In this vivid rendering of the Nazi-hosted 1936 Olympics, Oliver Hilmes puts readers into the scene of a phenomenal display that was meant to dazzle the world and blind it to Germany’s march toward world domination. Hilmes’s present-tense narration conveys intimacy and distance at the same time.
The sixteen days fill sixteen short chapters, each replete with the weather forecast and tidbits of the day’s news, Nazi leaders and their devotees, high-living celebrity Berliners, restaurateurs, and musicians being showcased at posh venues. Then, of course, there are the visitors: spellbound American and European tourists thrilled to be part of the immense crowds at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
It’s a portrait of a glorious city at the pinnacle of its glory. However, the glory comes at an enormous price. Who knew in 1936 how the monstrous machine Hitler was building would invite destruction upon the German people and this splendid city?
Hilmes drops plenty of clues about how the nation that was already a nightmare for many Jews would meet an unexpected destiny. He profiles many Jewish individuals whose livelihoods are threatened, and we receive news about many others who already live under Nazi subjugation.
Key personalities move in and out of the chapters as the days go by. Among them is the sensational young American author, Thomas Wolfe, a frequent visitor to Berlin, who is not expecting to discover the hidden corruption beneath the glitter and glamour of the city he has adored. When he pens his impressions about the Nazi betrayal of Germany’s better self, he finds his books no longer available in the Reich’s bookstores.
Hilmes has no way of escaping the oft-told Jesse Owens story, but he makes the best of this obligation by focusing on the dismay of Hitler and other Nazi leaders — their vision of a superior Aryan race mightily besmirched by this spectacular black man. Later in the book, Hilmes presents the sad story of this outstanding Olympian’s post-glory years. Many other Olympic athletes also receive evocative profiles. Almost all of the people profiled in the sixteen chapters are revisited in a section called “What became of … ?” Here, readers find updates taking them to the individuals’ deaths. This section is as captivating as the sixteen days.
Hilmes’s book is as much about places as about people — mainly Berlin neighborhoods or intersections near the grandiose Olympic venues. Readers can vicariously enjoy the food and drink served in the flourishing establishments, the distinctive style of each hotel, the crowded settings in which people eagerly pressed forward for glimpses of Hitler and his underlings.
Sensational, sensory, and smartly sophisticated, this is a fine example of history come fully and meaningfully alive.
Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.