Duck Duck Book

54 – berlin games
05.19.2008, 12:02 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

Berlin Games : how the Nazis stole the Olympic dream / Guy Walters.
New York : William Morrow, c2006.
[MCL call number: 796.48 W235b 2006; one copy, two holds]

In the spring of 1931, twenty powerful men made their way to Barcelona for a meeting of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Their task was to decide which city would host the 1936 Olympic Games. Four were under serious consideration: Rome, Budapest, Barcelona, and Berlin. Italian members demurred that Rome was not ready to host the games in 1936, and the Hungarian representative voiced support for holding the games in Berlin. When the votes were finally counted (gathering them took several weeks, as many representatives voted by mail or telegram), Berlin was the clear winner, with 43 of 59 votes cast for the German capital.

In 1936, Spain held a general election, which resulted in the formation of a left-wing Popular Front government. The new Spanish government was sharply opposed to the politics and policies of Nazi Germany, and forbid Spanish athletes from participating in the Berlin Olympics — so they organized an alternative festival, to be held in Barcelona: the People’s Olympic Games. The People’s Olympics were planned for July 19-26, but a few short days before the games were to commence right-wing Nationalists, who controlled most of the Spanish army, began the rebellion that became the Spanish Civil War. By July 19, they held several cities and fighting had broken out across the country. The war was to last three years. Mexico and the Soviet Union were the only countries to come to the aid of Republican Spain, although tens of thousands of leftists from around the world traveled to Spain to fight against General Francisco Franco and the Nationalists, as international volunteers.

I initially turned to Guy Walters’s history of the 1936 Berlin Olympics to learn more about the People’s Olympics. Who planned them? Was any part of the festival salvaged? What countries hoped to participate? What happened to foreign athletes who were already in Spain when the war broke out? Walters answers these questions, but his larger project of relating the history of the Nazi games is worthy of attention as well.

Like most Olympic festivals, Berlin’s was a major national endeavor. Vast sports complexes were erected, armies of young translators were trained, and towns along the route visiting athletes took to the games were prettied up. But the young regime had an awfully big chip on its shoulder too — after all, the 1916 Olympics had been slated for Berlin, only to be cancelled by the IOC after World War I lost its gentlemanly edge with Germany’s introduction of mustard gas as a weapon. The German establishment needed this Olympics to come off perfectly to show how much the country had changed. And so, German prosperity was highlighted — butter and other foods were hoarded in advance so there would be plenty for the athletes and international visitors. The sharp edges of Nazi policies about racial purity were softened up temporarily, for show. Jewish athletes who had been forced out of participating in German sport under the Nazis were compelled to compete for their country, to prove that Germany was playing fair. A few weeks before the games began, Sinti and Roma people in the Berlin area were rounded up and placed in a special camp in a suburb. Homeless people and beggars were cleared from the city’s streets, and more than two thousand prostitutes and women working in the edges of the sex trade were forcibly examined for venereal disease.

Distasteful as this sounds, no doubt the stories of other nations’ Olympic preparations are nearly as shameful. What contrasts the 1936 Olympics from others is the German government’s neat takeover of the entire administration of the games from the International Olympic Committee.

Here’s a taste of the intrigue: in early 1936, it looked as though the two front runners for the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize were Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, and Carl von Ossietsky, an anti-Nazi journalist who was then languishing in a German forced labor camp. One of Germany’s representatives to the IOC attempted to use the influence of the IOC to pressure the Nobel committee to award the prize to Coubertin, and bribed the financially stricken Coubertin to formally endorse the Berlin games. Walters says on page 145: “Not only were the games being organised by the regime, but they were also being run according to Nazi rules and not those of the IOC. Four thousand athletes would shortly be attending a celebration not only of sport, but of fascism.” (Despite the German IOC members’ machinations, the peace prize was eventually awarded to Ossietzky, in December 1936, well after the games were over.)

Walters tells many other tales of this very politicized Olympiad — of athletes, government ministers, sports officials, businessmen, human rights activists, journalists, intellectuals, and the glitterati, and their role in the actual events of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and the public debate that accompanied it.

The text of Berlin Games is followed by a collection of incredibly readable endnotes, a thorough bibliography, and an excellent and helpful index.


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