Berlin’s Olympic Stadium

One doesn’t have to go far in Berlin to see the work of Nazi designers, architects, and planners.  Much of it is monumental and horrible.  The problem arises when you confront the fact that they could also create beauty.

I’m generally suspicious of stadiums, especially when they’re full of people. But Berlin’s  Olympic Stadium is a perfect structure. Built for the 1936 games its impressive proportions retain a pleasing, humane coherence.

The Nazis were obsessed with triumphal avenues and entries.  They planned to convert Berlin into Germania, which would be laid out along two massive roads: one north-south, the other east-west.  In terms of urban design the Axis powers loved a good axis. The entrance into the stadium would have been at the end of the east-west axis, and is still a direct shot through western Berlin and to the Brandenburg Gate. The stadium was to be an endpoint the mighty boulevard crossing Hitler’s megomaniacal capital of the thousand year Reich.

Sport is a kind of surrogate war, and the Berlin stadium is set in the middle of large, open clearing on the flanks of the vast forested Grünewald. It is the perfect place for a battlefield.

But to approach the stadium and be in it, is to be captivated by its aesthetic qualities. The bowl is set below ground level so that the first story appears about a third as high as the second story, which seems to accelerate upward on its plain, rectangular columns. These pillars make no secret that they are inspired by classical architecture, but are stripped of all ornament and project their modernity as quietly as a vast stadium can. Then there is the visually perfect raking of the seats. Even the torch-like fixtures rising inside the columns in the second story of the stadium cast a warm elegant glow on the stepped ceiling above, but also exude a sober elegance as they mark out the gentle sweep of the ambulatory.

If you can suppress the historical voices that echo through the place and around its grounds, you can see that the stadium is both daunting and inviting—perhaps a fitting metaphor for fascism. But in spite of its associations with, and service to, the terrible superhuman aims of Nazism, the stadium’s scale and contour appear grand but welcoming, not oppressive, but uncannily human.

On my very first day in Berlin in 2003 I found myself in the outer reaches of Charlottenburg and made my way to the Olympic Stadium. I decided to take the tour and found the inside layout equally as pleasing. The gap in the stadium wall where the Olympic torch sits opens onto a view over the May Field, where Hitler assembled his Hitler Youth every May Day. Beyond rises the famous Bell Tower, damaged by Allied bombs in the War and subsequently rebuilt in the 1950s under the direction of the original architect, Werner March. He and his brother Walter had been on the job when Hitler came to power, Berlin having won the Olympic bid in 1931 and having been working on a sport complex even before that. The Führer came to the Olympic site only twice. He made a few comments suggesting improvements and quickly departed. The Marches—certainly a fitting name for architects now eternally associated with fascism—and Hitler were, as they say, on the same page.

In advance of the World Cup Final to be played in the stadium in 2008, construction was about to begin on a ceiling that would cover everything but the playing field and on new seats. This was not a development that Werner March would have welcomed, for the result has destroyed the relationship of the stadium to its surrounding. It has topped the lovely, mellow stone with garish white material that blunts the clarity of the bowl’s rim. Try pulling that modernizing stunt on Rome’s Coliseum or the well-preserved Roman Arena in Verona. On aesthetic grounds, the Olympic Stadium should have been a protected  building.

As the tour came to end, I kept waiting for someone to ask where Hitler had sat during the Olympics, but when no one did I asked the question myself. I received a grudging answer and a nasty look. No one particularly pleased that the American wanted to look towards the Nazi past rather than the World Cup future.

I made my way across the Mayfield, where polo was played for the last time as an Olympic sport, and to the Bell Tower. It offered a magnificent view over Berlin and its forested and lake-rich surroundings, but also of the Olympic campus in all its perfection and of March’s adjacent Waldbühne (Forest Stage) modeled on the Greek theatre at Epidaurus.

I tried to think it all ugly, but found it quite the opposite. Like Leni Riefenstahl’s film Olympiad, which documents the spectacle in some of cinema’s most rapturous sequences, it was utterly compelling.

On the way back into central Berlin I got off in Charlottenburg and went to the well-known gallery, Camera Work, where Riefenstahl herself had a show of signed black-and-white prints from the 1936 games. Few if any had actually been taken by her, busy as she was with making her movie with  hundreds of cameramen and uncountable feet of film. The old gal, then ninety-nine, had been at the gallery for the show’s opening the day before. I was tempted by a  closeup of Jessie Owens signed by Riefenstahl. It was on sale for 4,500 Euros, something like $4,000, in those long-gone days of the robust greenback—perhaps not much to pay for an artifact that seemed to say so such much about the 20th century.

Riefenstahl died a few months later, controversial because she made beautiful things in the service of Hitler. Until the end she maintained that she purely an artist and utterly apolitical.

Early this month I returned to the Olympic stadium and to the Bell Tower.  The roof is finished and the interior redone.  The modern, weatherproofing convenience has indeed marred March’s achievement, but the fundamental power of his design is still apparent.  Inside the stadium a Jehovah’s Witnesses Convocation was underway.  The Nazis sent thousands of them to the gas chambers and only in 2004 did a Berlin court rule that the group were entitled to construct buildings. Even in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Germans had continued to discriminate against the Witnesses, seeing as a threat to children and families. (More recently, in a decision handed down this past spring, Scientology won a civil suit that forced the city to remove warning signs outside their building in Charlottenburg.) There are now some 200,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany, but the cavalcade had drawn people from across Europe and the world. Some 50,000 filled March’s stadium.

I could see a preacher on the big screen through the gap in the stadium made for the Olympic torch. How Hitler would have loved a Jumbotron of his own, but had to make do with Riefenstahl’s films. The Olympic Bell seen in Riefenstahl’s film once called the youth of the world to March’s stadium. When the original tower was felled after the war,  the first bell was removed, and placed next to the stadium. Now available for close inspection, the swastika along its lip was partially effaced, but still visible. Similarly, the swastika on entrance pillars to the stadium complex has also been removed. A recast Olympic Bell now hangs in the reconstructed tour—without swastika. On that day only seventy-three years later, it called the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I walked to the West side of the Bell Tower’s viewing platform and looked down on March’s Waldbühne where Brazilian Sambists, playing African rhythms brought by slaves to the New World—another jubilant desecration of the Nazi ideology represented by these perfectly conceived and constructed buildings. The Thousand Year Reich lasted little more than a devastating decade. These buildings may well endure a millennium.

The next day I went to the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett, which holds the city’s huge collection of graphic arts, to order a reproduction of Lothar Heinemann’s infamous  1935 poster for my book on Bach and the ideology of the German organ. The poster is entitled “Deutschland, das Land der Musik.” The caption is placed at the bottom of the image, below Heinemann’s glowering, steely blue Eagle with outstretched wings and luminuous organ pipes as its plumage. The design is eerily similar to that Albert Speer’s Nuremberg light displays, though within the confines of poster rather than deploying more than hundred searchlights striving towards the stars, as Speer would do. Indeed, I’ve often thought that Speer’s 1937 cathedral of light was inspired by Heinemann’s iconic image.

I had a bibliographic reference that had directed me toward the Berlin graphic holdings, but the trio of men—not the highly-trained curators behind closed doors off of the reading room, but rather staff workers—could not pull up any information image in their catalogue.  I told them to google it. They quickly found a link and the image began to appear on their computer screen, materializing in crisp resolution from top to bottom. There were oohs and ahs and the spreading image, and commentary of “Wie schön!”—How beautiful!

After Heinemann’s poster had unfurled itself, some text at the bottom of the page appeared: “Nazi Art: An Exhibition.” There was a “Nein” and groans of embarrassment and backtracking dismissals all around at having been seduced by the power of a Nazi image. These three viewers weren’t the first to see beauty in dark places, nor will they be the last.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu















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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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