The drama and personal stories behind one of the most famous—and infamous—Olympic Games.
Hitler’s goal for the 1936 Berlin Games, as Hilmes (Malevolent Muse: The Life of Alma Mahler, 2015, etc.) writes, was “to give visitors a positive impression of the Third Reich using the Olympics as camouflage.” The author uses this event—the book has 16 chapters, one for each day of competition—to show the extent of Hitler’s deception and its effect on actors, nightclub owners, everyday Berliners, and others. Among the ordinary citizens are a woman with a secret so painful that, rather than confess to her husband, she stepped in front of a moving train and a transvestite so afraid of detection she would not leave her apartment to see a doctor and died from a burst artery. Among the celebrities are Richard Strauss, who disdained “sports foolishness” yet still composed an “Olympic Hymn”; Jesse Owens, the American track star whose four gold medals were, in Joseph Goebbels’ view, “an affront to the idea of white supremacy”; Leni Riefenstahl, whose film about the Games gives “a seemingly objective picture of an open-minded, cosmopolitan and peaceful Germany”; and Thomas Wolfe, whose falsely sanitized view of Germany changed dramatically during the event. Though Hilmes bogs down the story with too many unnecessary details—e.g., the streets people live on, the clubs they frequent, weather forecasts—he still offers memorable sequences, from chillingly amusing (Hermann Göring appearing in public in a different uniform depending on which of his many appellations an occasion called for) to harrowing, such as that prisoners already in Nazi camps were “beaten with sticks and hung from hooks with their hands bound behind their backs” while athletes celebrated 40 minutes away.
Thomas Mann, listening to the Games from exile in Switzerland, knew that Hitler’s intent was “to intimidate, indeed overwhelm the rest of the world.” This mostly illuminating book chronicles those efforts and suggests the horrors to come.