Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days In August

Oliver Hilmes

Bodley Head, £16.99

Review by Hugh MacDonald

THE lonely death of an obese transvestite, the seduction by a gigolo of the wife of Joseph Goebbels, a decapitated body found in a train toilet, the dining habits of a gluttonous publisher, the horrific consequences of a strong word uttered by a weak drunk all conspire to make Berlin 1936 one of the most intriguing and, perhaps, one of the most significant books of the year.

The Olympic Games of 1936 have remained trapped in the narrative of the outstanding achievements of Jesse Owens, the black American sprinter, and the consequent surliness of Adolf Hitler, whose Aryan theories were seen to have been destroyed by the quadruple gold medal winner.

Hilmes, with an exquisite touch, has taken this story and more then added layers of nuance and meaning. This is an extraordinary book that burbles with energy and fizzes with an intellectualism that is carried lightly.

Berlin 1936 comes alive with the fear and trembling of the individual and the tremulous expectancy of the masses played out to a mixture of a triumphal march by Strauss or frenetic jazz by Teddy Stauffer and his Original Teddies.

The diary form of the book is clever and engaging. Each day constitutes a chapter with the preface of the weather forecast, a series of vignettes – some macabre, some amusing, all compelling – a daily report from the state police office and an excerpt from the official advice to the German press.

It is a powerful blend. The traditional figures of Owens, Hitler, Goebbels, Hermann Goring and Leni Riefenstahl all feature but the take is fresh, immediate. They are complemented by a cast of hitherto unknowns such as Leon Henri Dajou, a nightclub owner who accepts Berlin only offers him death, Carla de Vries, an American tourist who snatches a kiss from Hitler in the Olympic Stadium, and Elisabeth L, a Roma girl who survives Auschwitz.

There are, too, the famous. The acidic asides of Sir Henry "Chips" Channon, diarist, snob and appeaser, are preserved to potent effect. The lamentations of Thomas Mann, novelist and interested observer, echo down the ages. Thomas Wolfe, the American author history has neglected, also barges through the pages, soaking in both the atmosphere and copious amounts of alcohol. He sobers up as the Olympics draw to a close. A lover of Germany, an admirer of much of what the Nazis have wrought, Wolfe finds an epiphany in a close friendship with a woman who details the horrors of life under Hitler. His journey from an innocent, uninformed view of National Socialism to despair at its effects is swift yet complete.

The evil of Nazism is at the core of the book. It is what makes Hilmes’s work important. His research has given his story piquancy and poignancy in the individual stories. The overall effect, though, is of the gathering storm amid the sunshine of Berlin 1936.

This foreboding is increased by the author’s use of the present tense. He notes of one of his characters: "He is consumed by fear. And in a week from now he will be dead.’’ These are the sort of sentences that hold the reader close to a Berlin in repressed tumult.

The world has its eyes on the jumping, running and swimming. But Berlin is inhabited by the monsters and their victims. The Nazi regime attempts to present a false, idealised face, silencing if only for the moment the normally ubiquitous, anti-Semitic obscenities from Julius Streicher and his awful Der Sturmer journal.

However, those attending the Games, enjoying the night life or simply walking the streets of Berlin know that this is not only an occasion to inspire awe but to invite fear. Already concentration camps are being built at the edge of the city. Already homosexuals are being jailed for being homosexuals. Already Jews are being killed for being Jews. Already Hitler has prepared for war in his planning. It is just three years away.

The brilliance of Berlin 1936 is not to reveal all this in hindsight. Rather, it is to show that not only was all the evidence of the enormity to come readily available at the time; it was also known by diplomats, bar owners, generals, journalists and tram drivers.

The catastrophe was not the flood to come but in the very waters in which the vast range of characters cavorted, swam desperately or even drowned. The signs pointing towards the precipice were not ignored. They were read, found accurate by most but not acted upon.

It is the very inevitability of events following Berlin 1936 that makes the book a chilling read even when one is warmed by the brilliance of Hilmes in his style and the clever way he deploys affecting anecdote and unadorned fact.

One thread among this finely spun yarn gives an illustration of his ability to take the reader from the sunshine of a gaudy sporting occasion to the shadow of an inescapable reality.

On a fine day in August 1936, Thomas Wolfe peered into the VIP’s box and claimed his eyes met those of Adolf Hitler. Two years later Wolfe’s death was announced on the day Neville Chamberlain left Britain for talks with the Fuhrer that offered the unfulfilled promise of peace. The personal tragedy and the universal calamity thus coincided.

This is the essence of not only how Hilmes records history but how it is made. Then and now.