The Olympia Stadium is one of many places in Berlin tainted by its association with Nazism. But its history also includes a moment of triumph over that regime. The 1936 Olympics in Berlin provided the first global stage for Hitler to reclaim some prestige for Germany and disseminate Nazi propaganda. The games were carefully stage-managed to showcase Nazi racial theories and all Jews, Roma and Sinti athletes were barred from competing.
Likewise gypsies, beggars and other ‘undesirables’ were removed from Berlin and placed into interment camps outside the city before foreign dignitaries and press arrived. Nazi posters were hidden. Visitors were taken on guided tours proporting to show the unity and equality of German society. Nazi officials even bowed to international pressure and allowed Helene Mayer, one of Germany’s best fencers, onto the team in spite of her Jewish ancestry. Other non-aryan athletes were publicly endorsed by selectors but then denied the chance to compete. Leading up to the Olympics boxer Johann Trollmann was stripped of his welterweight title by authorities because of his Sinti ancestory. According to the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre;
In a courageous mockery of Nazi ideology, Trollman faced his next competitor with his hair dyed blond, his body powdered white, and he refused to return punches. Remarkably, he lasted five rounds.
But despite vocal dissent from around the world and threats of a boycott from several nations the Nazi propaganda effort was largely successful and world attention was drawn away from human rights abuses by a combination of technical, architectural and theatrical displays.
For the first time in the history of the modern games a 12-day relay was organised to bring the Olympic torch from Olympia in Greece to the stadium in Berlin. During the opening ceremony the airship Hindenburg made a flyover and Hitler announced the official opening of the games in front of a crowd of 100,000. For the first time ever television cameras were used to simulcast certain events to special venues within the Olympic village.
The Olympic village itself was a magnificent 130 acre purpose-built town with modern training facilities including a 400 meter track and full size indoor swimming pool. Designed and built by the German Army under the direction of colonel Wolfgang Fuerstner the village was testament to the wealth and prestige of the new Nazi regime. However during the games it was discovered that Fuerstner had Jewish ancestry and he was summarily demoted;
Two days after the Games ended, Fuerstner attended a lavish Nazi banquet held in honor of Gilsa [his successor]. Afterwards, the despondent Fuerstner went back to his barracks and shot himself. The Nazis tried to cover up his suicide by giving him a full military burial, claiming he had been killed in an auto accident.
Following the war the Olympic Village fell into the Soviet occupation area and was used as a torture and interrogation centre for the KGB. Currently it is abandoned and only partially restored.
Germany succeeded in topping the medal tally but lost many track and field events to the American team. In particular American sprinter Jessie Owens won four gold medals and set new world records in the long jump and 4×100 meter relay. According to the History Place.
German broadcasters and journalists always referred to the African American Owens as “the Negro Owens.” The other eighteen African American athletes were referred to as “America’s Black Auxiliaries” as if they were not full-fledged team members.
Despite this Owens was wildly popular amongst the German public and he featured heavily in Leni Reifenstahl’s documentary of the games Olympia. He was treated as a celebrity in Berlin but returned to a segregated United States.
The stadium survived the war largely unscathed but in the aftermath the allied authorities began an aggressive program of de-nazification which included the destruction of all sorts of Nazi monuments and symbolism alongside re-education programs and war crimes tribunals. At one stage the Allied authorities considered demolishing the stadium but in the end it was used as a base for British soldiers and was restored in the 1960s to serve once again as a sporting stadium and concert venue.
It seems likely that the success of Owens and other non-aryan athletes helped decide the fate of the stadium. By participating in the games they contradicted Nazi ideology and made the stadium into a different sort of symbol- one that could be allowed to stand even alongside the horrific legacy of its creators.