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Hitler’s Olympic Village Faces Conservation Battle

  • Henry Ridgwell

BERLIN — As attention turns to the legacy of the London Games, there is one surviving Olympic site that forms a remarkable canvas of 20th Century history. Adolf Hitler attempted to turn the 1936 Berlin Games into a piece of Nazi propaganda. Seventy-six years after athletes first set foot on its soil, the Olympic Village still survives.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics gave Adolf Hitler an ideal showcase for Nazi propaganda.

Director Leni Riefenstahl’s famous film of the Games, Olympia, immortalized the sporting prowess and political context of the tournament. 76 years later conservationists are attempting to restore a remarkable physical remnant of the Games.

On the outskirts of Berlin the Village where 3,878 athletes lived and trained still survives, but only just. Jens Becker is from the Deutsche Kredit Bank Foundation which is funding much of the work. He took VOA on a behind-the-scenes tour, including the swimming pool, where the external renovations alone cost $2.7 million.

“I think the Village is not very well-known in Germany," said Becker. "We’re quite secret. This is a nice situation because when the people get in here, they are sometimes very surprised about all the things which are here standing over 75 years now.”

One building has been fully restored: the accommodation block that was home to American sprinter Jesse Owens. Displays tell how the man from Alabama won four gold medals, destroying Adolf Hitler’s hopes that the Games would become a showcase for the supposed superiority of the Aryan race.

A letter from a fan urges Owens to refuse to accept a medal from ‘bloodstained hands’. He never saw it; it was intercepted by the Gestapo, the German secret police.

In the gymnasium stands a pommel horse used by the athletes.

A few dozen German tourists join the guided tours each day. Local school groups are taken here to learn their nation’s history.

“We always try to put the subject inside these exhibitions because this was called the village of peace but indeed Nazi propaganda didn’t stop at the doors of the village," said Becker.

There were early signs of militarism. A carved mural in the on-site theater shows marching German soldiers.

“It was the first time that they really said we’ll have an Olympic village, later on it will be used as a garrison. But indeed when the athletes arrived they had the best facilities they’d ever had in any Olympic village before," explained Becker.

Days after the athletes left, hundreds of soldiers moved in. The former ‘Dining Hall of the Nations’ served as a hospital for wounded German troops during World War II.

After 1945 the Soviet army moved in - painting communist propaganda on the walls including a mural showing Soviet troops planting the hammer and sickle flag on the German parliament.

With the fall of communism the former village was abandoned in 1992 and neglected for over a decade.

Slowly life is returning to the village. Workers have nurtured a lush athletics field in the center. Next month a tournament will be held here featuring German Olympians who have just returned from London; part of a determined effort to preserve this living museum of 20th century history.

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