Remembering the Nazi Games
History: Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August, Oliver Hilmes, Bodley Head, hardback, 320 pages, €18.20
This thrilling history of the 1936 Olympics deconstructs the pageantry of the Berlin Games to reveal the personal stories and last flashes of individualism in the Third Reich
The most charming image from the 1936 Berlin Olympics is not to be found in Leni Riefenstahl's famous documentary, Olympia. It is a photo of the black American sprinter Jesse Owens and the German long jumper 'Luz' Long lying together on the stadium floor, with broad, childish smiles. In contrast to Riefenstahl's grandiose - in Goebbels' words, "hysterical" - film, this is simply a portrait of a friendship, one that Owens would later describe as "24 carat", and worth more to him than any of his medals.
Despite their smiles, Owens was soon to be snubbed back in New York by his own president at the ceremonial Olympic banquet, where he had to use the service entrance. Ten years later, he was nearly bankrupt, reduced to racing greyhounds at country fairs. Long died in July 1943 fighting for the Wehrmacht in Sicily.
In personal narratives such as these, the German biographer Oliver Hilmes' micro-history, Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August, dissects the pageant behind which the Nazis masked their ambitions. Hilmes perfected an icy detachment in handling this period's more unsavoury characters in his 2010 life of Cosima Wagner, the composer's rabidly anti-Semitic second wife. Here, particular disdain is kept for the pompous and appeasing officials of the International Olympic Committee, who seemed to Goebbels "like the directors of a flea circus".
Yet despite his disdain, the propaganda minister seized the chance to stage what a member of the American Olympic Committee condemned as "a sordid exploitation of the games".
As Jewish and Roma athletes had been banned from all German athletics associations since 1933, it was easy for the Nazis to make their team into a display cabinet of Aryan might. The Americans, rather than acquiesce to "the contempt of the Nazis for fair play", threatened a boycott. But thanks to some token measures - chiefly the conscription of a half-Jewish fencer into the German team - the Americans felt satisfied they could compete. It helped that their committee president saw the Nazi point of view: "In my club in Chicago, Jews are not permitted either." The American public weren't as easily pacified, so the IOC sent Charles Sherrill, a retired Olympic official, in 1935 for a final inspection. Pleading that politics should not interfere with the "purity" of sport, he claimed that the fate of the German Jews was as much his concern as was "the lynching of negroes in the American South" but that "if around five million Jews out of an American population of 120 million try, and even succeed, in robbing [the athletes] of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, we'll surely experience anti-Semitic difficulties that will last for years".
Goebbels got what he wanted. The American writer Thomas Wolfe, a committed Germanophile whose awakening to the realities of Nazism is a major strand of the book, noted that "a dictatorship at full strength has an impressive aura of glittering success". The Nazis literally banned the washing of dirty linen in public, declaring it "a deplorable custom that elicits disgust and outrage among decent people". It became illegal to sell the party paper, Der Stürmer, with its stories of "starving German maidens in the claws of horny Jewish goats", on the streets of Berlin, and the city's 700 "Stürmer boxes" were stocked with harmless sports journals instead.
Wolfe later admitted: "I have to see a thing a thousand times before I see it once," but it remains remarkable, with camps fewer than eight miles from Berlin's outskirts, how effective the Reich was in diverting attention. The foreign press kept to frothy stories about an American tourist's spontaneous kissing of Hitler, and the surreal disputed football quarter-final between Austria and Peru, which, according to the Daily Sketch, led to roughly 1,000 furious Peruvians storming the pitch armed with "iron bars, knives and even a pistol".
Hilmes also takes us outside the stadium and into the city, where the Nazis had yet to stamp out the last traces of Weimar exuberance. 'Chips' Channon records Goering, squeezed into one of his fantasy white uniforms, with a diamond ring on each finger, riding a little white horse of a merry-go-round. Goebbels' diary agonises over a garden party on which he spent 320,000 Reichsmarks - or a worker's monthly salary - on each of his 2,700 guests. The success of the Olympics as a masquerade was perhaps to be expected in a state with its own official set designer - Benno von Arent, who came up with diplomatic uniforms so camp that they were also used in productions of Die Fledermaus. Yet foreign visitors still caught sight of the machinery of war through the jolly facade. The hour-long firework display that closed Goebbels' party left many, less than two decades after the Great War, uneasy.
A few days earlier, the British minister Robert Vansittart was astonished to hear a drunken von Ribbentrop decry the danger that awaits if "England doesn't give Germany the possibility to live..." Vansittart recorded: "I was wise enough not to ask him what he meant by it." Hans Fallada, author of Alone in Berlin, thought the suppression of individuality was the greatest injustice of the war: "Every individual German belonged to the generality of Germans and must share in the general destiny of Germany."
Berlin 1936, with its keyhole glimpses into otherwise private lives, gives us an engaging portrait of those last flashes of individuality in the Third Reich. Its rattling day-by-day narrative, interspersed with Nazi diktats ("We urgently warn against burdening reports on the Olympic Games with racial perspectives...") attains the sharp pace of a thriller.
Indeed, in form and tone, it is reminiscent of Robert Harris's Munich - which should remind us that the Games, Hitler's "sportive, knightly battle, awaken[ing] the best human characteristics", were really no more than appeasement in white shorts.
As the Führer told his pet architect Albert Speer, inspecting a model of the stadium: "In 1940, the Games will take place in Tokyo. But thereafter they will take place in Germany for all time to come, in this stadium..."