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Publication Date: Jul 21, 2020

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Berlin 1936

Fascism, Fear, and Triumph Set Against Hitler's Olympic Games

Saturday, 1 August 1936

REICH WEATHER SERVICE FORECAST FOR BERLIN: Heavy clouds and occasional rain showers. Moderate wind from the west/southwest. Somewhat cooler with highs of 19°C.

The telephone is ringing softly in Henri de Baillet-Latour’s hotel suite. “It’s 7:30 a.m., Your Excellency,” the porter says. “Bon,” the count replies. “I’m already awake.” The employees at the Hotel Adlon where Baillet-Latour is residing treat their guest with irreproachable deference. He is something like a head of state, although he doesn’t lead a nation, preside over a republic
or rule a monarchy. Henri de Baillet-Latour is the president of the International Olympic Committee, the IOC. Today, at precisely 5:14 p.m., the Olympic flag will be raised at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, and the 60-year-old Belgian will assume a kind of sovereignty over Berlin’s sporting venues for the next sixteen days. In the meantime, Baillet-Latour has a busy schedule. He has to attend a religious service with his colleagues from the Olympic Committee, review a Wehrmacht guard of honor and place a wreath at Berlin’s Memorial to the Fallen in the Great War. After the military ceremony, Hermann Göring—in his capacity as the state premier of Prussia—will officially welcome the IOC members. It’s now 8 a.m., and the sound of marches, wake-up calls and the song “Freut euch des Lebens” (Rejoice in Life) are sounding on Pariser Platz in front of the hotel. The “Great Wakening,” as this ritual is known, is one of many ways the National Socialists are seeking to honor the IOC. As Henri de Baillet-Latour stands at the window of his suite, watching the action, he no doubt feels like a head of state, with the Adlon as his seat of government. The IOC has taken up quarters in one of Berlin’s best neighbor hoods. The hotel is located directly across from the French embassy; on the left is the Brandenburg Gate, and directly adjacent to Berlin’s most famous landmark is Palais Blücher, property of the United States of America. That spacious building is normally the home of the American embassy, but it is still being rebuilt after a fire in 1931. To the right of the Adlon on Pariser Platz is Berlin’s venerable Academy of Fine Arts, while next to it on Wilhelmstrasse is Palais Strousberg, which contains the British embassy. Baillet-Latour has now finished breakfast and is preparing to leave the hotel. To celebrate this special day, the count has dressed formally in gray trousers, a dark cutaway jacket, gaiters, a top hat and a magnificent chain of office. When Joseph Goebbels sees him, the German propaganda minister can only shake his head, later noting in his diary: “The Olympians look like the directors of a flea circus.”
*
Pauline Strauss is someone who speaks her mind. The wife of the famous composer Richard Strauss is not chary about telling total strangers precisely what she thinks of them. Even friends and acquaintances aren’t exempt from her legendary tactlessness. “Mrs. Strauss, who contrary to her usual self had been quite charming over tea, now had another of her semi-hysterical fits of impoliteness,” Count Harry Kessler would later recall of their encounter in a Berlin gourmet restaurant. The tables are covered with expensive china, luxurious silver cutlery and hand-ground glasses. Liveried waiters move about almost noiselessly, and the diners are all conversing in hushed tones. Everyone except Pauline Strauss, that is. As Kessler relates an apparently not very interesting anecdote about a famous Parisian restaurateur, Mrs. Strauss loudly interjects: “He’ll be long dead by the time you finish this story! How can someone tell something so bland so slowly! You should feast your eyes on that fattened pig over there instead.” The diners look around in bewilderment. “The fat pig, that overweight officer over there.” Mrs. Strauss points at a rather corpulent lieutenant sitting at the next table. “What’s the problem? I’m just flirting with that pig,” says Mrs. Strauss, continuing to stare before adding triumphantly, “You see, the fattened pig is looking at me as though he’s in love. I think he’ll come over and sit with us.” The rest of the group is mortified. The writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal stares down at his plate, at a loss for words, while Richard Strauss turns first white, then red. But Strauss doesn’t comment on his wife’s scandalous behavior, no doubt in order to avoid exacerbating the situation. It is rumored that once, when he had chastised her for making a similar scene, she had said loudly enough for everyone present to hear: “One more word from you, Richard, and I’ll take to Friedrichstrasse and go off with the first man who crosses my path.” It’s no wonder that Pauline Strauss is the nightmare of all hotel porters, waiters and servant girls. The Strausses, accompanied by their housekeeper Anna, arrived in the Hotel Bristol yesterday. The Bristol is only a stone’s throw away from the Adlon on Berlin’s splendid boulevard Unter den Linden. As goes without saying, the hotel offers all the most modern conveniences. The spacious rooms and suites are appointed with exquisite furniture, and all have their own bath. Moreover, the hotel’s public rooms are particularly splendid. The library, for instance, is done out in the Gothic style, while the tea salon is full of heavy English leather furniture. Richard Strauss has had little opportunity to enjoy the amenities of his hotel. Yesterday he was busy with rehearsals, this afternoon he has the world premiere of a new composition, and tomorrow morning he’ll leave Berlin and return to Bavaria. As one of the most important contemporary composers, Richard Strauss is always a busy man. The previous March he went on a concert tour of Italy and France. In April he conducted orchestras in Paris and Cologne, and in June in Zurich and once again in Cologne. In between performances, the 72-year-old Strauss somehow finds the time to compose new works. The piece that he’ll debut in a few hours is called “Olympic Hymn” and was commissioned by the IOC for the opening
ceremony today. Strauss has boasted about being capable to put anything to music. “If you want to be a true musician, you have to be able to set a restaurant menu to music,” he once mockingly remarked. For Strauss, writing music is a matter of hard work and discipline. With stoic calm, he sits at his desk creating work after work. Years later Theodor W. Adorno will disparagingly call him a “composing machine.” Strauss, Adorno will write, betrayed modernism and sold out to a mass audience, becoming a master of superficiality who only composed what he could sell for hard currency. The “Olympic Hymn” for choir and large symphony orchestra definitely falls into that category. Strauss couldn’t care less about sport. Skiing, he once opined, is an activity for rural postmen in Norway. In February 1933, upon learning that the town where he lived in Bavaria, Garmisch, was planning a special levy to finance the Winter Olympics, Strauss protested vehemently. In a letter to the district council, he wrote: “On the assumption that it will go to covering the costs of this sports foolishness and totally unnecessary Olympics propaganda, I object to this new tax on citizens. Since I don’t use any sporting facilities— bobsleigh runs, ski jumps and the like—and can do without a triumphal arch at the train station, I ask to be freed from this tax, which should be passed on to all those who have an interest in the Olympic Games and similar sorts of swindles. My wallet has been burdened enough by government taxes to support layabouts in the name of so-called social security and all the door-to-door beggars rampant in Garmisch.” Such objections didn’t deter Strauss from demanding 10,000 reichsmarks for composing a hymn to “sports foolishness.” That fee, however, was well beyond the Olympic Committee’s budget, and in the end, after some negotiations, Strauss agreed to forgo his honorarium. So it’s hardly surprising that he was less than enthusiastic about the job. “I’m keeping the Christmas boredom at bay by composing an Olympic hymn for the proletarians,” Strauss wrote to the writer Stefan Zweig in December 1934. “I am a dedicated enemy of sport. I despise it. It’s true: the devil makes work for idle hands.” The lyrics were chosen in a public competition, won by the unemployed actor and occasional poet Robert Lubahn. Some of the lines were changed after Goebbels complained that Lubahn’s poem didn’t reflect the spirit of the Third Reich. “Peace shall be the battle cry,” for instance, became “Honor shall be the battle cry.” “The rule of law is the highest thing” was altered to “Loyalty to one’s oath is the highest thing.” However much he may have disliked the changes, Lubahn had to accept them, and the IOC, as the body that had commissioned the hymn, voiced no objections. Richard Strauss presumably didn’t care one way or the other. In December 1934, immediately after finishing the four-minute composition, Strauss contacted Hans Heinrich Lammers, the director of the Reich Chancellery, and asked if he could play the piece for Hitler. “As the Führer and the patron of the Olympic Games, it’s especially important that he like it,” Strauss wrote. After a bit of back and forth—Hitler was less eager for a meeting than the composer—a date was set for late March 1935. After the private performance in Hitler’s Munich flat, Strauss presented “his Führer” with an autographed copy of the sheet music, which the dictator gratefully accepted. There were concrete, practical reasons why Strauss cozied up to the regime. His new opera, The Silent Woman, was set to premiere in Dresden in June 1935. Goebbels opposed this work because the libretto was written by the Jewish author Zweig, a persona non grata in the Third Reich, but Hitler gave special permission for the opera to be performed. The “Olympic Hymn” was Strauss’s way of saying thank you. Nonetheless, a short time later, the world-famous composer got himself into trouble after the Gestapo intercepted a letter in which he made fun of his position as the president of the Reich Music Chamber. In mid-July 1935, Strauss was forced to step down, and The Silent Women was performed only three times. The incident would have spelled the end for a lesser-known artist. But Strauss is too high profile for the Nazis to do without him. Now, one year later, in the summer of 1936, the whole affair has been forgotten, and Strauss is being allowed to direct the first ever public performance of the “Olympic Hymn.” As the composer and his wife take breakfast in the Hotel Bristol’s terrace salon, and Pauline bullies the staff as usual, Strauss imagines what it will be like to conduct in front of more than 100,000 proletarians this afternoon.
*
“Where exactly are we?” Max von Hoyos asks his companion Hannes Trautloft. Max has just woken up and has no idea how long he’s slept. He yawns, rubs his eyes and stretches out his arms. “Still on the River Elbe,” Hannes answers. Max doesn’t seem particularly surprised. “I’m starving!” he exclaims, swinging himself out of his bunk. The two young men are sharing a berth aboard the steamship Usaramo on its way from Hamburg to Spain. They and more than eighty others are part of a group called the Travel Club Union. This exclusively male party behaves somewhat oddly, keeping its distance from the other passengers. When asked about the purpose of their journey, they say nothing. They don’t seem stylish enough to be affluent tourists on a cruise. They could almost be mistaken for soldiers, if they weren’t wearing civilian clothing. They have a conspicuous amount of luggage. What do all the large crates loaded onto the ship in Hamburg contain? Again, no answers are forthcoming. One thing is for sure: something isn’t right about the Travel Club Union.
*
At noon, the Hitler Youth holds a rally in Berlin’s Lustgarten. Some 29,000 boys and girls stand at attention. The roof of the City Palace affords a good view of the broad stretch of land between the Old Museum, Berlin Cathedral and the palace itself. It’s impossible to make out individuals. All you can see is a mass of people. Like so many things these days, the rally is a powerful demonstration aimed at foreign visitors. Adolf Hitler can rely on Germany’s youth—that’s the message. It can also be understood as a warning. The various items on today’s agenda interlock like a welloiled mechanism. The ceremony welcoming the members of the IOC ends on time, and the guests of honor only need to walk a few yards from the domed hall of the Old Museum to get to the Lustgarten. A speaker’s podium has been installed on the steps outside the building. One after another, Reich Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach, Reich Sports Leader Hans von Tschammer und Osten, Education Minister Bernhard Rust and Joseph Goebbels address the Hitler Youth. “An imposing spectacle,” the propaganda minister records in his diary. “How can you say something original about it? Then the Olympic flame arrives. A moving moment. It’s raining slightly.” The journey of the Olympic torch, of which the Lustgarten is the penultimate stop, is not the Ancient Greek tradition it is often taken to be. It’s the brainchild of a sports official from the southern German city of Würzburg. The 52-year-old secretary general of the Olympic Organizing Committee, Carl Diem, is one of the central figures behind the Berlin Games. In his inventive eyes, the 1,800-mile-long trip the torch has made from Athens to Delphi, Thessaloníki, Sofia, Belgrade, Budapest, Vienna, Prague, Dresden and Berlin connects antiquity with the present day. It doesn’t matter that there were no torch processions at the original Olympic Games. Diem is only interested in depicting the Berlin event as a particularly solemn occasion. At the Propaganda Ministry, which has been responsible for organizing the Hitler Youth rally, Goebbels was immediately enthusiastic about the idea. At Goebbels’s behest, the athlete carrying the torch runs through the ranks of the Hitler Youth up to the Old Museum, where he lights an altar of fire. Then the young man continues to the City Palace and ignites a second flame at what is called the “Banner Altar of Nations.” A fleet of limousines is now ready to chauffeur the IOC representatives and other guests of honor to the Reich Chancellery on Wilhelmstrasse. There, Henri de Baillet-Latour thanks Hitler for Germany’s hospitality. The dictator keeps his reply short, stressing the ability of the Olympic Games to bring various peoples together. Under 2 p.m., the itinerary for the day simply reads: “Snack.”


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