1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Nazi Sculptures at World Cup Venue Spark Protest

Deanne Corbett
June 2, 2006

Just days before the start of the World Cup, a debate about the Nazi-era sculptures that still adorn Berlin's Olympic Stadium has reignited, with calls for the images to be covered up or removed lest they offend guests.

Karl Albiker's discus thrower and relay racer are among the disputed worksImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The muscle-bound supermen in bronze and stone that can be seen in and around Berlin's Olympic Stadium have been controversial for years. Commissioned by the National Socialist dictatorship when the stadium was built to host the 1936 Olympic Games, the sculptures are now a visual reminder of the racist Aryan ideology propagated during the Third Reich.

In the early 1990s, when Berlin unsuccessfully applied to host the Olympic Games, the sculptures were described as "the delusion of racism carved in stone." And though their removal was called for, they remained as a testament -- albeit a problematic one -- to the past.

Two years ago, when the stadium was renovated and modernized for the World Cup, it was clear that the site's history would remain palpable.

Fußball das Olympiastadion in Berlin
The newly renovated Olympic Stadium in Berlin will host six World Cup matchesImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

"Whenever you enter, you will still know this was the site of the 1936 Games," Peter Steinhorst, chief technician of the renovation, said at the time. "You will pass all the old Nazi sculptures."

But now, the idea of thousands of international visitors passing through the entrance for the six World Cup matches that will be played in Berlin is proving too much for at least two outspoken critics -- Lea Rosh, a journalist and initiator of the city's Holocaust Memorial, and Ralph Giordano, a leading German Jewish novelist.

Dealing with remnants of the past

Skulptur von Arno Breker
A Breker statue of PrometheusImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Rosh particularly objects to the sculptures on the site created by Arno Breker, the best known sculptor of the Nazi era. Breker accepted commissions from the Nazis betweem 1933 and 1942, and maintained personal friendships with both Adolf Hitler and his key architect, Albert Speer. Breker sculpted The Female Victor and The Decathlete for the stadium.

"At the very least, the figures by Arno Breker should be covered up, but then with an explanation as to why," Rosh told the Berlin tabloid B.Z. "Breker was a big time Nazi. It's bad enough that these statues are even allowed to be in public places."

Giordano, whose family was persecuted by the Nazis, has backed Rosh, calling for the removal of sculptures such as the towering statues of a discus thrower and relay runner by Karl Albiker.

"The figures are ugly and deceitful," Giordano told reporters. "I demand that they be quickly taken down and turned into rubble."

Ralph Giordano
Ralph Giordano would prefer to see the sculptures torn downImage: AP

"They should have gone a long time ago," the writer added. "Just to cover them up would be only too symbolic -- symbolic of how Germany deals with its Nazi past, which is to say, not consequently enough."

Officials from the city's ministries for culture and sport have rejected the calls to remove the sculptures, saying that in itself would be a denial of the past.

"People won't be shocked"

Ursel Berger, the curator of a newly opened exhibit at the Georg Kolbe Museum about the sculptures on the Olympic grounds, agreed. She also told B.Z. that in 1936, people didn't see the sculptures in any racist context, but rather as decorative elements that -- at the time -- were commonly found on buildings of this sort.

"Nobody was shocked in 1936," said Berger. "And the international World Cup visitors today won't be any different, because such sculptures also adorn other European stadiums."

Christoph Stölzl, historian and vice-president of Berlin's city council, recommended that the sculptures be accompanied by explanatory plaques.

Eröffnungsfeier der Olympiade 1936 in Berlin
The opening ceremony of the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi GermanyImage: AP

"The connection between idealization of the body and racism is very complicated, because there were both right and left wing variations on the body cult," Stölzl told B.Z. "The art of the 20th century was often wrapped up in dictatorships."

He said that the individual stories of the artists were decisive in making a judgment on the appropriateness of the sculptures.

"The style was in step with the zeitgeist," Stölzl said. "The Neoclassical sculptures made in the United States at the time of the New Deal look just like the sculptures produced in Germany in the 1930s, in the Soviet Union, Italy, or at the Palais Chaillot in Paris."

Jewish council speaks out

Rosh and Giordano may have cause to rethink their demands following a statement issued by Germany's Central Council of Jews on Wednesday. The council's Secretary General, Stephan Kramer, said the calls to tear down or cover up the statues were "completely out of place."

It's "completely wrong," to wipe away these traces of history, he said, adding that such a move would only play into the hands of those who would like to forget about the past and sweep it all under the rug.

A better approach is to treat the whole complex, sculptures included, as problematic and to show "how the Nazis tried to abuse images of the human body for their propaganda purposes," Kramer said.