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Deutschland Olympisches Dorf bei Elstal/Brandenburg 1936
Image: David Crossland

Nazi Olympic village gets overhaul

David Crossland
August 19, 2016

The Olympic village built by the Nazis for the 1936 Games has been quietly crumbling for decades in woodland west of Berlin. But now local authorities are planning to revitalize the historic site.


Ever since the Soviet army vacated the 1935 Olympic village in 1992, the 55-hectare (135-acre) site in the rural district of Elstal has fallen prey to vandalism and the elements, leaving many of the buildings with caved-in roofs, broken and boarded-up windows and flaking facades.

But despite all the decay, the village with its well-designed layout of grand halls, canteens, sports fields and athletes' dormitories still conveys Hitler's ambition to showcase German might and modernity in those 16 days in August 1936 - only three years before he plunged the world into war.

Over the years, various plans to turn it into a conference centre, a hotel, a clinic or a football school were abandoned because of the high cost of refurbishing the buildings.

It has been forgotten and fallen into a slumber, visited only by handfuls of tourists who make the more than 10-kilometre (6.2-mile) trek from the capital to learn its fascinating history.

New ambitions

But now the local authority of Wustermark, where the village is located, plans to revitalize it with an ambitious plan to build 1,000 apartments while preserving its status as a protected historical monument.

Holger Schreiber, the mayor of Wustermark, said construction work could start as soon as 2018 and that 3.9 million euros (4.4 million euros) in public funding had been made available to build an access road and lay cables in preparation for the project.

"It was a residential village for the athletes and in my opinion it only makes sense to develop it for residential purposes," Schreiber told DW. "It's also very important to preserve its character as a museum. It's a monument of national significance and it must remain so."

The project will help alleviate a housing shortage, he added. "In this area west of Berlin we're seeing very rapid population increases because Berlin has shown enormous growth."

Terraplan, a Nuremberg-based real estate firm that specializes in the conversion of historical buildings, is in talks to carry out the first phase of development in which the grand, elliptical, "Restaurant of Nations" will be turned into apartments.

The company said it had reached an agreement with the owner of the village, a foundation set up by the publicly-owned Deutsche Kreditbank, to purchase the restaurant building and its immediate surroundings as part of a first phase of development that will have an investment volume amounting to a three-digit million euro sum.

The managing director of Terraplan, Erik Rossnagel, told DW that 500 apartments are planned in the Restaurant of Nations and nearby buildings. "Berlin is of course a place with growth potential with regard to residential construction," he said. "It's a metropolis that's attracting global interest."

Challenges and hurdles

The sweeping, boldly designed three-story restaurant building boasts a cascade of terraces at the front and a huge courtyard at the back. It had 40 kitchens and 40 canteens for each of the national teams apart from the only athlete dispatched by Haiti, who ate with the Brazilian team.

Jesse Owen's appartment
Some of the houses are to be kept as museums, including a dormitory building that contains a permanent exhibition about Jesse Owens, the black American athlete who confounded Hitler by winning four Gold medals in 1936.Image: David Crossland

"The project is a challenge because it's in woodland, we have to respect nature conservation and of course monument protection laws, and the building isn't in very good condition, with corrosion in the concrete," said Rossnagel. "And we must ensure that the external appearance of the building remains as unchanged as possible."

Terraplan plans to sell some of the flats and rent some out. Rossnagel said they wouldn't be luxury apartments but wouldn't be low-cost either. "We can't do cheap flats in monument-protected buildings because the refurbishing costs are too high. But the flats will be of varying sizes, and there will be many affordable ones."

Schreiber, the mayor, hopes that the "Restaurant of Nations" conversion will trigger the step-by-step refurbishment of the entire village.

Difficult heritage

The Soviet army moved into the site in 1947 and tore down many of the buildings because it needed construction materials. The village accommodated some 4,000 male athletes. The 330 women who took part lived in quarters next to the majestic Olympic Stadium in western Berlin.

Athletes' dormitories
Only 21 of the 140 athletes' dormitories are still standing. Some of them are in very poor condition.Image: David Crossland

The Nazis dubbed it the "village of peace." But they planned from the start to put it to military use after the Games. It was built to last, from reinforced concrete, and housed an infantry school and a military hospital until the end of the war when the Soviet army moved in.

Berlin and the area surrounding it have a wealth of vast, historical complexes that have stood abandoned since the end of the Cold War - military bases and hospitals dating back to the Nazi era or before which were put to use by Soviet forces stationed in communist East Germany.

One well-known example is Beelitz Heilstätten, a sanatorium complex 50 kilometers southwest of Berlin that was built to treat tuberculosis patients. It has been left in a state of decay so spectacular that it attracts photographers and filmmakers, but no investors.

A former communist college campus at Lake Bogensee, built in the imposing neo-classical style of the Stalin era, has also failed to find a buyer - partly because it comes complete with a bungalow used by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.

The buildings, claimed by encroaching forests, are silent save for the flutter of bird wings and the whistle of the wind through gaping windows. But they tell gripping stories of Germany's tumultuous 20th century history.

In many cases, the complexes are too vast to develop profitably, or too far removed from major cities. The Olympic village is different thanks to its proximity to Berlin, its good transport links and a very proactive local authority.

"The decisive aspect has been the local authority and its mayor. They have been very active and are supporting us," said Rossnagel.

'Wonder of the World'

Hans-Heinrich Rathjen, who gives tours of the site told DW that Hitler visited the site on June 17, 1936 and described it as the most beautiful village in the world."The thinking went that the 1,000 year Reich must build things for eternity, not to be torn down after a few months."

At least in that respect, Jesse Owens agreed with the Führer. The athlete was said to have described it as one of the wonders of the world.

Model of Olympic village
The Berlin village was the first such site that was built to last. Before the 1936 games, the athletes were either housed in surrounding hotels or in temporary villages that were dismantled shortly afterwards.Image: DW/O.Samson

The athletes had state-of-the-art training facilities. The sports field was the same size as the one in the Olympic stadium. So was the swimming pool, which was still in use until the early 1990s.

It was an idyllic place. Hitler's favorite director Leni Riefenstahl, one of the few women allowed in, shot part of her Olympic documentary "Festival of Beauty" by an artificial lake that adorned the site, filming naked athletes emerging from a sauna and diving into the water. Storks and other birds were imported from Berlin Zoo.

But even while the Games were going on, a foreboding militarism was evident. "The Wehrmacht organized everything apart from the food," said Rathjen. "A military band played in the centre next to a juice bar where the athletes could buy non-alcoholic drinks."

And in the Hindenburghaus, a palatial building that housed concerts and even provided live televised transmissions of the Games, athletes were greeted with a huge, sinister bas-relief showing a column of German soldiers marching.

"The Wehrmacht showed the athletes where things were heading," said Rathjen. "And only three years later, the army started marching."

A few months after the Games ended, an infantry school opened there and the Restaurant of Nations became a military hospital.

After the war, when the area was controlled by the Soviets, it housed Soviet army officers and their families and was also used for sports training for Soviet troops.

Mayor Schreiber is convinced that the site has a bright future. "We're going to get life back into the village," he said. "The historical buildings that have survived will be preserved and we'll try to put them to public use. The sports hall could become a festival hall."

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