Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August, by Oliver Hilmer (Other Press. 2018. Trans. from the German by Jefferson Chase) begins on the first day of that summer’s Olympics and ends on their closing. But the Olympics were a smokescreen, a puppet show, a diversion of less significance than the fireworks which concluded Joseph Goebbels $800,000 last-night party, bloodying the sky red.
By then, under Adolf Hitler’s Nationalist Socialist Party, which had come to power three years earlier, Germany had withdrawn from the League of Nations and, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, increased its army’s size from 10,000 to 550,000 men. Germany had taken control of the Rhineland and was secretly sending arms to Franco’s fascist forces in Spain. It had passed the Nuremberg laws, denying citizenship and other basic rights to Jews, gypsies and blacks. It had begun filling its concentration camps.
Hitler was already planning for a war, which included the invasion of Russia, within four years. He viewed the games as a way to curry favor with some nations and to cow others. Germany would impress, not only with its athletic prowess. (It would win 89 medals, nearly 60 percent more than the United States, which came second with 56.) It would impress with the construction projects which projected an enormous industrial capacity that could easily be adapted for war, and with its technological advances in fields like radio, film and television which had implications for how skillfully and terribly this war would be fought. It would demonstrate, through the size of the crowds cheering Hitler, to the music that honored him, and through the flowers presented him by five-year-olds that his people revered their fuhrer and would obediently follow where he led.
The image of Germany visitors were to take away was air-brushed clean. Incoming trains were searched and “inflammatory” material confiscated. Local media was instructed to avoid reporting from a “racial perspective” and not to publicize only German winners. Public drying of laundry was banned. Six hundred Gypsys were relocated from Berlin to a sewage dump with two toilets and no drinking water. The virulently anti-Semitic newspaper Der Sturmer was suspended from publication and its distribution boxes removed from public view. The concentration camps were, of course, absent from any tourist guides.
The Nazi effort at message control was not entirely a Sisyphean boulder-push. Once it appeared that Hitler would bar any German Jews from competing, some Americans called for a boycott of the games. Our Olympic Committee sent its president, Avery Brundage, a construction industry millionaire, to investigate. Brundage, who belonged to a Chicago athletic club that excluded Jews, saw no reason countries shouldn’t behave similarly. Eventually, a solution was found. Germany’s team would include one Jew (actually a “half-Jew,” Helene Mayer, who had been living in Los Angeles for three years), and America would participate. This participation was further encouraged by the argument that if the feelings of a few million American Jews were allowed to deprive the entire country of the games, the domestic anti-Semitic backlash would be catastrophic.
Hilmer’s account is gripping, shrewd and insightful. Instead of a straightforward, thesis-driven narrative, he tells his story obliquely. His approach is linear, day-by-day, start-to-finish; but each day is filled with separate, connected-only-through-accumulation vignettes. He advances through jump cuts. He selects and supplies the fragments from which can be created a mosaic of a city and a society at a specific time. He fills in some of what has brought the world to this point, but he leaves unsaid that, within three years, these young men and women, competing within this stadium, will be slaughtering one another.
Within this mosaic, athletic competition plays second fiddle – or maybe the washboard. By my count, only a dozen events, including preliminary rounds, are described (One equestrian, one each in swimming and fencing, two in soccer, and seven in track and field, four of which involved Jesse Owens). Of seventeen photographs, only one is of the competition (Owens again), and seven are of bars, cafes or restaurants. Here, Helmer suggests, is where the meaningful drama of these two weeks is taking place, as people seek to anaesthetize or distract themselves, through food and drink, music and dance, flirtation and debauchery, from the world that is sliming forward, about to ingest and absorb them like some science-fiction ectoplasmic horror.
Berlin 1936 is informative, disturbing – and, if gruesome, fun. Who knew, for instance, that the dramatic delivery-by-relay-run of the Olympic torch from Athens had no history before the Nazis began it? And in the food realm alone, I learned Peruvians can eat 10 eggs a day, Argentinians brought along four tons of their own prime beef, and the teenage, multi-gold winning Dutch girl trained on white beans with bacon. The book is also delightfully dishy. Hilmer reports on the affair of Joseph Goebbel’s (perhaps half-Jewish) wife, the gluttony of Knut Hamsun’s daughter, and says that, after winning the decathlon, Glenn Morris ripped off Leni Riefenstahl’s blouse and, in front of 100,000 spectators, kissed her breast. (As part of my deep background research for this review, I watched all 226 minutes of Olympia, and, alas, that moment seems to have ended up on the cutting room floor.) While Berlin may disappoint sports fans, it is rich in concise, compelling portraits of major figures, like the novelist Thomas Wolfe, minor ones, like Big Polly, a 65-year-old transvestite, and those of importance for a moment in a circumscribed space, like Leon Henri Dajou, Ahmed Mustafa Dissouki, and Mustafa El Sherbini, each with mystery in their past and misbehavior in their present, to and around whom a population flocks.
The book reads well. It is snappy and immediate and contains snippets of cliff-hanger-like drama. Who will this “Travel Union Club” turn out to be, one wonders. Where will phrases like “Then destiny intervened” or “Things are about to get much, much worse” lead? Still, momentum sometimes trips over stylistic blips. The translation can succumb to cliche. People fall “head over heels,” have “blood on their hands,” handle things “with kid gloves.” Rain falls “like cats and dogs”; wind is taken “out of sails”; and the world is one fellow’s “oyster.” Some phrases – “He’d got shot of,” “The prospect is nigh” – belong to another place and time. Others reveal a lack of awareness of what is being reported. While it may be accurate that Mayer was a “fencing” champion, it would be more precise to say she won her medal with her foil. And it is basically meaningless to write “Athletics is the most prestigious set of Olympic disciplines,” when all Olympic disciplines are athletic, and the examples provided demonstrate you meant to write “Track and field is…,” a statement that is culturally biased anyway.
The drama that underlies all of Berlin 1936 is who is going to end up on a slab when. Death is a constant presence on its pages. We meet and lose characters whose arteries burst or gas themselves or throw themselves before subway trains, who succumb to cancer or fall to executioner’s axe or non-professional decapitation. None of these people, it should be noted, are essential to Hilmer’s narrative but are there solely because he chose to include them for his own purposes. In one vignette, he takes readers to the coroner’s for an accounting of deaths during the two weeks under study. If one assumes that all the deaths from poisoning and hanging were suicides, which they probably weren’t, but, in interest of fairness, that none of those from drowning, firearms, trains, drugs, and alcohol were, some of which had to be, you get a suicide rate in Berlin of 26 per 100,000 people, which is double that in the United States today.
So death was front in center in people’s minds, aside from the author.
If you think about it, any Olympics distracts from the horrors infecting its host nation or eating away the international stage, while simultaneously advancing an agenda that places little value on eradicating them. If you think about it further, any hoopla-laden event – Super Bowl, Academy Awards, release of a memo from Devon Nunes, – is more of the same. People are slaughtered or die of starvation or preventable disease, and trophies are presented, and fireworks explode. If you think about it further still, just about anything – book clubs, family dinners, treadmill miles – anything, in fact, but addressing national or international horrors is part of the puppet show.
In Berlin 1936, aside from Hitler, Goebbels and one or two others, not many are consciously aware of or, if aware of, doing little about what is to happen. Some work to prevent it; some move to escape it; most go to the games or clubs or cheer from the sidelines.
It can’t happen here, right?