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Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August. Oliver Hilmes. Bodley Head, £16.99
Anyone unwise enough to travel to this summer’s football World Cup in Russia should, on the plane to Moscow, read Berlin 1936, the new account of the Olympics hosted by the Nazis. Vladimir Putin is not the first strongman leader to use the hosting of an international sporting tournament, replete with bogus notions of brotherly love trumpeted by sporting officialdom, to bamboozle enemies and convey strength.
Hitler and his team knew what they were doing. In 1936, a German regime rapidly rearming still needed more time to be fighting fit for the war the Führer was determined to wage. He was not yet ready to knock out or settle with the West and then to conquer the East. The world going to Berlin bought the Nazis valuable time before the West woke up to Hitler’s true intentions. Dignitaries such as Britain’s Sir Henry “Chips” Channon were wooed and flattered with no expense spared.
Putin the cunning kleptocrat is more opportunistic and seems to be interested primarily in sowing confusion about his intentions in order to maintain his own power rather than starting a “hot” war. After a period of aggressive incursion abroad and expansion, hosting the World Cup on Russian soil provides Putin with an opportunity to play the beneficent, proud, nationalist archetype.
This summer it will be particularly interesting to see whether or not the Russian state licenses some football hooliganism – in which the Russian ultras are world leaders. Or the hooligans may be ordered to stay away. Also, let’s hope in this era of high profile poisonings by shady operatives that the England team has employed a food taster or two for its stay. Do… not… eat… the caviar.
Greedy old FIFA was never going to cancel Russia 2018, which must make Putin laugh. After all, he is lucky in his enemy, a bloated, decadent West more interested in the bounty to be had from advertising and junkets than power politics.
Similarly, the Nazi propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, had a good laugh behind the backs of the visiting Olympic organisers in August 1936. They looked, he said, “like the directors of a flea circus.”
This account of the Berlin Games by German author Oliver Hilmes was a best-seller in his homeland and has now been published in translation.
It has had mixed reviews in Britain. Notably, the historian Dominic Sandbrook disapproved. There is a good book to be written about the 1936 Olympics but this is not it, he wrote recently in The Sunday Times.
That judgment is another example of the regrettable tendency among successful authors reviewing the books of others to demand that the story should be constructed as they themselves would tell it. Sandbrook’s own style is to weave a pacy narrative, punctuated by witty or downbeat asides, that all amplifies the big point about a particular decade. Fine, but there are other ways to write a story and leave an impression.
Hilmes opts for an atmospheric, novelistic style, rejecting the exhaustive or laborious approach. Readers are offered a series of fragmentary snapshots, with a well-chosen cast of characters involved with the Games, or just resident in or visiting Berlin. Diaries, newspaper reports, memoirs, and the Reich daily weather and crime reports, are all mined.
Sandbrook’s complaint that we do not learn enough about what happens to the characters after the Games and during and after the War is odd. There is a perfectly good round up towards the end.
To his credit, Hilmes avoids labouring the point about the rottenness of 1930s Berlin, all surface sheen and muscular efficiency overlaying debauchery and excess. Instead, he lets the stories of nightclub charlatans, socialites, lovers, athletes, industrialists, tourists, German officials, the persecuted and the persecutors, speak for themselves.
Thomas Wolfe, the best-selling American writer and Germanophile, is a central character. As an initially enthusiastic visitor, Wolfe drank the Mosel wine-lake dry in the company of his German publisher, Ernst Rowohlt, but over the course of the Games the doomed author had the sobering realisation that the Germany he admired was about to do great harm. The Nazis had co-opted and distorted German culture. They would all but destroy it, along with much else, in pursuit of their mad theories.
There are imperfections in the text, which when translated into English needed a red pen deployed to score out redundant lines. When a kidnapper and fraudster is sentenced to death for various crimes we are told that the executioner’s axe comes down severing his head from his body. A few sentences later, it is stated, as though this is a revelation, that “Hans Eduard Guise is dead.” Well, of course he is. Severing the head from the body means death, obviously.
Such glitches aside, this short but addictive book is profoundly unsettling. The Berlin Games were a portent of the carnage to come, showing what could be achieved in terms of mass hypnosis when a bunch of cunning gangsters and thugs, led by a hyper-nationalist and anti-Semitic showman, took control of a society and used propaganda and organisational prowess as the curtain-raiser for slaughter.
On the 7th of August, Goebbels confided to his diary: “After the Olympics we’ll get ruthless. Then there will be some shooting.”
Goebbels, for once, spoke the truth. In little more than three years, what had until then seemed unthinkable after the slaughter of 1914-1918 had happened again. Europe was in flames. In 1945, only nine years after the Olympic closing ceremony attended by the leading Nazis, tens of millions were lost to war, Berlin lay in ruins and Hitler and Goebbels were gone, just dust in the rubble.
The novelist Thomas Wolfe was also dead by then, having succumbed to tuberculosis in September 1938. He was only 37. One of his final pieces – “I have a Thing to Tell You” published in America in the New Republic – recounted the scenes of discrimination against the Jews. In response, the Nazis banned Wolfe’s books. After 1936 he never saw Germany again.