“After the Olympics, we’ll get ruthless,” Goebbels confides in his diary on 7 August.” Then there will be some shooting.”
Berlin 1936: Sixteeen Days in August from Oliver Hilmes offers a kaleidoscope view of the Olympic games through the stories of a range of people: Nazi leaders, diplomats, socialites, writers, journalists, spies, nightclub owners, and, of course, the athletes. All this is set against the city of Berlin: a city in flux with the glories and decadence of Weimar culture fading fast–although some people were slower than others to catch on to the new reality and the horrific future.
The book, which contains some marvelous photographs from the period, begins on August 1, 1936 with the president of the International Olympic committee, Henri de Baillet-Latour, who according to Goebbels’ diary entry is one of “the Olympians [who] look like the directors of a flea circus.” This comment sets the tone for the book: appearance vs reality. For while the Olympics are solemnly held with respect for tradition, to Hitler, the games were a wonderful opportunity for propaganda. Already, on page 16 when the games open, Hitler is presented with a “symbolic Olive branch” which is followed by the athletes, who “represented by the German weightlifter, Rudolf Ismayr–take the Olympic oath.” Then in a break from protocol “after taking the vow, he waves a Swastika flag instead of the Olympic one.”
Parties and receptions: the Olympics are swathed with glittering events. As journalist Bella Fromm notes, “The propaganda machinery is trying to give visitors a positive impression of the Third Reich using the Olympics as camouflage.”
But behind the scenes of the Olympics, interesting events are taking place. Interior Minister, Wilhem Frick ordered a “gypsy manhunt day,” and two weeks before the Olympic games opened, around 600 people are rounded up and dumped in a camp on the outskirts of Berlin. The publication of the Nazi hate-rag Der Stürmer is suspended while all these important foreign visitors are in town.
There’s a ‘while Rome burns’ feel to the book. Berlin’s famous nightclubs are still operating, but “the Quartier Latin is a volcano, and patrons dance on its edge.” Similarly, The Ciro Bar and The Sherbini bar are thriving, but time is running out…
Underneath the idea that life in Berlin is ‘normal’ we see glimpses of the seemingly innocuous ‘Travel Union Club’ otherwise known as Legion Condor, well armed, heading to Spain. And then there’s the “free German press in exile” who publish and smuggle into Germany a 16 page pamphlet.
“Get to Know Beautiful Germany: An Indispensable Guide For Every Visitor to the Olympic Games in Berlin.” The cover featured an idyllic German landscape, but inside a map pinpoints almost all of the then-existing concentration camps, penal facilities and court prisons. ‘SA torture chambers have not been included,” a footnote read. “They are too many in number.”
In Berlin, American Author Thomas Wolfe who “doesn’t like Jews” mouths off about how “people are free to speak and write and think some things in Germany that they are not free to speak and write in America. For example, in Germany you are free to speak and write that you do not like Jews and that you think Jews are bad, corrupt and unpleasant people. In America, you are not free to say this.” But Wolfe expresses this naive opinion to the wrong person: Mildred Harnack, and it’s from her that for the first time, Wolfe hears the term, “concentration camp.”
Since arriving in Berlin, Wolfe has never seen any public evidence of the tyranny she described. But what if Germany is putting on a show to fool him and the other Olympic visitors? What if the Games are just a gigantic piece of propaganda? And what if the Germans Wolfe meets every day are just extras in an exceedingly horrible play?
Berlin 1936 is initially a dizzying read, but then the central idea of appearance vs reality takes over. The author’s original approach to a slice of history is compelling and effective. Each chapter is prefaced with the report of the weather (there’s great irony here) and police reports are scattered through the text. At the end of the book, there’s a section ‘what became of.’ and in this chapter, the author traces the lives of some of the characters mentioned.
Translated by Jefferson Chase