“After the Olympics, we’ll get ruthless,” Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda for Nazi Germany, wrote in his diary on August 7, one week into the 1936 Olympics. “Then there will be some shooting.”
Award-winning historian and biographer Oliver Hilmes’ new book “BERLIN 1936: Sixteen Days in August” (Other Press Hardcover) traces the events of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a sporting and entertainment event that marked a paradigm shift in modern European politics. In perhaps the greatest propaganda victory ever, Nazi Germany hosted the Olympics in a celebratory cloud of unity, diversity, and lavish parties – while simultaneously planning the next world war and helping start the Spanish Civil War. The deception worked, as the Games gave many people new hope that Hitler could be trusted to keep his promises of peace. Timed for the Winter 2018 Olympics, when politics and sports are colliding once again, “BERLIN 1936” is a fascinating and eerily similar narrative of a world on the brink of international disaster.
With delightful anecdotes and individual perspectives from Nazi leaders, locals, foreign diplomats, sportsmen, journalists, writers, socialites, nightclub owners, and jazz musicians, “BERLIN 1936” doesn’t just share a political exploration of the Olympic Games, but instead crafts an intriguing look at the world and Berlin during those ominous summer months. With the Nazi agenda put on hold while international visitors got a snapshot of the Berlin they wanted to believe in, Hilmes offers a last glimpse of the vibrant and diverse life in the German capital during the 1920s and 30s that the Nazis wanted to destroy.
Among many others, readers will meet a young Jewish German boy secretly rooting against the Nazis, a transgender German woman terrified for her life, and the owner of a popular local club trying to keep his Jewish roots a secret. With updates on every character and a comprehensive index, “BERLIN 1936” is both a great historical reference and character study of a city.
While Jesse Owens blows past his competition, winning gold medals in track and field competitions, concentration camps are rapidly built up in forests outside the metropolitan area. Writer Thomas Wolfe, always enchanted with Berlin, hears disturbing news about what the Nazis are doing during a dinner date, these revelations lead to his eventual autobiographical short story “I Have a Thing to Tell You,” which, after its publication, causes his once best-selling books to be banned in Germany. Eleanor Holm Jarrett, famed Olympic swimmer, arrives in Berlin already banned from the Games for her conduct on the boat on the way there, and immediately becomes a star among the Nazi elite. Helene Mayer competes for Germany despite – or because of – her Jewish background. And while Hitler sits, bored, at many of the Olympic events, Goebbels sits next to him, planning and plotting the regime’s next moves, all documented in his diary.
Fast-paced and teeming with a history of extraordinary developments in politics, music, literature, and of course, sports, “BERLIN 1936: Sixteen Days in August” captures the chaotic scene of Berlin during the Nazi regime. Today, during a tumultuous moment in American history and domestic politics, Hilmes’ narrative offers a timely reminder of what grave stakes are at risk, for both progress and destruction, during a period of great upheaval.
About the Author
Oliver Hilmes, born in 1971, studied history, politics, and psychology in Marburg, Paris, and Potsdam. He earned his doctorate in contemporary history and worked in the directorship of the Berliner Philharmoniker. His books on conflicting and fascinating women, “Malevolent Muse: The Life of Alma Mahler” (2004) and “Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth” (2007), became bestsellers. He has most recently published “Franz Liszt: Musician, Celebrity, Superstar” (2011) and “Ludwig II: Der unzeitgemäße König” (2013).
Jefferson Chase is the translator of more than a dozen books from German to English, including works by Thomas Mann, Wolfgang Schivelbusch, and Götz Aly. He also works as a writer and journalist in Berlin.