Simon Kuper Simon Kuper

Nazi gamesmanship

The Nazis staged an extraordinary spectacle in 1936. But its military precision gave many cause for alarm

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.

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