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The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games
By Christopher Hilton
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Christopher Hilton
All rights reserved.
Man at the Centre of the World
The German nation ... provided the world with ... its willingness to co-operate in large international projects designed to further universal peace.
That August day the city of heavy stone, the city with its new god, waited. A million people, held back by 40,000 storm troopers, stood twenty and thirty deep all along the 3-mile route. Each of them knew he would be coming in a moment from the enclosed Chancellory courtyard.
At the far end of that courtyard two statues of heroic naked men, one symbolising the Party and the other the armed forces, guarded shallow steps up to the Chancellory entrance. An open-topped Mercedes waited there. Two bodyguards in dark uniforms sat on the rear seat, motionless.
He wore military uniform, knee-length leather boots and the peaked cap designed for him. He wore a golden Party badge and his prized military medal, an Iron Cross. As he moved briskly down the steps, the Mercedes door swung open and he stepped in. He stood and remained standing. He knew the power of his physical presence over the millions and as he passed they would all see him, feel that power. The Mercedes moved off towards the courtyard's double doors at the instant the timetable decreed it should: 3.18 p.m.
A little drizzle had fallen from an overcast sky and, as the Mercedes emerged and turned into Wilhelmstrasse, the road glistened. Four similar Mercedes with more bodyguards followed, making a convoy with a symmetry and a power of its own. The timetable decreed that the journey from here to the great amphitheatre last 32 minutes.
At the intersection with Unter den Linden, a wide thoroughfare whose buildings were draped with flags, the convoy turned left. The lime trees populating the central area between two carriageways had been replaced by swastikas 45 feet high. The crowd began cheering and, in great ripples, gave the stiff-arm Nazi salute. Along the 3 miles a voice echoed from loud speakers set at regular intervals 'He is coming, He is coming'.
The convoy glided through the Brandenburg Gate, with its statue of a horseman on top, and was out onto the long avenue which stretched – rigid as a backbone, straight as a rod – away through wooded parkland. The avenue was so long it changed names several times, but people called it collectively the Via Triumphalis. It continued to the suburb of Charlottenburg and the amphitheatre.
Every moment brought him closer, every moment the ripple of cheering and saluting travelled with him, and from above the voice echoed 'He is coming now, He is coming now'.
At 3.45 p.m. the amphitheatre gates closed; there were 100,000 inside.
At Charlottenburg the convoy turned off the avenue, moved towards a platz – deep crowds circling it – and the entrance. The convoy halted, he stepped down at 3.50 p.m. and passed through the entrance: an opened gate. He inspected a battalion of honour, walked briskly under a tall bell tower, passed four field guns ready to fire a salute and onto a vast field of manicured grass. The amphitheatre loomed at the far side of the field.
Two rows of dignitaries and officials waited for him and as he reached them a fanfare sounded in the distance. Now he faced a multicoloured panorama of some four thousand people arranged by nationality, half to one side of the field, half to the other. Some had spent weeks travelling half the world to be here. Some had come an exhausting journey by train, others caught trains quite normally. Some were in large groups, some came as individuals. Some brought pageantry with them: straw hats, naval caps, turbans, blue berets.
At 3.56 p.m. he walked briskly between them. He had 4 minutes to reach the amphitheatre. As he went, the dignitaries – military officers among them – fell in behind him, were towed along in his wake.
Two heroic statues of men holding horses guarded the amphitheatre entrance. Nearby young people in shorts, perhaps a thousand of them, jostled for their glimpse and raised their arms stiff in the salute.
He walked past a stone buttress with a huge iron tripod and crucible on it that would receive the sacred flame. As he descended stone steps, tier after tier of the 100,000 were on their feet raising a forest of arms in another ripple.
He crossed the reddish running track onto the circular grass of the infield. A tiny girl in white proferred a bouquet of flowers. He patted her, accepted it and reflexively she stepped back, gave the salute. He recrossed the track and at 4.05 p.m., as the timetable decreed, ascended to his private box cut into one of the tiers.
He had come.
The rest would be anthems and triumphal music, the hoisting of flags, the tolling of the bell, the march past of the nations who'd waited outside – programmed to last 46 minutes – and speeches.
Then he stood at the centre of the world for the first time in his life.
He held himself erect and said 'I hereby proclaim open the Olympic Games of Berlin celebrating the Eleventh Olympiad of the modern era'.
The field guns fired, a great host of pigeons representing doves of peace swarmed into the overcast sky and at 5.20 p.m. a runner bearing a torch with the sacred flame entered the amphitheatre, padded towards the stone buttress and the crucible.
The runner lit it.
The most controversial sporting event in history had begun.CHAPTER 2
The German sports authorities have declared their intention of promoting the racial and anti-Semitic, the pagan and anti-Christian and other political policies of the German Government and the Nazi party ... in the selection of the German Olympic team.
American Athletic Union resolution, 1935
In May 1930 people could still speak the language of reason and normality. Adolf Hitler was nowhere near power and nobody except perhaps the man himself could imagine what he would really do if he got it. That month, to emphasise the normality, his autobiography Mein Kampf came out in a new English edition with all the profits going to the British Red Cross Society. That month, too, one of the regular Olympic Congresses met in the principal auditorium of Berlin University, giving the city a chance to lobby for the 1936 Games – the 1932 Games were already allocated to Los Angeles. The Congress comprised a wide group invited by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the movement's governing body, and played a consultative role.
The city hosted a banquet in the town hall for Congress members and, there, the Municipal Corporation joined the application, as required by the Olympic Statutes.
The whole impetus created a favourable impression, enhanced by a glimpse of scale and efficiency: 2,000 rowing boats formed a procession on the proposed Olympic course. When the IOC met next, in April 1931 in Barcelona, the application would almost certainly be a formality and the Berlin bidders felt so confident they began to draw up plans to remodel the stadium they already had. They appointed an architect, Werner March, to work on it.
Far from being a controversial choice Berlin seemed a normal continuation of the great tradition stretching back into the very mists of time. Some historians dated the ancient Games to 900 BC, others claimed evidence taking it back several centuries further. Everybody agreed they lasted until AD 393 when the Roman emperor Theodosius banned them because winning had become paramount, inviting professionalism and corruption.
The Olympic idea did not die but remained dormant. In the nineteenth century various sports festivals around Europe included one at Much Wenlock, the scenic town in the English county of Shropshire. There a Dr William Penney Brookes founded an Olympic society in 1850 and campaigned for the Games to be reinstated.
In 1889 the French government wanted to study physical culture, and an all-round sportsman called Pierre Frédy, titled baron de Coubertin, became actively involved. He was already engaged on reforming the French educational system and believed passionately in the virtues of fitness and sport. De Coubertin went on a world tour to see what was happening elsewhere and, towards the end of it, met Brookes. The meeting seems to have been genuinely inspirational.
In 1892, during a lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris, de Coubertin put forward the idea of reinstating the Games and two years later he founded the IOC. He would be its president for four decades. The first Games of the modern era were held in 1896, appropriately at Athens, and thirteen countries sent 311 competitors.
Obeying the original four-year cycle, the next Games went to Paris in 1900 (twenty-two countries, 1,330 competitors) and women competed for the first time, in tennis and golf. St Louis, Missouri proved too far for many to travel (back to thirteen countries and 625 competitors), but the movement grew via Athens in 1906 (breaking and reinvigorating the cycle), London in 1908 and Stockholm in 1912. The 1916 Games were to have been in Berlin but the long shadows of the First World War crept across the Continent. De Coubertin and the IOC harboured the notion that having the Games might persuade the German people towards peace rather than alienate them: Germany, an Olympic stalwart, had sent teams to every Games from their reinstatement. Even when the First World War broke out in 1914, planning continued, no doubt helped by the general belief that the war would be over long before 1916.
Two men worked long and hard to make the Games happen, Dr Theodor Lewald, the chairman of the German Organising Committee, and Dr Carl Diem, the secretary. Lewald had been a central figure in German Olympics for a generation. Who knew, or cared, that his grandmother on his father's side was a Jew who'd converted to Christianity? Diem, only thirty, was 'a fine athlete, a scholar, an historian, an enthusiast for classical Greece, an expert on sport and sporting history the world over'. He looked like an ascetic university professor.
The war quickly locked into a savage, brooding stalemate between trenches on either side of no man's land and, all else aside, that brought pressure within the IOC to take the Games elsewhere – America, perhaps, or a neutral European country. De Coubertin hesitated, feeling Germany would have to withdraw first but by 1915 the situation simplified itself –Berlin was now unthinkable. Meanwhile the IOC established its headquarters in Lausanne, physically safe from the buffetings of the twentieth century in neutral Switzerland.
The movement needed a second reawakening, this time at Antwerp in 1920, but the 'enemy' countries – Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary and Turkey – were not invited. 'Taking on the Games wasn't easy for the organisers in a country that already faced an enormous rebuilding task. Visiting athletes slept on cots in schoolrooms, but for the most part they accepted the accommodation and many of them even praised the food.'
The movement grew. In 1924 the first Winter Games, at Chamonix in the French Alps, were added to the Games in Paris (Germany not invited again). De Coubertin, now in his sixties and decorated by a bushy white moustache, resigned as president after Paris and Count Henri de Baillet-Latour, a Belgian who had been a member since 1903, co-founded the Belgian Olympic Committee and helped organise the Antwerp Games, succeeded him. Baillet-Latour, hair receding and a wispy little moustache, looked like a doctor or a bank manager: a sympathetic face of character.
The 1928 Winter Games were held at St Moritz, the Summer Games at Amsterdam. There a team from Germany found acceptance again and quite normally an eighteen-year-old fencer, Helene Mayer, was chosen. She came from Offenbach of middle-class parents. Who knew or cared that her father, a respected member of the community with a general practice, was a Jew? Who knew or cared that her mother was not Jewish? As a young girl she'd liked ballet, riding, swimming and skiing but fencing attracted her more and more, and Offenbach was the centre for it. In 1924, and still only fourteen, she finished second in the German championship and won it a year later. Mayer considered herself German and looked stereotypically so – blonde hair, blue eyes. At Amsterdam she took the gold medal and became rightly famous.
The problem was that some people did know about her Jewish father and, however incomprehensible, they did care – manically:
While the daily German newspapers wrote in glowing terms of the success of the 'nice, blonde German girl,' the Jewish papers emphasised the Jewish origin of an athlete eminently suited to making all the anti-Semitic cliches seem absurd. Besides reporting her athletic achievement, the press drew attention to one other event: She had waved a little black, white, and red flag. While conservative newspapers ... praised this as an heroic deed, liberal and left-wing papers criticised it as being in poor taste, a pathetic demonstration and a disavowal of the nation's colors. In ... a Jewish paper the incident was dismissed as a mishap: the flag had been forced upon her by one of her fellow fencers. Helene Mayer was described as a 'simple girl, completely averse to any political activity.' ... At any rate, although Helene Mayer was at the center of public attention, her Jewish heritage was totally ignored by the non-Jewish press.
Some of the great and good of the day were at Barcelona for the IOC meeting and the attendance reads like a glimpse of a vanished world: counts and generals, doctors and professors, senators and councillors. It is true that human competition – essentially combat – on the scale of the Olympics inevitably produced drama and controversy, but these people in charge of it governed, as they thought, by right because then such people governed everything else as well. They did it on their own terms, calmly, without hurry and with a maximum of decorum. They made their decisions and they enforced them. It was the way the world was before Hitler got hold of it, bringing with it so many enormous pressures. Those pressures would almost engulf Baillet-Latour, humiliate Lewald and torment General Charles Sherrill, a former sprinter himself, from the United States, beyond endurance.
The Official Bulletin of the IOC did not reflect anything like this yet. It radiated precisely the calm and the decorum:
The first point brought forward was the fixing of the venue of the XIth Olympic Games in 1936. [The Italians] General Montu and Count Bonacossa stated that Italy waived their claim for the 1936 Contest at Rome but at the same time begged to be given the Olympic Games later.
Mr [Jules] de Muzsa [Hungary] asked that the Games of 1936 should be held at Berlin instead of Budapest but claimed a meeting at some future date.
Dr Lewald and the Count of Vallellano [Spain] spoke in favour of Berlin and Barcelona.
The meeting proceeded to vote.
Owing to the very small number present at the 1931 Session, and in order to take into account the number of written votes already received, the Committee decided to wait until the answers of the many absent members reached Lausanne.
The vote taken during the Session and those already received were sealed and deposited at Lausanne with the others.
In order to expedite the decision it was agreed to ask for answers by telegram. The IOC were informed of an application from Canada for the XIIth Games in 1940.
The voting was quickly accomplished, especially in those more leisurely times, because the Bulletin was able to report that Berlin received forty-three votes and Barcelona sixteen with eight abstentions. The Bulletin added that the 'German Olympic Committee has decided to exercise the right of priority reserved to the Country holding the Olympic Games by Article 6 of the Charter and will organise the Winter Games 1936. The venue will be chosen later.'
How could the great and good read the runes? How could anybody? William Shirer, an American correspondent in Berlin and later a celebrated author, wrote that 'the depression which spread over the world like a great conflagration toward the end of 1929 gave Adolf Hitler his opportunity, and he made the most of it. Like most great revolutionaries he could thrive only in evil times, at first when the masses were unemployed, hungry and desperate, and later when they were intoxicated by war.' Who, however, could have predicted that into the 1930s? In 1931 his Nazi movement eyed power without any certainty that they would ever get it, but that October Paul von Hindenburg, a field marshal during the First World War and President since 1925, received Hitler. Within months Hitler would be debating whether to run for the presidency himself.
The German Olympic Committee, led by Lewald and Diem, set to work in July and put a model of their stadium on public display. It was to be situated in the Grünewald, the wooded area to the west of the city, beside a racecourse. Lewald and Diem did it against a political background which had begun to move perceptibly away from normality and the language of reason: German banks closed their doors to prevent a run on the currency and only opened them again when Britain, America and France agreed on renewed credits.
Excerpted from Hitler's Olympics by Christopher Hilton. Copyright © 2011 Christopher Hilton. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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