With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Hitler's Ambitious Plans for the 1936 Olympics

There is no doubt that the 1936 Berlin Olympics served as a watershed moment in the panoply of modern Olympic games history. The Berlin games were by far the largest games held to date. A record 3.77 million spectators showed up to support a record 4,066 athletes (including a record 328 women) from a record 49 countries. The most up-to-date radio equipment helped to transmit the Berlin games around the globe, and the high powered, state run propaganda machinery that advertised the games incurred a greater expense than previous hosts had spent on running the games alone. The Berlin games, as almost everyone now knows, were also the first to overtly use the Olympic festival for conspicuously and identifiably political purposes, "an obscuring layer of shimmering froth on a noxious wave of destiny," as historian Richard Mandell once called the Berlin ceremonial. And the Berlin organizers certainly proved to be adept, imaginative, and creative in the use of pageantry and symbols, especially in the service of a distinctly Teutonic agenda that furthered the political ambitions of the insurgent Nazi party. We owe the famed torch relay to the modern German not the ancient Greek imagination.

But the Berlin games offered something else of singular importance in the growth and development of the modern Olympic Movement--magnificent athletic facilities, especially the Olympic Stadium, the diamond in the crown of the Reichssportfeld. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic games, mused at great length about the best and most appropriate physical layout for his modern Olympic celebration. He wanted his modern Olympia to be a semi-sacred "city," a dedicated precinct in which buildings and landscape were perfectly harmonized in the cause of a noble and dignified purpose. The Olympic city, he wrote, "must be steeped in a sort of gravity which need not necessarily be austere and need not exclude joy, so in the interval of silence between and before the games it will attract visitors on a pilgrimage and inspire in them a respect due to places consecrated to noble memories and to potent hopes."

The search for an Olympic architecture started in Athens in 1896, and while in the years that followed there were both triumphs and setbacks by the time the games were staged in Los Angeles in 1932 most of the formal athletic specifications as well as the architectural components had been firmly established. It remained for the German architects to consummate a site that came closest to expressing Coubertin's lofty goals. The Berlin site was by far the best and most ambitious to date and Berlin's legacy, with but a few exceptions (most notably basketball), set the standard by which numerous future sites and facilities were to be judged. German creativity and ingenuity was at its best in the construction of the main Olympic Stadium.

Located five miles west of the city center, on the site of the Deutsche Station which had been built by architect Otto March for the cancelled 1916 games, the new stadium was the centerpiece of the great Reichssportfeld (325 acres in area). Nearly 500 firms participated in the construction of the stadium which cost a staggering 42 million reichmarks. Designed by architect Werner March, Otto's son, the stadium itself accommodated 110,000 spectators, and unlike the Los Angeles Stadium which emptied in 15 ½ minutes, it took only 13 ½ minutes for the last spectator to leave March's venue, a fact of which March was especially proud.

Unlike previous stadia, including the Los Angeles Stadium designed by father and son architects, John and Donald C. Parkinson, which employed the open-ended horse-shoe design, March created the now familiar oval stadium. Beyond lay the Maifeld, a grassy plateau used for gymnastic exhibitions, polo matches and various assemblies. On the Maifeld's western edge stood Langemark Hall from whose midpoint a solemn stone tower soared 243 feet into the air which housed sculptor Walter Lemcke's famed Olympic bell which bore the inscripton: Ich rufe die Jugend der Welt (I summon the youth of the world).

Other important elements in the Reichssportfeld included a 16,000-seat, open-air swimming stadium, embankment stadia for tennis and hockey, a riding ring with paddock and stable, the 20,000-seat Dietrich Eckert Amphitheater, and the House of German Sport, a formal assemblage of training facilities. Despite the Furher's observation that everything was "too small," the entire site was in fact the most impressive and monumental to date.

From the very beginning of the project, Hitler recognized the political value of architecture as a vehicle to proselytize Nazi Socialism and he mandated that not only should the stadium be constructed entirely with German materials but that in appearance it must enhance the collective tribalism that would resurrect the majesty of the Volk. One of German fascism's first major architectural statements, the entire Wagnerian scale venue reflected the chauvinistic agenda of the Third Reich: statues and reliefs celebrated Aryan athletic youth, the Maifeld's four stone pylons were named after early Germanic tribes (Frisian, Franconian, Saxon, and Schwabian), and the Dietrich Eckart Amphitheater underscored Greco-German links--both real and imagined--to the new regime. Even the Olympic Village was laid out in the form of the map of Germany with the main dining hall representing the city of Berlin. On May 1st, 1939, Hitler appropriately employed the viewing stand at the Olympic Stadium for his May Day address during which he expounded upon his theory of "Lebensraum." On September 1st he put his theory into practice and invaded Poland.

While the Berlin venues may well have been erected in the service of a repellent politics, the Reichssportfeld and its various buildings were the finest and most extensive sport facilities ever seen, worthy in fact to the Olympic officials who managed the Fine Arts Competition of prizes in both architecture and town planning. After the Olympics, Nurenberg increasingly became the focus of Hitler's architectural ambitions. The favored architect was Albert Speer, not Werner. It mattered not that Speer's proposed 4000,000-seat stadium for the National-sozialistische Kampfspiele would not meet IOC specifications. "In 1940," Hitler declared, "the Olympic Games will take place in Tokyo. But thereafter they will take place in Germany for all time to come in this athletic stadium. And then we will determine the measurements of the athletic field." While Hitler was wrong on all accounts, what he was not wrong about was the power and impact that concrete Olympic edifices could have on the Olympic Movement and the host cities and countries that sought to use the games for often naked political and corporate motives.