On a balmy summer evening on 16 August 1936, dozens of searchlights formed a vast dome of light above the new Olympic Stadium in Berlin. The spectacular effect, originally devised for the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg, marked the end of the 1936 Summer Games. Inside the arena, Hitler basked in the success of the games, just two weeks after he had opened them with an equally eye-catching ceremony, involving 20,000 doves, 3,000 singers and a giant zeppelin. As the historian Oliver Hilmes concludes in his lively book, which spans the 16 days of the Olympics, Hitler had “every reason to be satisfied”.
Nazi leaders pulled out all the stops to wow visiting foreign notables, journalists and tourists. More than three years had elapsed since Hitler gained power, and even longer since the IOC awarded the games to Berlin. Now was the moment to show the new Germany to the world. The Third Reich would be presented as powerful yet peaceful, modern yet steeped in tradition. To reinforce the links to ancient times, German organisers invented the torch relay, which carried the flame from Greece to Berlin, past a rally of uniformed Hitler Youth and into the faux-classical stadium.
Around Berlin, buildings were repainted and adorned with flags; lest they spoil the effect, the city’s residents were banned from drying laundry on their front balconies. The Nazis also airbrushed out some ugly features of their rule. The German media was warned against “burdening reports on the Olympic Games with racial perspectives”, and the raving antisemitic rag Der Stürmer was briefly muzzled. The spotlight turned instead on lavish receptions for foreign dignitaries, as Nazi bigwigs upstaged one another with displays of pomp and power. The champagne-fuelled festivities at the villa of the brazen social climber Joachim von Ribbentrop were outdone by a garden party with fairground attractions, hosted by the even more pompous Hermann Göring, which was topped by Joseph Goebbels’s extravaganza on an islet filled with shimmering trees and enchanting music.
As propaganda minister, Goebbels helped to write the script for the “festival of joy and peace”, as he glorified the Olympics before his guests. Behind the scenes, he was furious about the feats of the African American athlete Jesse Owens, who was, with four gold medals, the star of the games. “White humanity should be ashamed,” Goebbels fumed in his diary. And he was frank about the regime’s aims. Once the Olympics were brought to a “happy conclusion”, he noted, Germany could “get ruthless” in the Spanish civil war. Hitler, meanwhile, was demanding in August 1936 that his military be ready for full-blown war in Europe within four years. At the same time, the Brownshirts were itching to commit more antisemitic outrages, singing: “When the Olympics are through, we will batter the Jew!”
There are more substantive histories of the Nazi Olympics, but Berlin 1936 is the most readable. Hilmes has a gift for storytelling. Each chapter covers a single day and offers vivid vignettes. The flawed hero is the US novelist Thomas Wolfe. At the start of the games he seems oblivious to the real Nazi Germany, relishing the trappings of literary fame. By the end of the event he sees a country where fear and terror permeated the air “like miasmic and pestilential vapors”.
Most other visitors appeared dazzled. Hilmes recounts many cases of credulity and complicity, including a middle-aged American tourist slipping through security at the Olympic pool to plant a kiss on Hitler’s cheek. “I simply embraced him because he appeared so friendly and gracious,” she recalled. Even long-standing critics proved susceptible to the Nazis’ charm offensive. Sir Robert Vansittart from the British Foreign Office was captivated by Goebbels: “I liked him and his wife at once.”
It should not have been hard to see through the front. Papers abroad had reported on Nazi terror for years, and just a few months before the Olympics, the Wehrmacht had marched into the demilitarised Rhineland, trampling all over the Treaty of Versailles. Even during the games, some fearless locals used graffiti, leaflets and whispers to educate their visitors. Several repressive sites – holding political opponents, Gypsies and other “undesirables” – were only a short trip from the Olympic venues, and on the outskirts of the city prisoners were building a huge new concentration camp: Sachsenhausen.
Hilmes does not dwell on the dark side, though, gravitating instead towards glitz, glamour and gossip. His book is part hipster guide to Berlin c1936, taking readers on a whirlwind tour of hot clubs, bars and swanky restaurants. The stage belongs to socialites and impresarios, film stars and dandies, band leaders and bohemians. The city was not all drab conformity, Hilmes seems to be saying. Even under Nazi rule, there were cosmopolitan havens, such as the art deco Sherbini Bar, where you could dance the night away to the latest hits from Hollywood musicals, played by the African American jazz virtuoso Herb Flemming. All this fun and opulence might help to explain why so many foreigners were taken in by the Nazi Olympics – not so much a case of bread and games, as flambeed kidneys, vitello and turtle soup.
Yet by favouring anecdote over analysis, Berlin 1936 is ultimately more entertaining than revealing. There is plenty of high society tittle-tattle, such as Hitler’s favourite film-maker Leni Riefenstahl lusting after the “perfectly toned body” of a US decathlete. By contrast, the book has little about ordinary Berliners, who did not frequent fancy nightspots, and it skimps on the wider political context and the long-term significance of the games. In the end, this is a delicately crafted treat – delectable, fluffy and a little unfulfilling – not unlike the large slice of pyramid cake one of the book’s characters devours in the appropriately named Heil bakery.