For someone who didn’t even like sport, it might seem somewhat surprising that Adolf Hitler was able to stage one of the most successful, albeit controversial, games in Olympic history; they were so successful in fact, that the format has been followed in much the same way ever since.
The background to the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games in many ways goes back to WWI, and the Langemarck Hall at the Olympic Stadium is a telling reminder of how Hitler had never forgotten his time in the trenches.
Langemarck was a WWI battlefield in Belgian Flanders and somewhere I visited several years ago. The war cemetery there holds 44,000 German soldiers including many inexperienced young men.
When the stadium, and the Langemarck Hall, was constructed in 1936, Hitler was known to turn to a few confidants to proclaim that there would be “Revenge for Langemarck”.
Also fighting in the trenches on the Western Front, but on the opposite side of the fence so to speak, was Winston Churchill. They wouldn’t have known about each other then, but they most certainly did in WWII.
The Second World War had its roots in the aftermath of the Great War when the 1919 Treaty of Versailles dished out harsh punishment to Germany from which they never fully recovered.
Land was taken (or taken back whichever way you want to look at it) and given to France and Poland, and a bill of 132 billion gold marks was handed over to Germany for the cost of the war.
Not helped by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the country became financially crippled with the population suffering severe hardship.
Mindful of the affect that the reparations were having, it was realised in some quarters that Germany needed to be brought back into the world community, and it was suggested that Berlin could be allowed to bid for the 1936 Olympics; it was obviously borne in mind that Berlin had been chosen to host the 1916 Games which of course never materialized. The 1932 bid was successful – but before the Olympic Games were due to start Hitler and the Nazi party were in power: His opportunity to gain revenge for Langemarck had arrived.
Among the first people to pay the price were the Jews and Romany Gypsies: Hitler thought that Northern European (or Aryan) people were a superior race to anyone else, and it wasn’t long before persecution started taking place throughout Germany – which didn’t go unnoticed elsewhere.
Several countries wanted a ban on Berlin hosting the Summer Olympics, but Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, suggested to Hitler that the Games could be used to show Germany in the best possible light to the rest of the world – and almost immediately the Fuhrer became interested in sport, and the charm offensive began.
Red carpets were rolled out, posters demonising Jews came down and buildings spruced up. The whole façade had the desired effect because although some countries boycotted the Games, the overall ban was dropped.
One of the strongest countries intending to compete was the United States, and some of their best athletes were African Americans, who when asked to refrain from taking part, then turned the question around and asked “ how can you ask us not to go to Germany because of the way they’re treating Jews when we’re treated the way we are in America”. It was a fair point, but Hitler didn’t want them to compete either, and it must have been a bitter pill for him to swallow when he agreed that they could.
With the political obstacles out of the way, Hitler then set about providing the best international sporting spectacle – and largest propaganda exercise – that the world had ever seen.
He introduced the first torch relay from Greece to the new 100,000-seater Olympic Stadium in Berlin, and used new technology in the form of television to broadcast live pictures of the Olympics for the first time. As if that wasn’t enough, Germany’s medal tally beat other participating nations by a marathon, but the real star of the show was the Fuhrer himself.
The propaganda exercise had been a resounding success – well almost. The only fly in the ointment came from an African American called Jessie Owens. He came from extremely humble beginnings, but was the Usain Bolt of his day. It wasn’t only Hitler who thought that white people were superior at the time, the same thoughts were echoed in parts of America too.
Jessie Owens was not only a great athlete, but also a beacon of hope for black people everywhere. At Berlin he won four gold medals and became recognised as the fastest man in the world – proving to Adolf Hitler, America and the rest of the world that white people weren’t necessarily superior after all.
It was widely reported that Hitler snubbed Jessie Owens, but I’ve also read that he never held a grudge against the athlete – and neither did Jessie Owens hold a grudge against the Fuhrer either.
When the XI Olympiad was over the charade also came to an abrupt close. Jessie Owens went back home to another menial job, Jews and others were once again persecuted, and the world would soon descend into chaos – but at least Hitler would have had his revenge for Langemarck.
The stadium is now home to Hertha Berlin football club and located in Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf. It can be reached by U2 or S5.