A sporty face on horror

German author Oliver Hilmes provides dark insights into the Nazi-run 1936 Olympics

ADOLF HITLER at the opening of the Olympic Games in 1936 (photo credit: ACTION IMAGES/TOPHAM)
ADOLF HITLER at the opening of the Olympic Games in 1936
(photo credit: ACTION IMAGES/TOPHAM)
It’s Saturday, August 1, 1936, the first day of the Nazi-run Olympics.
Henri de Baillet-Latour, the president of the International Olympic Committee and other IOC officials are chauffeured to the Reich Chancellery – Adolf Hitler’s office – where Baillet-Latour thanks Hitler for the German hospitality in hosting the Olympics. Then, the IOC officials headed for Olympic Stadium.
“The entire route is lined with giant swastika and Olympic flags and is guarded by 40,000 SA men,” writes German author Oliver Hilmes in Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August, translated into English by Jefferson Chase. “Behind the paramilitary are hundreds of thousands of curious onlookers hoping to get a glimpse of the events planned on the itinerary for 3:18 p.m.: ‘Führer departs for Olympics Stadium.’”
On that same day, Hilmes writes, the daily report of the State Police Office notes that a tailor, Walter Harf, has been heard saying to his wife, “Now they’ll have to assassinate the Führer just as they did the king of England.” His arrest has been ordered if “reliable witnesses can be found.”
On the following day, while Germany’s Ottilie Fleischer is winning gold while establishing a new Olympic mark in the women’s javelin event, transvestite Toni Kellner, who fears arrest from hostile Third Reich officials, bleeds to death in her Berlin room from a ruptured artery. Her body is discovered 14 days later.
On that Tuesday – the day that American Jesse Owens won the second of his four gold medals in the long jump by establishing a new world record – the Berlin police president issued an order attacking the “deplorable custom” – prevalent in Berlin – of drying laundry and airing beds from front balconies, roofs and windows facing the street. “This bad habit can no longer be tolerated, especially not during the Olympic Games,” he wrote.
The author is depicting how life goes on in Berlin even as history is being made. But the events inside the stadium, about which the author also writes, are generally more interesting.
For example, Hitler was very disappointed when Owens won the 100-meter race, hoping that the German runner, Erich Borchmeyer, would bring home the gold. According to Albert Speer, minister of war production and armaments during World War II and a Hitler confidant, the Führer’s reaction to Owens’s win was not very sportsman-like: “People whose forefathers come from the jungle are primitive – more athletically built than civilized white people. They’re not fair competition, and thus they should be excluded from future Games and other sporting competitions.”
After Owens won his second gold medal in the long jump, German long-jumper Carl “Luz” Ludwig Long left the award ceremony arm in arm with his American counterpart. A short time afterward, a representative from Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess visited Long and warned him never to “embrace a Negro.”
Hilmes also recounts a risqué episode with Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, who was making a movie about the Olympics. She was attracted to the American decathlon competitor Glenn Morris. After Morris won the gold medal, she went to congratulate him. “He took me in his arms, ripped open my blouse and kissed me on the breast in the middle of the stadium in front of 100,000 spectators,” Riefenstahl is quoted as saying.
One of the most fascinating stories in the book does take place away from the Games. It concerns the transformation of American best-selling author Thomas Wolfe, whose novel Look Homeward, Angel was translated into German with great commercial success.
“With Wolfe and Berlin, it was love at first sight,” writes Hilmes. “The American author praised the Germans as the ‘cleanest, kindest, warmest-hearted and most honorable people I’ve met in Europe.’”
Wolfe continued to view Nazi Germany sympathetically, until one evening, when one of his German friends explained to him about the state-sponsored boycott of Jewish businesses, the removal of all Jews from government jobs, the book burnings, the Nuremberg Laws excluding Jews from German society, the newspaper Der Stürmer’s incitement against Jews, restaurants that advertise “Jews not wanted here,” and the concentration camps.
“That evening, cracks begin to appear in Wolfe’s sanitized image of Germany,” the author wrote. “Something inside him is beginning to change.” When he returned to New York, Wolfe wrote a short story titled “I Have Something to Tell You.”
“On the one hand,” notes Hilmes, “the story is a love letter to Berlin; on the other it’s a vivid final reckoning with the Nazis and their regime.”
The Games ended with a sports victory for Germany – it was awarded the most medals with 89 followed by the United States at 56, and a serious tourism and economic boost.
“Most of the foreign visitors,” Hilmes writes, “came away overwhelmed by what the Nazis had to offer. Hitler and his regime were able to present themselves as peace-loving, reliable members of the family of nations. Those sixteen days in August gave many people new hope that things will change and Hitler can be trusted to keep his promises of peace. The sporting spectacle has helped pull the wool over their eyes.”
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and (Action Images/Topham) three continents, is available at Amazon.com.