The 1936 Olympic Games which took place in Berlin exactly 80 years ago went down in history as not only one of the biggest sports events ever (as well as the first televised event as such) but also as one of the greatest propaganda shows of the past millennium.
The Nazis, struggling to improve their image abroad and to lull the influential western nations into thinking that Germany´s efforts were peace-oriented (or, should they be of more belligerent nature, then they would be directed exclusively towards Eastern Europe and not against the West), did their outmost to create a sort of a parallel reality inhabited by perhaps stern and almost frighteningly orderly but at the same time honest and hospitable people. Their Potemkin Villages constructed all over Berlin did their job splendidly – guests took the façade for the real thing and most of the world was respectfully impressed.
But Hitler and his closest supporters could not fool everybody. Those who were forced to or who cared to look behind the fake house-fronts, and who listened to what the street was whispering about, stood a great chance of seeing through the tricks with smoke and mirrors. Sadly, there were not many. Prevented from understanding the whispering by a language barrier and pummelled with a constant stream of happy-shiny-people propaganda as well as tranquillized by the August sun and lulled into the a false sense of security by the beauty of Berlin that summer, most of the guests could not or did not want to disturb the atmosphere they all wished to enjoy.
Luckily, some of the visitors in the 1936 Berlin were not prepared to shut their eye to the signs. Here is an excerpt from Thomas Wolfe´s posthumously published novel, You Can´t Go Home Again (1940). The chapter The Dark Messiah tells the story of the main character´s, George´s, return to Berlin after nine years of absence and encountering the world he believed to know as no longer peaceful or trustworthy. In this story Thomas Wolfe describes his own rather bitter experience: he fell in love with the city in 1925 but the Berlin of the 1936 Olympic Games turned foreign to him again.
“It was the season of the great Olympic games, and almost every day George and Else went to the stadium in Berlin. George observed that the organising genius of the German people, which has been used so often to such noble purpose, was now more thrillingly displayed than he had ever seen it before. The sheer pageantry of the occasion was overwhelming, so much so that he began to feel oppressed by it. There seemed to be something ominous in it. One sensed a stupendous concentration of effort, a tremendous drawing together and ordering in the vast collective power of the whole land. And the thing that made it seem ominous was that it so evidently went beyond what the games themselves demanded. The games were overshadowed, and were no longer merely sporting competitions to which other nations had sent their chosen teams. They became, day after day, an orderly and overwhelming demonstration in which the whole of Germany had been schooled and disciplined. It was as if the games had been chosen as a symbol of the new collective might, a means of showing to the world in concrete terms what this new power had come to be.
With no past experience in such affairs, the Germans had constructed a mighty stadium which was the most beautiful and most perfect in its design that had ever been built. And all the accessories of this monstrous plant — the swimming pools, the enormous halls, the lesser stadia — had been laid out and designed with this same cohesion of beauty and of use. The organisation was superb. Not only were the events themselves, down to the minutest detail of each competition, staged and run off like clockwork, but the crowds — such crowds as no other great city has ever had to cope with, and the like of which would certainly have snarled and maddened the traffic of New York beyond hope of untangling — were handled with a quietness, order, and speed that was astounding.
The daily spectacle was breath-taking in its beauty and magnificence. The stadium was a tournament of colour that caught the throat; the massed splendour of the banners made the gaudy decorations of America’s great parades, presidential inaugurations, and World’s Fairs seem like shoddy carnivals in comparison. And for the duration of the Olympics, Berlin itself was transformed into a kind of annex to the stadium. From one end of the city to the other, from the Lustgarten to the Brandenburger Tor, along the whole broad sweep of Unter den Linden, through the vast avenues of the faery Tiergarten, and out through the western part of Berlin to the very portals of the stadium, the whole town was a thrilling pageantry of royal banners — not merely endless miles of looped-up bunting, but banners fifty feet in height, such as might have graced the battle tent of some great emperor.
And all through the day, from morning on, Berlin became a mighty Ear, attuned, attentive, focused on the stadium. Everywhere the air was filled with a single voice. The green trees along the Kurfürstendamm began to talk: from loud-speakers concealed in their branches an announcer in the stadium spoke to the whole city — and for George Webber it was a strange experience to hear the familiar terms of track and field translated into the tongue that Goethe used. He would be informed now that the Vorlauf was about to be run — and then the Zwischenlauf— and at length the Endlauf— and the winner:
Meanwhile, through those tremendous banner-laden ways, the crowds thronged ceaselessly all day long. The wide promenade of Unter den Linden was solid with patient, tramping German feet. Fathers, mothers, children, young folks, old — the whole material of the nation was there, from every corner of the land. From morn to night they trudged, wide-eyed, full of wonder, past the marvel of those banner-laden ways. And among them one saw the bright stabs of colour of Olympic jackets and the glint of foreign faces: the dark features of Frenchmen and Italians, the ivory grimace of the Japanese, the straw hair and blue eyes of the Swedes, and the big Americans, natty in straw hats, white flannels, and blue coats crested with the Olympic seal.
And there were great displays of marching men, sometimes ungunned but rhythmic as regiments of brown shirts went swinging through the streets. By noon each day all the main approaches to the games, the embannered streets and avenues of the route which the Leader would take to the stadium, miles away, were walled in by the troops. They stood at ease, young men, laughing and talking with each other — the Leader’s bodyguards, the Schutz Staffel units, the Storm Troopers, all the ranks and divisions in their different uniforms — and they stretched in two unbroken lines from the Wilhelmstrasse up to the arches of the Brandenburger Tor. Then, suddenly, the sharp command, and instantly there would be the solid smack of ten thousand leather boots as they came together with the sound of war.
It seemed as if everything had been planned for this moment, shaped to this triumphant purpose. But the people — they had not been planned. Day after day, behind the unbroken wall of soldiers, they stood and waited in a dense and patient throng. These were the masses of the nation, the poor ones of the earth, the humble ones of life, the workers and the wives, the mothers and the children — and day after day they came and stood and waited. They were there because they did not have money enough to buy the little cardboard squares that would have given them places within the magic ring. From noon till night they waited for just two brief and golden moments of the day: the moment when the Leader went out to the stadium, and the moment when he returned.
At last he came — and something like a wind across a field of grass was shaken through that crowd, and from afar the tide rolled up with him, and in it was the voice, the hope, the prayer of the land. The Leader came by slowly in a shining car, a little dark man with a comic-opera moustache, erect and standing, moveless and unsmiling, with his hand upraised, palm outward, not in Nazi-wise salute, but straight up, in a gesture of blessing such as the Buddha or Messiahs use.”
(The rest of the book is available through the web page of the Project Gutenberg at bit.ly/2an7D1t.)