Swingtime with Hitler

“Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August’’ by Oliver Hilmes.

21 June 2019

By Chris Dodd

More Power, Hugh Matheson and Chris Dodd’s biography of Jurgen Grobler, and Leander’s volume on its first 200 years, edited by Andy Trotman, were shortlisted for the 2019 Sports Book of the Year Awards. But the winner of the Sporting Club outstanding book of the year category was an account of sixteen days in Berlin in 1936. Chris Dodd could not put it down.

Oliver Hilmes’s award-winning Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August is a riveting mosaic of life in the German capital during the Olympic Games. It intersperses incidents from stadium, street and nightclub with quotes from police reports, weather forecasts, newspapers and diaries of socialites and Big Cheeses in the Olympic movement, German cultural life and leaders of the governing National Socialist Party – in particular those of Adolf Hitler’s chief acolytes, the vertically challenged propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels and podgy Hermann Goering, creator of the Gestapo.

The official poster.

Hilmes’s glimpses of action and reaction unfold the hypocrisy of a government that took advantage of the games – awarded to Berlin before Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933 – to present itself as welcoming to Jew as well as Aryan, black as well as white, while persecuting Jews and disadvantaged groups in the backstreets. Concentration camps were already up and running by 1936. He also reveals the thoughts and courage of the many Germans who did not go along with Hitler’s vision of racial superiority or world domination. Down-to-earth Berliners used to ask each other what a real Aryan looks like. ‘He’s blond like Hitler, tall like Goebbels and thin like Goering,’ came the answer.

At the Olympic Stadium, Hitler reacts to an attempted kiss from an American woman.

Berlin 1936 does not mention the Olympic regatta, more’s the pity, but it served to remind me of the exploits of the ‘boys in boats’, particularly the American eight and Britain’s Beresford and Southwood who ruined Hitler’s day at the finals. When the Brits won the double sculls and the Yanks the eights after German crews earned the first five gold medals, grimace was the look on Adolf’s face.

Beresford and Southwood.

Accounts of the regatta at Grünau include Martin Bristow in Regatta magazine No 12, September 1988; “Swingtime with Hitler in Germany” by Tom Askwith in Regatta No 50, July 1992; my interview with Eric Phelps who coached Beresford and Southwood (Regatta No 50, September 1988); Beresford’s own account in John Beresford’s Jack Beresford, an Olympian at War (just published); a chapter on Hitler’s Games in The Story of World Rowing (Dodd, 1992); and of course Daniel James Brown’s bestseller The Boys in the Boat about the U.S. eight, otherwise known as the University of Washington.

One of the two token Jewish people on the German team, Helene Mayer (giving the Nazi salute). Officially a ‘half-Jew’, she won Silver in the Olympic fencing.

In 2000, I summarised the background to the 1936 games for the “Golden Oars” exhibition at the River & Rowing Museum:

‘Berlin was the model for the politicisation of the games in 1936. Dr Theodore Lewald was dismissed as president of the German Olympic Committee because his grandmother was a Jew, but was reinstated after pressure from the IOC. Opposition to the Games came from the right and left in Germany and from sporting interests in the USA, Britain and other European countries. The plan to hold alternative socialist games in Barcelona was scuppered by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Under pressure, the German government permitted Jews to try out for the German team (two succeeded).

The poster for the 1936 Socialist Olympics that never happened.

‘In June 1934 the German government introduced a torch relay from Olympia to Berlin. The 1896 marathon winner Spyridon Louis presented Hitler with a symbolic olive branch at the opening ceremony, where the Americans deliberately strolled out of step – “It was a very small blow for freedom, certainly, but it somehow made us feel better,” wrote their boatman, George Pocock, in his diary.

1936: The first Olympic Torch Relay, one of several innovations of the Nazis that we still use today.

The New York Times commented that the Nazis took advantage of the event to leave an impression of “cleanliness, tidiness and orderliness… exceeding courtesy, extreme consideration and hospitality…”

‘Rowing was on the Lange See at Gruenau. Starting times were relayed to the finish by radio. Commentaries were given to spectators through loudspeakers, with silence descending for the last 500 metres. There was little question that the hosts believed that winning was more important than taking part, and they prepared their team as a national squad, the eight being the only crew selected from one club.

‘Even so, there were foreign influences. The Olympic trainer was Dan Cordery, an English professional, and the ideas of the Australian coach Steve Fairbairn, who spent his life in England, were popular in Germany.

The Olympic Regatta Course at Grünau, 1936.

‘Germany won the first five of the seven events. Then Jack Beresford and Dick Southwood of Britain trumped Willy Kaidel and Joachim Pirsch in the double sculls. Both crews took off when the starter uttered his first sound, for they both realized that the official’s view was obscured by his enormous bullhorn. The crews were level after 1900 metres when Pirsch in the German boat stopped. It was 37-year-old Beresford’s third Olympic gold and fifth Olympic medal.

‘The British double was coached by Eric Phelps, who said of Beresford: “He was very viscous in the boat. He would give a sickly smile to the man next to him. He never knew what it was to let a man pass him.” The victory of the American eight crowned Hitler’s disappointment.

‘Beresford and Southwood’s boat went missing before the games, and they were loaned a training boat by Cordery, the trainer to the German team. This boat, too, vanished a day later. Southwood quizzed Cordery about it back home in Putney during the war. “Mr Southwood, I was told to ‘take it away and make sure you didn’t get a replacement’,” Cordery told him.’

Grünau: The Japanese unpack boats and blades sent from Sims of Putney.

Hugh Mason, the spare man to the British team, took a seat in the eight a week before the regatta when D J Wilson fell out with his coach and returned to England. The probable reason was that Wilson, a Leander oarsman, was found to carry an Australian passport. In their heat against the U.S., the British eight zig-zagged down the course, later discovering that the eyes of their cox, the Rev Noel Duckworth, later of Burma Road fame, were failing, and he had trouble steering under the overhead flags. They won the repêchage next day into a strong headwind while the U.S. crew had a rest. But the wind blew harder in the final and they finished two lengths behind the Americans.

Bird lovers: The British Eight at Grünau.

It was from Mason that I learned of the misdemeanour perpetrated by the British eight at the opening ceremony. There was all manner of pomp and circumstance on 1 August 1936 as the Olympic torch arrived from Greece, the five-ring flag was raised, artillery was discharge, Strauss conducted the Berlin Phil, Handel’s Messiah was misappropriated, athletes paraded – team captain Beresford carried the Union flag – and Adolf hijacked the occasion to the fury of  IOC president Henri de Baillet-Latour.

Before Hitler arrived, however, the athletes were hanging around outside the Marathon Gate, some no doubt enjoying a cigarette. The British eight lighted upon the cages containing 20,000 white doves for release during the ceremony. They gave a cage of 30 their freedom, thus rendering the German Army’s rigorous statistics as quoted in the programme out of kilter.

Oliver Hilmes, Berlin 1936, Sixteen Days in August, translated from the German by Jefferson Chase, Vintage, 2018.

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