Hitler and the Olympics. The greatest oxymoron. I had to go and see it. Ciaran Fahey is the King of Urban Exploration in Berlin, in a town like Berlin, that is some title to hold. His site, Abandoned Berlin, is a great piece of work, mapping out in great detail all of the abandoned sites, and there are quite the amount, which he has explored. I found his post regarding the abandoned 1936 Olympic village fascinating. So, I took a regional train to Wundermark, Elstal, and walked the few kilometers to the site.
Wow, it’s incredible. As Olympic villages go, Elstal broke the mold, prior to it, villages were basic affairs with little or no training facilities and simple huts serving as accommodation. The Berlin Olympics 1936, was viewed by the Nazis as the perfect platform in which to promote their ideals and government. Everything was aimed at superseding Los Angeles 1932, Hitler had a one hundred thousand seat track and field stadium built and the games were the first to be televised with over seventy hours of coverage been broadcast to special viewing rooms in Berlin and Potsdam and some private viewing sets.
All detail was looked at it, they pioneered the modern convention of moving the flame via a relay system from Greece to the Olympic venue. Check out Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary, Olympia, in which she documented the relay from ancient Athens to the packed and roaring Olympic stadium and the flags of the world fluttering in the breeze, Great Britain and Japan beside one another. Watching the huge crowd in the stadium welcoming all the teams and Hitler with the Nazi salute is disturbing as is the German team marching by him doing likewise. The crowd are deliriously content, their country which had been on its knees for so long, was hosting one of the greatest, if not the greatest event in the world, all eyes were on them and their magnificent stadium.
A well fed Hitler takes off his hat and announces the Games open and thousands of pigeons are launched into the sky. Then the torch relay is shown running under the Brandenburg Gate, down Unter den Linden and into the stadium and the Olympic flame in the stadium is lit. The desired link between Ancient Greece and the Third Reich is all too apparent.
The Olympic Village was revolutionary in its design, illustrating both the technical ability and ideological absurdity of the Nazi regime. When it was built, it included state of the art dormitories, dining areas, training facilities, a swimming pool and was home to almost five thousand athletes who it must be remembered were all amateur and had never seen anything like it. It was designed to portray an idyllic and peaceful Germany and was laid out to resemble a German village with each accommodation building been named after a German town. But chillingly, it was built with darker motives, as Germany was already planning war, it was constructed to be easily converted into an army barracks and hospital after the Games. The Gestapo were also monitoring all letters and telephone calls the athletes made home, so dare you say anything anti-German or anti-Nazi, because down the line it may be used against you. Again, the idea is deeply troubling that there was a sinister side behind everything, a plotted dastardly plan shadowing the purest and noblest of events.
Hitler had tried to implement anti-Semitic and racist ideology on the Games, attempting to ban Jewish and Black athletes from competing, however when countries threatened to boycott, he relented. Jessie Owens and some of the other American athletes were to become the fly in the ointment. In Olympia, you watch him in his 100m heat beating with ease all the other competitors, all white, with ease. Borchmayer, the German, defeats the field in a similar fashion in his heat. Six make it through the final – Borchmayer, Wykoff, Owens, Strandberg, Osendarp and Metcalfe. Riefenstahl’s close-ups of Owens under starter’s orders, show a Hollywood handsome, supremely focused athlete; he of course wins, the other American Metcalfe, also black, is the only one running him close. The lanky American, Woodruff, wins the epic 800m finals, beating the favored Italian, Lanzi into second place, the commentary begins by stating the two black Athletes, Woodruff and the Canadian Edwards are against the best white athletes of Europe. Riefenstahl shoots Owens beautifully at the Long Jump as he covers 8.04 metres, a new world record. You can’t see Hitler being too impressed with the way she shot him, it is so iconic. And the footage of the the American flag ascending above of the Swastika and the Japanese flag must have stuck in his craw something shocking. Another black athlete, Cornelius Johnson wins the High Jump with a world record of 2.04 metres, only bothering to get out of his tracksuit for the final heat. In the women’s 4×4 relay, the Germans way out in front, get struck by commentator’s curse when, at the final handover, he states, “the Germans cannot lose!”, they drop the baton, Helen Stephens wins for the Americans the camera then shows Hitler in classic Chaplin mode, pretending to be jolly and a good sport, as the commentator lists, one, two and three, America, England and Canada, Hitler then turns and says something to someone off camera, what’s he ordering there you wonder. But overall, the Germans won the Games, winning eighty-nine medals with the Americans in second place with 56. It is strange now to see the Swastika being raised as the flag of Germany each time a German athlete won a medal.
Rambling around the Olympic village, abandoned since the Soviets withdrew in 1992, I was thinking about all those fine athletes and what an excellent month they must have spent in Germany in 1936. Living in state of the art facilities, surrounded by the finest athletes from 51 nations across the world, travelling to the 100,000 seat stadium, competing, seeing themselves on TV for the first time. Almost 400,000 visitors came to see the village before the athletes arrived in July 1936. It was comprised of 136 one story bungalows, with 28 athletes staying in each, two to a room and a room for two stewards, there was also a small common room and a tiny telephone exchange in each bungalow. There was a large horseshoe-shaped building which housed dining areas and kitchens for each team, so that their chefs could cook the food that their respective athletes wanted and were used to. In addition, there were state of the art training facilities on their doorstep. And all of this was set in the most tranquil of sites, indeed, over a thousand mature trees were dug up, transported and replanted on the site to make it look like a real village. Allies of the Germans got the best houses but all of the houses were in comparison to ordinary training facilities, were state of the art. So it was paradise. Well almost, there were no women allowed on site, including the Olympic female competitors, who stayed in housing near the stadium.
The two-story Hindenburg Haus – named after the field marshal and German president Paul von Hindenburg, patron of the Games up to his death in 1934 –was the main administration center with its own theater/television exchange. It was here that the first tests were done on live TV transmissions. The 1936 Olympics provided the first live sports broadcasts to the world.
But what sad times would befall the site, during World War II, it was used as a hospital and a training academy for German soldiers, indeed with weeks left in the war they were still churning them out. In 1945, it was taken over by the Soviets and used as a barracks until 1994. Since then the site has lay abandoned, but property developers have recently bought it, indeed, there are parts of the site, where they are working and are off limits as the complex is being developed into townhouses and apartments as Berlin encroaches into the suburbs.
All in all, I spent about three hours on the site, it was an amazing experience peering into show that the Nazis put on for the world, before they showed their real hand three years later. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is long left for these buildings, there were bulldozers on site knocking stuff down, as I walked about, so I guess it won’t be long before they are all resigned to just memory. It was of course a fantastic stage set, over one million people visited the city for the Olympics. Few saw through the facade, indeed Thomas Wolfe mocked the 3,000 journalists who were blinded by the masquerade that the Nazis put on in his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again. It is of course debatable whether this is a good or a bad thing, many people will want it razed to the ground, to eradicate the duplicity of what occurred here. But many others will have wanted it maintained, to remember what occurred here.