Non­fic­tion

Berlin 1936: Six­teen Days in August

Oliv­er Hilmes; Jef­fer­son Chase, trans.
  • Review
By – May 15, 2018

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.

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