Saturday, 29 October 2011

The 1936 Summer Olympic Village

The decision to hold the Summer Olympics of 1936 in Berlin had already been made by the IOC before Hitler's National Socialists came to power. However, as you might have guessed, Hitler and his thugs coshed the Olympic ideals on the head and stole the event for their own propaganda purposes. Here was surely a showcase for the physical supremacy and sporting prowess of the German race - or so the party line went. And so the games opened with the first ever Olympic torch relay from Olympia in Greece to the Berlin Olympic Village, carried by athletes chosen for their Aryan looks. Ironically, what most people remember about the 1936 games nowadays is the astounding performance by the black American track and field athlete Jesse Owens (four gold medals).

The 1936 Olympic Stadium is still very much in use - though extensively rebuilt and modernised - particularly as the home ground for Hertha Berlin football club. What is less well known is that the remains of the 130-acre Olympic Village (Olympiches Dorf) can still be seen. We made a journey out to the far Western edge of Berlin to photograph what has survived of it.

One building still intact is das Hindenburghaus, which was a Gemeinschaftshaus (or Community Centre) for the athletes and other visitors. It was named after Field Marshall, and second president of the Weimar Republic, Paul von Hindenburg, who was patron of the Berlin Olympic Games until his death in August 1934. You might also know that he had made Hitler Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, and signed the Enabling Act of  March 1933 which effectively gave Hitler carte blanche to run the country all by himself.

The Hindenburg House - main entrance
The two storey building with two long wings around a courtyard used to contain training rooms, administrative space, two chapels, a large ballroom, and, in the entrance foyer, a TV room. The TV room might come as a surprise to learn about, but in fact the Berlin Olympics were the first ever televised sporting event in World History. Private TV ownership was pretty minimal at the time, but 17 other TV salons were set up around Berlin where people could go to watch broadcast events live.

The Hindenburg House
Another place where athletes could go to chill out are the swimming baths:
Outside the Swimming Baths, with 'historical footbath' (so the sign says)

They don't look like they have been used in a long while, though there are apparently plans to renovate them and have people swimming there once more.

Swimming Baths at the Olympic Village
The Sports Hall is also intact though derelict, next to a 400-metre racing track, where the athletes could train:
Another large surviving building is the Speisehaus der Nationen or 'The Nations' Eating House', where at one time 40 separate seating-areas provided food for the athletes and visitors. One of the rooms has been decked out to show how it would have looked for the Italian delegation:

Italian Bistro
The building is otherwise all boarded up and in a state of decay, but with its stepped terraces and sweeping arc of concrete and steel you can appreciate how modern and innovative it must have been when it was first erected.

After the games and during the war, the Speisehaus was redeployed as a military hospital and filled with beds.

Das Speisehaus der Nationen
Around the back of the Speisehaus are a number of interestingly corroded metal doors, behind which vehicles were parked in garages:

Garage Doors at the Olympic Village

Some of the living quarters for the athletes ('Sportlerunterkunft') survive. There were originally 136 buildings like these, each given a name of a town in Germany.

Athletes' Living Quarters
Each of these buildings once contained 13 bedrooms, with two athletes per room, showers and WCs, central heating, and a day room. There were always two stewards on duty in each house who spoke the native language of the athletes housed there.

Today, many of the buildings are totally derelict:

Ruined athletes' accomodation at the Olympic Village
One building that thankfully has been restored is the one where Jesse Owens lived:

The Meissen House: Jesse Owens' Accomodation

Inside you can see how it looked at the time, all very cramped and Spartan;

Jesse Owens' shared room.
We can bang on about how racist the National Socialist regime was, but it is worth remembering that he was housed here together with white athletes, and could use the same restaurant as them and go into bars and clubs in Berlin and travel on public transport unhindered. This is in contrast with back home in the USA, where there was strict segregation between black and white Americans, especially in Alabama where Owens was born and lived. The Nazis did indeed view non-Aryans as inferior species, but at least Owens wasn't Jewish or Slavic. Not that foreign visitors to the Olympic Games would have been aware of the Nazi's despicable ideas about race: prior to the event all the 'Juden Verboten' signs and anti-Bolshevik posters were removed from the city in a campign by Propaganda Minister Goebbels to show the modern, dynamic, acceptable face of National Socialism to the world.

I am reminded in part of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, where political and religious persecution was played down to almost non-existent in the media, and whole shanty towns were bulldozed and people evicted in order to give Beijing the appearance of a clean city. Curiously, the son of Hitler's favourite architect, Albert Speer Junior, was commissioned to design the overall access plan for the Beijing Olympic stadium. Things that make you go hmmm.

After the war, the Olympic Village grounds became part of the Soviet Sector and later East Germany. The Soviets built an enormous army barracks across the road from the Olympic Village, and housed the families of the married soldiers in rows of vast Plattenbau high-rises built amongst the remains of the athletes' huts.

Soviet High-rise Flats at the Olympic Village

These were only abandoned after reunification and the departure of Russian soldiers in the 1990's, but the buildings have quickly become ruined:

Who knows what will come of these buildings, or the remains of the Olympic Village itself. The German authorities probably find themselves in a dilemma: on the one hand, this is a historic site that deserves to be preserved, but on the other it resurrects the phantoms of a terrible time in German and World history. At the moment, the area is fenced off with barbed wire but is accessible to the public (during the Spring and Summer up until October 31st - cost 1€ entrance fee). You can even go on guided tours around the site and inside the buildings, but I doubt if you will find mention of the Olympic Village in many tourist guide books or coach tours. With so much more demanding renovation projects taking money out of Berlin's coffers, I don't think that much will be spared to do anything other than make sure the Olympic Village buildings don't become a danger to the public. But we'll see.

If you want to visit the Olympishes Dorf for yourself, then take a red RE2 out to Elstal Bahnhof, where you can get a bus (the 663) up the hill (or walk - it isn't too far) to the Eulenspiegelsiedlung. That's not the stop signed Olympishes Dorf, but the Eulenspiegel housing estate which is right next to the one and only entrance to the Olympic Village area. You will know you are at the right spot when you see the bronze statue of Till Eulenspiegel himself

Till Eulenspiegel - with owl and mirror, naturally.


  1. Hi Andie, I´m a student from Rome. I’d like to do my final project in architecture on the Olympic Village in Berlin. Looking for information on internet, I found your interesting post. Do you know if the village is still partially abandoned? Could you tell me where could I find further information and more specific material (project drawings)?
    Thank you

  2. Hi Barbara, much of the Olympic Village is in ruins, with the exception of Jesse Owens's quarters, which have been renovated. Inside Jesse Owens' hut there is an exhibition showing the layout and development of the village including project drawings, and there are information boards all around the village interpreting what is (or was) there. In a way it is a shame that Berlin hasn't invested in renovating the site more, but on the other hand you can understand why they wouldn't want to boast about a National Socialist era project.

  3. Thanks for a great post. Do you know anything about the state of it now? I know that there are tours and such, but is there still construction work going on? Was thinking it might be better to go after the guided tours are finished, so late afternoon, but am unsure as to whether it's best to go on a weekday or during the weekend, do you have an opinion on that?


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