Shown up by a true 'Übermensch'

History: A vaguely disconcerting aspect of the recent Fifa World Cup - not least to Germans themselves - was the sight of 70…

History: A vaguely disconcerting aspect of the recent Fifa World Cup - not least to Germans themselves - was the sight of 70,000 of their flag-waving countrymen proudly singing Deutschland über alles in Hitler's Olympic Stadium.

The arena remains eerily dominated by the distinctive fascist-style architecture of the Olympic Marathon Gate. Seventy years on, the Führer's presiding role was taken by the benevolent figure of "Der Kaiser" Franz Beckenbauer, perhaps the most respected man in world football. Nevertheless it was a controversial decision by the German FA to embrace a notorious past in such open fashion by putting this infamous stadium at the heart of the tournament.

The story of the 1936 Berlin Olympics is told in this enjoyable new book by Guy Walters. He painstakingly demonstrates Hitler's personal commitment to the games and the subsequent level of his disgust at being upstaged by "the Negro".

Hitler had recognized the potential propaganda advantage of a German Olympics from the moment he became Reich Chancellor in 1933. His interest certainly included sanctioning bribes. Germany had been awarded the games in 1931, but many on the International Olympic Committee now felt that the event would be sullied by an association with Nazism. A campaign gathered pace to rescind the offer. The Germans counter-attacked with a bung to the founder of the modern games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, which ensured his support (a complete volte-face). When the Americans threatened a boycott, kickbacks in the form of building contracts to Avery Brundage, head of the US Olympic Committee, guaranteed their participation.


Hitler's image awareness extended to racial and social policy. He ordered that all attacks on and discrimination against German Jews should cease throughout that summer for fear of an international backlash. Amongst competitors, the presence of Jews, blacks and homosexuals was tolerated. In fact, Hitler had responded quite casually to the IOC insistence that blacks must be allowed to run. He said "with a shrug" that "people whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive [ and] their physiques were stronger than civilized whites".

Hitler wanted the games to be a success, and his propaganda chief, Josef Goebbels, knew they had to be seen as such (in a pre-television age) around the world. He commissioned the Führer's favourite director, Leni Riefenstahl, to film the event. She captured the choreographed moment of Hitler's triumphal arrival at the opening ceremony on August 1st. "As he went into the stadium," wrote an amazed British competitor afterwards, "you would have thought God had come down from heaven". By the time Hitler had reached his seat, says Guy Walters, "there was no doubt that he was already the star of the Olympics".

That pre-eminence lasted just one day. Sporting heroes have the easy knack of upstaging politicians, even führers. After the gold medal for the 100-yard race had been decided, the games had already become the Owens Olympics. The black American athlete, Jesse Owens, would win four gold medals in 1936. The Nazis had prepared themselves for the success of "der Neger" - he was after all the fastest man in the world. What they had not anticipated was the popular reaction to him. Crowds that had been roaring "Heil Hitler" now began chanting "Yess-say Ovens, Yess-say Ovens."

Hitler was horrified and amazed. "Far from being racially abused," writes Walters, "the African-American was being lionized." When Baldur von Schirach, the Reich Youth Leader, suggested to Hitler that he should seize a propaganda advantage by meeting Owens, the incandescent Führer spat back: "I shall not shake hands with this Negro! The Americans should be ashamed of themselves, letting Negroes win their medals for them".

Walters tells the story of the Berlin Olympics with verve and lightness of touch. He does not get bogged down in the wider literature on Nazi Germany, but restricts himself to the games themselves. As so often with sports books, it is not the events that capture the imagination - how could any description of Owens running compare with the power of Riefenstahl's black and white cinematic images? - but the goings-on at the margins that fascinate. Walters is a tremendous stylist, particularly with revealing anecdotes.

None is more comical than Hitler's attempt to chat up Helen Stephens, winner of the women's 100-yard dash. He invited her for a weekend at his villa in Berchtesgaden - an offer she was pleased to decline because she'd be running in the relay finals. "Despite the reply being given in English", writes the laconic Walters, "a wistful but light-hearted Hitler could tell it was a refusal. He came up to Stephens and wished her well. 'Then he reached behind me', Stephens said, 'pinched me, then saluted, and marched out'."

That most people thought Stephens to be a man masquerading as a woman only adds piquancy to this incongruous image of a flirtatious, bottom-pinching Führer.

Richard Aldous teaches history at UCD. His forthcoming book, The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs. Disraeli, will be published in October by Hutchinson

Berlin Games: How Hitler Stole the Olympic Dream By Guy Walters. John Murray, 368pp. £20