Paul Scraton explores Berlin’s abandoned 1936 Olympic Village and the legacy of Jesse Owens…
What do you do with a building when it symbolises some of the darkest days of your country’s history?
It’s a common question in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany, and one which was certainly asked of the various venues built for the 1936 Olympics.
Of course, Germany was awarded the Olympics before Hitler and his National Socialist cronies took power, and indeed many of the designs were already in place, but the Olympic Stadium and its surroundings still symbolise a games where Hitler was determined to show to the world the power and the glory of his three-year-old Thousand Year Reich.
When one thinks of what was to follow over the next decade, it is not much consolation that the games were less the “Hitler Olympics” than the “Jesse Owens Show”.
But the African-American athlete Owens’ exploits on the track were more triumphant and glorious than even the best of Leni Riefenstahl’s cinematic efforts; and perhaps it is this history that has allowed the Olympic venues to shake off the taint of their history, most gloriously during the 2006 World Cup where – seventy years after the Olympics – the world came to Germany and was greeted not with swastikas and triumphalism, but a wonderful celebration that even FIFA’s rampant commercialism and Zinedine Zidane’s flying headbutt could not sour.
But if the Olympic Stadium, renovated and restored for 2006, has been granted the opportunity to write a new history on its football pitch and track – and who can forget Usain Bolt’s victories during the 2009 World Championships – what of the other venues built for the 1936 games?
Fourteen kilometres to the west of the stadium and the main Olympic park, beyond the city limits and in the village of Elstal in the Brandenburg countryside, lies the Olympic Village.
This was the home of the athletes for the duration of the games, and a place where, despite Nazi conceptions of race and segregation, 4,000 sportsmen (the women were housed elsewhere) from over 50 nations slept, trained and ate together in the massive House of the Nations canteen.
Much of it is ruins now, though slowly but surely the complex is being patched-up to keep it standing, and certain parts such as the facade of the swimming pool are being restored to their original condition.
We visited on an early summer’s day and paid a bored looking security guard the nominal entry fee to allow us to walk around the grounds pretty much alone. Apart from the larger buildings, such as the House of the Nations, the old swimming pool and the gymnasium, the site is dotted with smaller barracks-like buildings in which athletes were housed.
Some are crumbling, some no longer standing, whilst on others the paint is only slightly peeling. Only the house where Jesse Owens slept has been properly fixed up, and you can even take a look inside.
It remains a somewhat spooky place. During the long years of socialism, when Elstal and the surrounding countryside was very much a part of the German Democratic Republic, the village was used by the Soviet Army until their withdrawal from German soil in 1992.
They built a series of Plattenbauen – those classically communist pre-fabricated housing blocks – for their soldiers, which now loom amongst the trees in ghostly abandonment. You have the feeling, as you walk around the complex, of being in a place that is lost in its various histories, discarded now that the regimes that built and maintained these grounds are long gone. Although parts have been reconstructed, it is in its abandonment that the village draws its fascinating aura.
Still, the Olympic Village has not been completely left to its memories and ghosts, and the cinder track is occasionally used for school sporting events. And so it should, for can there be more inspiration for a young athlete than the sense of pounding the same ground as the great Jesse Owens?
There is so much power in the memory of one American man and his achievements: enough to rehabilitate these buildings so symbolic of a murderous regime, his part in history allowing us almost a hundred years later to find something positive amongst these ruins, to allow us to rebuild and renovate and celebrate at least one part of the 1936 Olympics.
A powerful achievement for a man who, due to segregation back home, had to ride in the service elevator at the New York Astoria Hotel in order to attend a reception in his honour following his success in Berlin. According to Albert Speer, Hitler was distinctly unimpressed with Owens’ triumph, and discussed the banning of black athletes in future games.
There are many ways to beat an evil ideology such as Nazism. One small victory remains the fact that the 1936 Olympics are more famous for the achievements of a black man than anything else; another is that, 73 years later, Usain Bolt sprints down that same track towards gold medals and world records; and yet another is that, when they play in Berlin, the members of the German National Football team – who come from a variety of backgrounds – take to the field in the Olympic Stadium all ready to play for the same colours, the same flag and the same anthem.
The Olympic Village can be reached by regional train from Berlin to Elstal (followed by a 2km walk). You can visit the Olympic Village daily from 10am, between 1st April and the 31st October. It costs €2 to get into the grounds, or €5 if you want to take one of the very good German language tours, which run at 11am on weekdays and 12 noon and 3pm on weekends. You can find out more information (German only) on the website here.