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100 years after 'Nazi Olympics': Should Berlin host in 2036?

November 19, 2023

Germany's capital Berlin is ready to bid to host the 2036 Summer Olympics. But the plan is attracting plenty of criticism and some awkward questions.

The Olympic rings outside IOC headquarters in Switzerland
Germany has work to do to convince the IOC it could host the Games in 2036Image: Laurent Gillieron/Keystone/picture-alliance

Whether it be in 2036 or 2040, Berlin is ready to host the summer Olympics. That was the message after the city's Governing Mayor, Kai Wegner, and Sports Senator, Iris Spranger, signed a document to signal their intentions. "We want the Games to be not only for, but above all with, the people of Berlin," said Wegner.

Why has the proposal been criticized?

If Berlin wins the bid for 2036, the Olympics would take place exactly 100 years after the 1936 Games staged by the National Socialist, or Nazi, party. This has drawn criticism from some, who consider it disrespectful. "It gives the strange impression of a 100-year celebration," said historian Oliver Hilmes in German newspaper, Tagesspiegel. According to Hilmes, a lot of thought would need to be given to putting the history in proper context.

The opposition in the Berlin Senate criticized the project for other reasons. The Green party pointed to the sometimes precarious condition of Berlin's sports facilities and the urgent need for renovation of sports grounds, gyms and swimming pools. "Before we invest billions in a major sporting event, we need to concentrate on getting our sports facilities and clubs in shape," said Klara Schedlich, spokesperson for sports policy for the party.

How were the 1936 Games perceived?

Guests visiting the Games from abroad in 1936 experienced a perfectly organized, bombastic sporting event in the Berlin summer. Almost 4,000 athletes from 49 nations represented a record number of participants at the time. The number of visitors exceeded all previous records. In the cafes and dance halls of the German capital, people partied and enjoyed life for 16 days.

Adolf Hitler at the opening of the Olympic Games in Berlin, 1936
Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Games as propagandaImage: TopFoto/IMAGO

But at the same time, the Games were a major staging and propaganda coup for the Nazis. For the last time in their reign, which lasted until 1945, they presented themselves to the outside world as peaceful. As early as the summer of 1933, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi government had issued a declaration, as requested by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), that the Games were open to "all races and denominations."

However, there were several events in the run-up to the Games that showed the true intention of the Nazis. In 1935, the Nuremberg Race Laws were passed, which made their antisemitic and racist ideology clear. In the same year, they increased their armed forces from 100,000 to over half a million soldiers. In addition, the Rhineland, in the west of Germany, was occupied by the military in 1936, thus breaking international agreements.

The Weimar Republic was still democratic when the Games were awarded to Germany in 1931. Many critics say that they should have been taken back after Hitler and the National Socialists seized power in January 1933. But this did not happen. Even a long-discussed Olympic boycott by the Americans and other nations did not ultimately take place. Hitler got his big sporting stage and made the most of it.

What opportunities would Berlin 2036 offer?

A century after the "Nazi games under the swastika," the city could show how diverse and open the sports metropolis of Berlin is today, said Wegner. His predecessor in office, the current Berlin Senator for Economic Affairs, Franziska Giffey, also sees benefits.

"We have already seen what a positive effect this has had on the city with the Special Olympics this year, if only in terms of the many guests who boost tourism," she said. "If the Olympic Games are held successfully, then the economic effect can be felt throughout Berlin."

 Kai Wegner and Iris Spranger sign a document relating to the 2036 Olympics
Local politicians Kai Wegner and Iris Spranger are backing the bidImage: Annette Riedl/dpa/picture alliance

Support of the idea is not restricted to local politicians. Jens-Christian Wagner, for example, told German media outlet Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk, that the idea of bringing the 2036 Olympics to Berlin was a good one. Wagner is the director of the Buchenwald Memorial Foundation. Buchenwald near Weimar was home to the largest concentration camp on German soil from 1937 to 1945.

However, according to Wagner, an intensive examination of the appropriation of the 1936 Games by the National Socialists is also essential. "On the one hand, sports facilities that were already used in 1936 will also be used," he said, adding that those would have to be used carefully. "We have to deal with this very consciously and the question of how sport can be misused for political purposes has to be addressed," said Wagner.

How likely are the Olympic Games in Germany in reality?

IOC President Thomas Bach has recently dampened the potential Olympic ambitions of his home country. He would be "very happy" about an Olympic Games in Germany but, due to the country's entry restrictions on certain people in response to the Russian war on Ukraine, Germany would not be an option as host — at least for the time being. "The IOC can only award games where its rules are respected," said Bach. "This includes ensuring that every participant accredited by the IOC is allowed to enter."

The next three Summer Games have been awarded to Paris (2024), Los Angeles (2028) and Brisbane (2032), while the next Winter Games will take place in Milan/Cortina d'Ampezzo in 2026. The hosts of the 2030 and 2034 Winter Games will be named next year in a double award.

That means Berlin could only host the Games in 2036 at the earliest. However, the competition is already fierce. According to Bach, there is a "healthy double-digit number of interested parties." The big favorite so far is India.

This article was originally published in German.

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