Berlin 1936; Sixteen Days in August by Oliver Hilmes. Other Press, 2018.

One of the less significant moments in the Berlin Summer Olympics of 1936 was an incident involving Jessie Owens, the American star of the track and field events. Having just won one of his four gold medals, he was denied a recognition by the German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler. But Oliver Hilmes believes the incident’s authenticity is dubious.

The Olympic Games, held in Berlin’s magnificent new stadium, was the successor to the Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles in 1932.  The Germans created a new tradition; a runner delivering a lighted torch on the opening day of the Games. Supposedly the flaming torch would come from the city that had hosted the previous Olympic Games. But the Los Angeles-to-Berlin run involved one or another ocean.

The Olympics were intended to showcase the “peace-loving” Nazi regime. Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda, were regular attendees at the Games. But Hilmes suggests that their peace-loving gesture was senseless. Poland and Austria had already been occupied and added to the Third Reich, Poland by a German invasion and occupation of Austria after a fraudulent plebiscite. Austrian Nazis attending the Games were determined to outdo the Germans in their ardor. The Reich had competition on two fronts.

Hitler opened the event with his usual “mob oratory”. He was acclaimed by a capacity crowd of 100,000 sports fans in the Olympic Stadium. Hard to overlook were the numerous swastikas and the stiff-armed fascist salutes that accompanied Hitler wherever he went. Richard Wagner’s music was used as the score for the occasion.

The grand events on this first day were mostly the result of Leni Riefenstahl’s planning. Hitler was pleased. Leni was a moderately well-known photographer and lately a film-maker. She photographed the annual Nazi party rallies from 1933 through 1938 from which her newsreel, Triumph of the Will, was taken. Hilmes argues that Riefenstahl’s staging and broadcasting of these sports events became the model for radio – later television – broadcasts around the world.

The Chancellor’s favor she had, but Riefenstahl did not get along with Herr Goebbels.

The Nazi Regime had not yet displayed the murderous edge that it would soon show. By the summer of 1936, Hitler was moving against the German Jews. Jewish athletes were barred from membership in the German sports clubs that sponsored the German team.

The work camps were not yet established. They would begin to appear in the next few months. And there were still Germans who felt free to complain about the Nazis, though it was considered bad form to do so in front of the foreigners visiting Berlin for the Olympics. Hitler especially wished to impress the British. Perhaps the beginnings of an alliance could come out of this sports gathering?

It was one thing to bar German Jews from competition. But American Jews were outraged when it appeared that the American delegation to the Berlin Olympics had been closed to Jewish athletes to curry favor with the Nazis. The head of the International Olympic Committee in the U.S., Avery Brundage, was asked to investigate the situation. After a look around and some mild criticism, Brundage revealed that his sports club in Chicago also barred Jewish membership.

Forty-nine countries were represented amongst the 4000 athletes, and eighty-nine medals were passed out. Germans won the most medals, easily, followed by the U.S. But Hitler was perturbed by the success of athletes from the U.S. and other countries doing well against their German competition.

Hitler had ensured that the homeless street people would not bother the image of a prosperous Germany. Mostly Gypsies, ‘Chancellor Hitler regretted the “Gypsy Plague”. They had been largely removed from Berlin’s streets by opening day.

Hilmes takes an odd turn when he describes the Berlin night life that entertained those who attended the Berlin Olympics. He describes the high-end dining and better-known bars where the beer flowed. The presence of so many attendees to be entertained provided an opportunity for American jazz musicians, newly arrived in Germany, to find European audiences. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra presented an Olympic Anthem, to be performed in the new stadium.

Oliver Hilmes’s final chapter is interesting – “What became of…?” Many of those attendees who come alive in Hilmes’ narrative had unfortunate endings. Berlin was badly damaged by Allied bombing during WWII. Hence the Berliners who once sparked avant-garde restaurants and trendy bars came under aerial attack – along with their establishments.

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