By Oliver Hilmes, translated from German by Jefferson Chase
With the Winter Olympics in full swing, everybody’s got Olympic fever and much has been made of out athletes Adam Rippon (figure skating) and Gus Kenworthy (freestyle skiing) making history and Russia’s highly anti-gay policies four years ago at the Sochi games.
So the new nonfiction book “Berlin 1936” from noted historian Oliver Hilmes is timely in its vivid depiction of how the Olympics and gay issues ran afoul 80-some years ago.
On the first day of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, composer Richard Strauss is impatient. He hates sports and he hates the tax that’s been enacted for this sporting event. For the hymn he writes on behalf of it, he demands 10,000 reichsmarks and it rankles him that he ends up taking less.
Tom Wolfe has been to Berlin many times, and he couldn’t pass up a chance to see the Olympics there. Berlin is vibrant, friendly and Berliners love the American novelist. He loves them too, until a society matron whispers secrets in his ear.
On the second day of the Olympics, Toni Kellner is found dead in her apartment. She was not a social woman — in fact, she was not a woman at all, and Nazi-enforced edicts made her afraid to seek help for her bad heart. Berlin used to have a thriving gay community but the Third Reich is über-aware of gay men and people like Toni now.
Joseph Goebbels can’t stop thinking about the trouble his wife put him in. Not only did she have an affair with a swindler some years ago, but something else recently came to light: the Nazi Minister of Propaganda’s wife was the child of a Jewish man.
Jesse Owens won gold. And again. And again. And again.
By the eighth day of the Olympics in Berlin, the city’s Roma and Sinti populations are taken from their apartments and moved to a sliver of land near a sanitation field. Most of them will die in concentration camps similar to the one being built just 40 minutes away by local train.
And by the end of the Olympics, Hitler “is already determined to go to war.”
It may seem trite to say that “Berlin 1936” reads like a novel, but it does. It’s nonfiction that reads like a horror novel, with a swirl of unaware and innocent victims, ruthless killers and a stunning, invisible stream of ice just beneath its surface.
The compelling thing about that is that it’s not one large tale of the Nazis and the Games; instead, it’s as if author Oliver Hilmes starts with major historical figures and adds little Advent-calendar windows with real people inside: here’s the Roma child, snatched from her bed; there’s the terrified, ailing transvestite; here’s the American woman who kissed Hitler; there’s the Romanian Jew who owns a thriving nightclub; all in the middle of an international story that readers know is only the beginning.
“Berlin 1936” is a compelling, engrossing book through the cumulative power of so many different snapshot character studies — not just Nazis and athletes, but also regular people who had nothing to do with the games. There’s a gripping undercurrent of evil laced throughout the book because historically speaking, we know it doesn’t end well. Hilmes also corrects several myths as well, such as the fact that Hitler didn’t congratulate Jesse Owens for his wins. Hitler wasn’t congratulating anyone at the time.
Together, that approach makes for a very powerful book.