The British diplomat Robert Vansittart had been warning against Nazism for years, so it was a surprise when he and his wife showed up in Berlin for a two-week ‘holiday’ during the 1936 Olympics. ‘Van’ was impressed by German organisation. ‘These tense, intense people are going to make us look like a C nation,’ he wrote in a confidential report. The anti-appeaser had meetings with Hitler and the principal henchmen, and took a particular shine to Goebbels: ‘a limping, eloquent, slip of a Jacobin… My wife and I liked him and his wife at once.’
Van even came to think he might have misjudged the Nazis, though a lapse by the newly appointed ambassador to London, Von Ribbentrop, gave him pause. Van reported back the German’s remark during an otherwise cordial lunch that ‘if England doesn’t give Germany the possibility to live, then there would eventually be war between them, and one of them would be annihilated.’ Van was too polite to press him on the point.
The German historian Oliver Hilmes has unearthed many memorable vignettes for his book, which charts the Berlin Games day by day. Hilmes’s deceptively jaunty and often even comic tone echoes — presumably deliberately — the tone of the Games themselves. That summer, the Nazis and their capital city charmed the world. As we watch North Korea make nice during the current winter Games in South Korea, here is a reminder that Olympiads can have fateful consequences.
Berlin in August 1936 was in its last days as a great alluring metropole (a status it is only just regaining now). The majestic industrial-imperial city that mushroomed from the 1870s still stood. The nightlife that had beguiled Christopher Isherwood during Weimar hadn’t yet been destroyed either. By 1936, transvestites were having a hard time, but ‘those who can prove their heterosexuality are given extensions of the transvestite certificates issued in the Weimar Republic,’ writes Hilmes.
Nearly a year after the anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws, there were still many Jews somehow coping in Berlin. Even Leon Henri Dajou, the owner of the Quartier Latin, the city’s ‘most elegant and expensive club’, where nobody was allowed to wear uniform or a brown shirt, was a covert Romanian Jew named Leib Moritz Kohn. Another chic nightspot was run by an Egyptian and his Jewish girlfriend, who maintained order with a rubber truncheon that she kept behind the bar.
This world was slated for demolition. In the same month as the Olympics, Hitler ordained in a secret memo: ‘(1) The German army must be ready for deployment within four years. (2) The Germany economy must be capable of war within four years.’ But he wasn’t ready yet. To him, the main purpose of the Games was to buy time for war preparations, by conning the world into believing that his intentions were friendly.
And so, during the Olympics, the raving anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer wasn’t sold on Berlin’s streets. At the opening ceremony Hitler sat beside the half-Jewish head of Germany’s Olympic organising committee, Theodor Lewald. The German team included one half-Jewish athlete, the fencer Helene Mayer. That was enough to ward off the threat of a foreign boycott, especially as Avery Brundage, head of the American Olympic committee, was on the Nazi side of the argument: ‘In my club in Chicago Jews are not permitted either.’ Thirty-six years later, Brundage, as president of the IOC, would order that the Munich Games must go on regardless of the Palestinian terrorist slaughter of Israeli athletes.
The chief popular memory of the Berlin Games is that Hitler refused to shake the hand of the black American athlete Jesse Owens, who won four golds. The story is only partly true. In fact, after Hitler had received the women’s javelin medallists, a jealous IOC told him that congratulating winners wasn’t his job, and he obediently stopped. But he did angrily wave off the suggestion of a Nazi official that he be photographed with Owens.
Mostly, though, Owens got a friendly reception in Berlin — better than he might have had in the American South. The German press (ordered not to apply the ‘racial perspective’ to the Games) was respectful, the crowd chanted ‘Jesse!’ after he won the 100 metres and after the long jump, Owens and his blond German rival Luz Long left the field arm in arm. In fact, the biggest international news story about Hitler during the Games was the ‘kiss attack’ on him by the Californian tourist Carla de Vries, who broke through his entourage at the stadium. (She aimed for his lips, but only got a cheek as he turned away.) While SS men led her off, the crowd laughed and clapped for her, and Hitler joined in.
That fortnight, the Nazis appeared both friendly and startlingly efficient. Thanks to new technology, Olympic events were covered live on radio worldwide, and screened with a delay of just 58 seconds in 20 ‘public television salons’ around Germany.
Willy Brandt, West Germany’s future Social Democratic chancellor, who was visiting incognito from Norwegian exile, wrote: ‘Why can’t we admit that even people who used to vote left are impressed?’ Most foreigners were gulled, too. João Havelange, a Brazilian swimmer in 1936, would recall in the 1990s, when he was president of the global football authority Fifa: ‘Everyone admired Germany’s progress. It was a marvellous time.’
Certainly, the Nazis had a genius for staging. They invented the procession of the Olympic torch from Athens to the host city — a tradition that survives to this day —and generally improved on ancient Greek models. The sport-hating composer Richard Strauss wrote a special Olympic hymn (‘for the proletariat’, he wrote self-mockingly to his friend, the exiled Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, who had bigger problems). The opening ceremony was so superbly choreographed that the Polish ambassador muttered: ‘We have to be on our guard against a people with such a talent for organisation. They could mobilise their entire nation just as smoothly for war.’
Indeed, at the same time, just 25 miles from the Olympic stadium, workmen in Sachsenhausen were building a concentration camp. In Berlin itself, Sinti and Roma were being interned. The city’s police were cataloguing petty acts of dissidence for future reference: ‘In the exhibition halls on Kaiserdamm, various toilet doors have been scrawled with slogans hostile to the state concerning the racial question.’ And a secret squadron of German pilots was sailing to Spain, with orders to train Franco’s air force in the incipient civil war.
But while the Games lasted, Nazi skulduggery remained hush-hush. Goebbels — plagued that summer by the discovery that his wife had cheated on him, and that she was probably half-Jewish — wrote in his diary: ‘After the Olympics, we’ll get ruthless. Then there will be some shooting.’
At the Games’ closing ceremony, writes Hilmes: ‘The pretence of Olympic harmony collapses, as tens of thousands of people leave their seats to bellow “Heil Hitler” and sing, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles.”’
The regime’s popularity probably peaked that night. Germany’s economy was recovering, and not yet devoted to armaments, and we now know that hosting sports tournaments gives a temporary boost to national happiness. The Games were ‘maybe an apotheosis for Hitler and the Third Reich’, the French ambassador to Berlin, André François-Poncet, would later write.
Just before the Games ended, Goebbels threw a party on his private island. It ended at midnight, with a long fireworks display. Hilmes writes: ‘The endless massive explosions remind many of the guests of artillery fire. Finally, the din comes to an end with a gigantic concluding boom that turns the nocturnal heavens blood-red.’ Few observers recognised the omen, in part because the world had just been seduced.
Wolfgang Fürstner, the part-Jewish Wehrmacht captain who oversaw the Olympic village, didn’t wait for the catastrophe to unfold. Two days after the Games, wearing full uniform and medals, he shot himself in the head outside the village’s sauna building. Owens’s German friend Long died in battle in Sicily in 1943. Dajou did better: he escaped Germany just in time, with money embezzled from his Quartier Latin restaurant, legged it to Paris, and ended up in London. After the war, by then calling himself Rico Dajou, he opened the Don Juan Club and the Casanova Club in Mayfair. Princess Margaret was a regular.
The contours of Hilmes’s story are familiar, but the details are well selected. Jefferson Chase’s smooth translation contributes to a chillingly breezy read.