Reviewed by Peter Hegarty
Translator Jefferson Chase would have found Oliver Hilmes’s Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August pleasantly familiar. A resident of Berlin, he walks the same streets as Hilmes’s characters. He knows their haunts, the places where they lived, caroused, suffered. He can easily visit the austerely beautiful Olympic stadium on which the attention of the world was focused during August 1936. Much of the city is as it was then, for aerial bombing is a strange business: at war’s end many districts of Berlin, Leipzig, and other big cities were in ruins, while other areas remained largely intact. As a very rough rule of thumb, the further you get from the center of any large German city, the more of the pre-war urban fabric you see around you.
Chase’s local knowledge informs his congenial translation. His English catches the patrician, detached tone of the original German. Hilmes, for his part, is one of Germany’s most acclaimed biographers. His subjects have included mad Alma Mahler, Cosima Wagner, Franz Liszt, and eccentric King Ludwig the Second of Bavaria. He is a prominent cultural figure, but is also well-known as the researcher who discovered the residency card of Richard Friedländer, a Jewish businessman, in a Berlin archive. The card states that Friedländer was the biological father of Magda Goebbels, wife of Hitler’s Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. The minister has learned his wife’s secret by the time Hilmes introduces us to him.
The couple are among the characters, prominent and obscure, who people the sixteen chapters. Hilmes weaves their experiences together using a technique close to that employed by Antony Beevor in books such as Stalingrad and Berlin. His skillful use of excerpts from diaries and letters allows us to enter the minds of the people who are in Berlin in August 1936, the rulers and ruled, rich and poor, men and women, Germans and foreigners. It gives insights into the many ways in which a momentous event impinges on daily life. His use of the present tense lends vitality to the book; it reminds us that the events it describes are close to us in time.
Toni Kellner, a transvestite, is feeling unwell on August 1, the opening day of the games. In fact, she has been feeling unwell for some time. As transvestites are perverts in the eyes of the regime, she dare not go to a doctor in case he reports her. The following day, her last, she is wearing a blouse, panties and knee-high laced boots:
Suddenly she feels nauseous and collapses backwards on her bed. Blood drips from the mouth: an artery has burst.
No one misses her. (23)
Around noon that same day, Erna Rakel, a factory worker, enters Neukölln S-Bahn station. It is busy, packed with jolly people on their way to the games. Erna pushes her way through the throng to the edge of the platform. She hears garbled words come over the loudspeaker: “attention….circle train arriving….please stand clear.”
When the approaching 12:34 train is only a few yards away from her, Erna Rakel takes a step forward. (26)
Like Toni Kellner, Erna has been feeling unwell but her problems are psychological rather than physical. She doesn’t discuss them with anyone, not even with her husband Willi, a glass-blower:
She, too, carries a secret around with her. It must be a dark one […] Perhaps Willi is part of the problem – we simply don’t know. (25)
Later that day, Berlin’s police president, Count Wolf-Friedrich von Helldorff, visits the glamorous Quartier Latin, the most elegant and expensive club in Berlin:
He’s known as a brutal Machiavellian with blood on his hands, but you wouldn’t think that to see him drinking champagne in his tuxedo in the Quartier Latin. (30)
For now, but only for now, the Nazis tolerate places like the Quartier Latin, although they are deeply suspicious of the cosmopolitan habitués of such swish nightspots with their fondness for “Negro dancing.”
As these examples from August 2 show, the book is dense with detail, especially in regard to German technological prowess. We learn that there was only a 58-second delay between the end of a race and the television broadcast of the footage. People follow the games in twenty public Fernsehstuben – TV salons – in Berlin, Potsdam and Leipzig. Sophisticated new cameras help officials determine the winner of a race, even in the tightest of finishes. The Nazis spare nothing in their attempts to impress the world. Listening to his radio in sultry Switzerland Thomas Mann is growing uneasy:
The Magician knows that the enormous technological effort is being employed to intimidate, indeed overwhelm the rest of the world. (49)
Mann’s unease seems to anticipate the terror in Guernica in May 1937, and the dread felt by the young crews of Allied planes as the first operational jet fighters, the Me262s, streak up through the clouds towards their slow, bomb-heavy craft.
As Chase crisply puts it in two key sentences:
Hitler wants to demonstrate his power. The implicit message is that others should beware of messing with an industrial nation capable of such engineering feats. (50)
Over the sixteen days, Leni Riefenstahl shoots her ground-breaking propaganda film Olympia. Wanting her to produce something of outstanding quality, that would show off Germany to the world, Hitler has given the talented Riefenstahl everything she needs and more. In the months before the games, she has walked around the stadium selecting locations for her cameras. She has had the inspired idea of embedding cameras in the ground below the track, on towers, or in specially-dug foxholes, to get unusual perspectives on the action. What she will finally produce is that strangest thing: a propaganda film that is also a work of art, a reminder, not that we need it, that aesthetics and morality are not associated concepts.
As Riefenstahl works on her film, another powerful woman, Magda Goebbels, is having a difficult time at home. Her husband has learned to his anger and embarrassment that her father was Jewish. It is as much as the persuasive Führer can do to calm his minister down. Goebbels is in bad form anyway. “The Olympians look like the directors of a flea circus,” he peevishly notes in his diary (2). Jesse Owens’s victories trouble him. He worries that:
The American’s extraordinary achievements might make even dyed-in-the-wool Nazis question the validity of the Aryan race’s claims to a privileged position. (58)
Goebbels’s boss is at the zenith of his popularity, enjoying the acclaim of crowds in a city that had largely voted socialist or communist before the Nazi takeover. On the opening day of the games, thousands of people line the 11-kilometre-long Via Triumphalis leading to the stadium, cheering the leader as he glides past in his open Mercedes. But resistance to his rule flickers still. His opponents distribute flyers deriding Nazism, leave anti-regime stickers in phone boxes, and smuggle in copies of a pamphlet entitled Get to Know Beautiful Germany which includes a map showing the locations of concentration camps and torture chambers.
High up in the stands, a football-mad Jewish boy called Peter Fröhlich watches the games. He hopes that Germany will lose in every competition. He longs to be out of the country, to be spared the daily humiliation of walking past publicly-displayed pages from Der Stürmer, an anti-Semitic hate sheet, on his way to school. The paper specializes in tales of the abduction and defilement of virgins by lecherous Jews. Peter glances contemptuously at the Nazi luminaries:
Goebbels reminds him of an evil dwarf from a fairy tale his mother used to read to him when he was little. Looking at Germany’s highest dignitaries, he remembers the popular joke that people used to tell each other surreptitiously: ‘What does a real Aryan look like? He’s blond like Hitler, tall like Goebbels, and thin like Göring.’ (135)
We meet another Jew, Victor Klemperer, who wonders how he will pay his bills after the regime has sacked him from his post as Professor of Romance Languages at Dresden University. He keeps a diary recording the details of everyday life under the Nazis, continually bewailing their pollution of the German language.
Klemperer is not fooled by the apparent let-up in the repression before and during the games. In order to gull visitors, the Nazis have, among other things, temporarily suspended publication of Der Stürmer – even Nazis are embarrassed by the paper and relieved to be rid of it for a while – but the persecution of minorities goes on. Hilmes describes what would have been an unremarkable incident by the standards of the time: the authorities evict a gypsy family from their apartment and abandon them in a makeshift camp by sewage-sodden fields on the edge of the city. Things will get much worse for these unfortunates.
After Day Sixteen of the games, Der Stürmer returns to the streets as the tourists head home, many of them with positive impressions of a peaceful, purposeful country guided by a wise leader, in their memories images such as the one on the cover of this outstanding book – a diver against a cerulean sky. The Olympic Games have been a great success:
These sixteen days of August give many people new hope that things will change and Hitler can be trusted to keep his promises of peace. The sporting spectacle has helped pull the wool over their eyes. (246)
“After the Olympics, we’ll get ruthless,” Goebbels notes in his diary on August 7 (108).
Hilmes, Oliver. Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August. Tr. Jefferson Chase. New York: Other Press, 2018.
UK Edition: Bodley Head, 2018.