes notes, “with the 600 inmates having only two toilets at their disposal” and no clean drinking water. Disease, infection and hunger ensued.
Translated by Jefferson Chase, in Berlin 1936 Hilmes—who has previously written biographies of the muse Alma Mahler and composer Franz Liszt—frequently utilizes the perspectives of diplomats and journalists, socialites and musicians as well as tidbits from Nazi police and press reports to reconstruct the Nazi German capital. Far more than an account of athletic feats, Hilmes pokes fun at the supposed high seriousness and pomposity of the Nazi regime while carefully detailing the city’s darker corners: its decaying nightclubs, unsolved suicides, and minorities fearing for their lives. The sheer array of characters can sometimes feel dizzying, but Hilmes does succeed in capturing a city suspended for 16 days on the cusp of something much darker, as the last embers of hedonistic, chaotic Weimar Berlin are stomped out forever.
The Summer Olympics of 1936 were a moral disaster and thus a political and diplomatic smash for the Nazi regime. Jesse Owens’s achievements notwithstanding, Germany ranked first in the medals table, far ahead of the United States, reinforcing the myth of German or Aryan racial superiority. For the city of Berlin, the increase in visitors made the Games highly profitable. More importantly, “Hitler and his regime were able to present themselves as peace-loving, reliable members of the family of nations,” Hilmes writes, giving many the impression that “Hitler can be trusted to keep his promises.”
Less than two years after the Olympics Games’ closing ceremonies, Hitler completed the Anschluss with Austria. Within another 18 months, this was followed by the annexation of the Sudetenland, occupation of Czechoslovakia, and finally war with Poland. Within the same time period Nazis initiated, in November 1938, a pogrom against Germany’s Jewish population and established new concentration camps at Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and other places in the Greater German Reich. Above its diplomatic value, the Olympics Games were also, Hilmes notes, “the end of an era in which the Nazis consolidated power.” For 16 days in August, the regime put on a different face, exuding relative calm as to mask their intentions to the outside world. But Hilmes ends his history with an ominous note from the diarist Viktor Klemperer, which turned out to be more prescient that anyone could have feared. “The Olympics will be over next Sunday…an explosion is imminent, and of course people will take out their frustrations on the Jews.”