There's sizeable opposition to bringing the Olympics to Berlin. But many think successful games in the multicultural city, a symbol of the New Germany, could provide a needed antidote to Hitler's deceptive 1936 show.
"Whenever people think about the Olympics and Berlin, it always evokes images of 1936," says Barbara John, a respected former Berlin politician who champions bringing the 2024 Summer Games back to the city.
"Now Berlin has a real opportunity to counter the images created by Adolf Hitler by displaying the polar opposite," adds John, who served as the city-state's commissioner for foreigners' affairs for 22 years. "We could present a cosmopolitan city that has a large Turkish-German population and large numbers of residents from across the European Union and indeed the world."
On March 16, the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) will decide whether to submit Berlin or Hamburg as the country's official bid city for the 2024 games. Although a poll commissioned by the DOSB shows greater local support for the games in Hamburg, many across the country are rooting for Berlin, the vibrant multicultural capital widely seen as Germany's new face. Since reunification, the city has become an enormously popular destination for tourists, and hopes are that the Olympics could help disperse the few dark historical clouds that remain.
One of those clouds stems from the last time Berlin hosted the Summer Olympics, in 1936. When Olympics officials awarded Germany the games in 1931, they had hoped to give the country a post-World War I boost and to speed its return to the international community. Instead, the Weimar Republic fell and Hitler transformed the games - with the help of Leni Riefenstahl's magnum opus "Olympia" - into a significant propagandistic success.
"It is absolutely clear that those games were shaped by a racist dictatorship trying to burnish its image with the international community," says John. "Unfortunately, many fell for it."
They shouldn't have. Even as he prepared to deceive the world and present Germany as a country of peace, Hitler was already busy paving the way for mass persecution, mass murder and war. There was no lack of clues as to where things were headed, either. Prior to the Olympics there had even been an international debate about anti-Semitism under Hitler's regime and there were modest movements to boycott the games in some Western nations.
Germany made a few moves to calm international critics, like allowing Helene Mayer, an athlete partly of Jewish origin, to join the fencing team. By this time, though, the Nazis' xenophobic terror machine had already been set in motion - with boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses, the exclusion of Jews from large parts of public life, anti-Jewish racial and citizenship laws, legislation enabling forced sterilization of the handicapped, Roma and blacks as well as persecution of homosexuals.
Director Leni Riefenstahl's "Olympia" was groundbreaking in its documentation and glorification of the games
Berlin may have been preparing to open its doors to the world, but it had also slammed them shut on many segments of society. For example, an "Aryans only" policy for athletic organizations in the country resulted in the banning of talented athletes like world-class Jewish high jumper Gretel Bergmann from competing in the games. Days before the opening ceremony, police in Berlin also rounded up around 800 Roma and interned them until the Olympics had ended.
"The Nazi regime tried to camouflage its violent racist policies while it hosted the Summer Olympics," the US National Holocaust Museum notes. "Most anti-Jewish signs were temporarily removed and newspapers toned down their harsh rhetoric. Thus, the regime exploited the Olympic Games to present foreign spectators and journalists with a false image of a peaceful, tolerant Germany."
A New Berlin
Nearly eight decades after Hitler's spectacle, no one would deny that a nobler Berlin has emerged. Fuelled by a rich arts scene, still cheap rents and open EU borders, the city has become a magnet for foreigners and is more diverse than ever before in its history. In 2013 alone, some 33,800 foreigners established residency in Berlin. If you count second-generation immigrants, more than a quarter of Berlin's population is considered to have foreign roots. At a time when Jews are leaving other countries in Europe, Berlin has even proven popular with Israelis.
It would be wrong to say that Berliners are seeking absolution in any way by hosting the Olympics. They just want to turn a new leaf for city that has made tremendous strides since reunification.
"The core of the Olympic ideal was trampled on in Berlin in 1936," Berlin Senator for Justice and Consumer Protection Thomas Heilmann and the city's state secretary for cultural affairs, Tim Renner, recently wrote on Spiegel Online. "The Olympics lost their innocence here." Today, they argue, "a new Berlin is bidding for the sports for peace, understanding between nations and material modesty. The Berlin Games represent an opportunity for Germany and a fresh start for the Olympic ideal."
Critics of bringing the games to Berlin aren't buying it - at least not Gabrielle Hiller, the sports policy spokesperson in the city-state parliament for the Left Party, which opposes the Olympics. "The 1936 Olympic Games will always be a part of Berlin's history, and these images from Riefenstahl aren't going away," she says. "That's good, too, because they serve as a reminder of how seducible people can be. In 1936, people here celebrated the youth of the world, only to send them into war three years later."
Proponents of the games say a city that is as powerful a symbol of freedom as Berlin has a special responsibility to host the games and not leave that duty up to dictators, oligarchs or oil-rich sheiks. They also note that people in the capital are often among the first to harp about human rights abuses when those countries do get picked. Is that not hypocritical?
Judith Demba of the "Nolympia" alliance, and a key opponent of bringing the games to the city, dismisses the argument, saying local antipathy is the product of the fat cat IOC itself. She argues that the massive conditions it places on hosts and the fact that it collects most of the profits make it an "undemocratic institution that squares neatly with a dictatorship because that's essentially what it is." The security requirements placed on London, she says, made it look like a "city under siege."
That's a bit of stretch, and its also likely Berlin would take great pains not to avoid conveying itself in that way. Indeed, major politicians from across the spectrum seem to agree the Olympics could be great for Berlin's international reputation.
"We need new images," Gregor Gysi, a high-ranking member of the Left Party recently told the "Berliner Zeitung" newspaper. "Berlin is the German capital and has developed in very positive ways. My god, just look at the 2006 World Cup. Those are the images we need!"