Frank Keating

Hurrah for history

Forget the football, a bizarrely exotic touch of history reverberates around the World Cup final in Berlin

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Forget the football, a bizarrely exotic touch of history reverberates around the World Cup final in Berlin’s Olympiastadion tomorrow evening. Listen to this: ‘Berlin was crowded with foreigners and the streets beflagged. Went for a walk down the Unter den Linden, an avenue of banners blowing in the breeze, and everywhere the radio booming achtung and giving the latest result....’ That was British Tory MP ‘Chips’ Channon’s diary entry for 5 August 1936, the fourth day of competition at the notorious Berlin Olympics 70 summers ago. Plushly refurbished certainly, but precise in outline and feature, the Olympiastadion is the very amphitheatre where Adolf Hitler — and Jesse Owens — strutted their different stuff those three score and ten years past. Wide, handsome boulevard, Unter den Linden is still there, of course (though now a Jesse Owens Allee runs off it); the gigantic 10-ton, cast-steel Olympic Bell, shot down in 1945 by a British anti-tank shell, has been restored to its 1936 tower; and the very same five sombre, black iron Olympic rings remain suspended high between the vast twin pillars of the stadium entrance, just as they were that humid, showery, afternoon when Richard Wagner’s Huldigungsmarsch sounded imperiously as the Führer raised his right arm to acknowledge the venerating sea of 100,000 similar salutes of homage as he took his place in the Chancellor’s tribune. To Hitler’s right was then Reich Minister Frich, deputy Führer Hess, and Field Marshal von Blomberg; to his left, Italian Crown Prince Umberto, and (like their VIP compatriots resplendent in military uniform) Messrs Goebbels and Göring. Alongside those two, Leni Riefenstahl directed the movements of a bulky film camera.

I crib from a startlingly good, timely and vividly illuminating new book by the author and always exemplary researcher Anton Rippon (Hitler’s Olympics, Pen and Sword Books, £19.99). For historians, the overpowering aura of this Berlin colosseum, conceived and erected a lifetime ago to the glory of imperial dominance, will somehow be magnified, well, 70 times over when the 2006 football finalists kick off tomorrow night. The new Germans see a World Cup final in Hitler’s Olympiastadion as a symbol of the new Germany. ‘We need no more to airbrush away our past history,’ Markus Hesselmann, sports editor of Berlin’s Der Tagesspiegel told the Guardian the other day. ‘We learn from it, take responsibility for it, and now we move on.’

Let us look tomorrow to a final of skill and chivalry and good temper. On the field, the 2006 tournament has been unedifyingly stained by the feigning of injury and the appalling ‘Hollywood’ palaver which accompanies such antics. A ten-minute ‘sin bin’ would soon put a stop to it. Mind you, things were not much better even under Hitler’s mad martinet’s gaze. When Italy played the United States on this same Reich sportsfield 70 summers ago, the German ref Herr Weingartner sent off Italian star Piccini — retracting in no time and allowing him to stay (and Italy to win 1–0) when ‘several Italian players pinned Weingartner’s arms to his sides and covered his mouth with their hands’. And when Austria met Peru five days later, a pitch invasion saw the match abandoned (at 4–2 to Peru) and a replay ordered with no spectators present — at which the entire Peruvian Olympic contingent packed their suitcases and hotfooted it home (closely followed, in continental solidarity, by the Colombian team) in high dudgeon to Lima, where they stoned the German consulate. Hurrah, at least, for history.