The gath­er­ing storm

Sunday Herald Life - - Books Reviews - Re­view by Hugh MacDon­ald

Berlin 1936: Six­teen Days In Au­gust OLIVER HILMES Bod­ley Head, £16.99

THE lonely death of an obese trans­ves­tite, the se­duc­tion by a gigolo of the wife of Joseph Goebbels, a de­cap­i­tated body found in a train toi­let, the din­ing habits of a glut­tonous pub­lisher, the hor­rific con­se­quences of a strong word ut­tered by a weak drunk all con­spire to make Berlin 1936 one of the most in­trigu­ing and, per­haps, most sig­nif­i­cant books of the year.

The Olympic Games of 1936 have re­mained trapped in the nar­ra­tive of the out­stand­ing achieve­ments of Jesse Owens, the black Amer­i­can sprinter, and the con­se­quent surli­ness of Adolf Hitler, whose Aryan the­o­ries were seen to have been de­stroyed by the quadru­ple gold medal win­ner.

Hilmes, with an ex­quis­ite touch, has taken this story and more then added lay­ers of nu­ance and mean­ing. This is an ex­tra­or­di­nary book that bur­bles with en­ergy and fizzes with an in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism that is car­ried lightly.

Berlin 1936 comes alive with the fear and trem­bling of the in­di­vid­ual and the tremu­lous ex­pectancy of the masses played out to a mix­ture of a tri­umphal march by Strauss or fre­netic jazz by Teddy Stauf­fer and his Orig­i­nal Ted­dies.

The di­ary form of the book is clever and en­gag­ing. Each day con­sti­tutes a chap­ter with the pref­ace of the weather fore­cast, a se­ries of vi­gnettes – some macabre, some amus­ing, all com­pelling – a daily re­port from the state po­lice of­fice and an ex­cerpt from the of­fi­cial ad­vice to the Ger­man press.

It is a pow­er­ful blend. The tra­di­tional fig­ures of Owens, Hitler, Goebbels, Her­mann Gor­ing and Leni Riefen­stahl all fea­ture but the take is fresh, im­me­di­ate. They are com­ple­mented by a cast of hith­erto un­knowns such as Leon Henri Da­jou, a night­club owner who ac­cepts Berlin only of­fers him death, Carla de Vries, an Amer­i­can tourist who snatches a kiss from Hitler in the Olympic Sta­dium, and Elis­a­beth L, a Roma girl who sur­vives Auschwitz.

There are, too, the fa­mous. The acidic asides of Sir Henry “Chips” Chan­non, di­arist, snob and ap­peaser, are pre­served to po­tent ef­fect. The la­men­ta­tions of Thomas Mann, novelist and in­ter­ested ob­server, echo down the ages. Thomas Wolfe, the Amer­i­can au­thor his­tory has ne­glected, also barges through the pages, soak­ing in both the at­mos­phere and co­pi­ous amounts of al­co­hol. He sobers up as the Olympics draw to a close. A lover of Ger­many, an ad­mirer of much of what the Nazis have wrought, Wolfe finds an epiphany in a close friend­ship with a woman who de­tails the hor­rors of life un­der Hitler. His jour­ney from an in­no­cent, un­in­formed view of Na­tional So­cial­ism to de­spair at its ef­fects is swift yet com­plete.

The evil of Nazism is at the core of the book. It is what makes Hilmes’s work im­por­tant. His re­search has given his story pi­quancy and poignancy in the in­di­vid­ual sto­ries. The over­all ef­fect, though, is of the gath­er­ing storm amid the sun­shine of Berlin 1936.

This fore­bod­ing is in­creased by the au­thor’s use of the present tense. He notes of one of his char­ac­ters: “He is con­sumed by fear. And in a week from now he will be dead.’’ These are the sort of sen­tences that hold

the reader close to a Berlin in re­pressed tu­mult.

The world has its eyes on the jump­ing, run­ning and swim­ming. But Berlin is in­hab­ited by the mon­sters and their vic­tims. The Nazi regime at­tempts to present a false, ide­alised face, si­lenc­ing if only for the mo­ment the nor­mally ubiq­ui­tous, anti-Semitic ob­scen­i­ties from Julius Stre­icher and his aw­ful Der Sturmer jour­nal.

How­ever, those at­tend­ing the Games, en­joy­ing the night life or sim­ply walk­ing the streets of Berlin know that this is not only an oc­ca­sion to in­spire awe but to in­vite fear. Al­ready con­cen­tra­tion camps are be­ing built at the edge of the city. Al­ready ho­mo­sex­u­als are be­ing jailed for be­ing ho­mo­sex­u­als. Al­ready Jews are be­ing killed for be­ing Jews. Al­ready Hitler has pre­pared for war in his plan­ning. It is just three years away.

The bril­liance of Berlin 1936 is not to re­veal all this in hind­sight. Rather, it is to show that not only was all the ev­i­dence of the enor­mity to come read­ily avail­able at the time; it was also known by diplo­mats, bar own­ers, gen­er­als, jour­nal­ists and tram driv­ers.

The catas­tro­phe was not the flood to come but in the very wa­ters in which the vast range of char­ac­ters ca­vorted, swam des­per­ately or even drowned. The signs point­ing to­wards the precipice were not ig­nored. They were read, found ac­cu­rate by most but not acted upon.

It is the very in­evitabil­ity of events fol­low­ing Berlin 1936 that makes the book a chilling read even when one is warmed by the bril­liance of Hilmes in his style and the clever way he de­ploys af­fect­ing anec­dote and un­adorned fact.

One thread among this finely spun yarn gives an il­lus­tra­tion of his abil­ity to take the reader from the sun­shine of a gaudy sport­ing oc­ca­sion to the shadow of an in­escapable re­al­ity.

On a fine day in Au­gust 1936, Thomas Wolfe peered into the VIP’s box and claimed his eyes met those of Adolf Hitler. Two years later Wolfe’s death was an­nounced on the day Neville Cham­ber­lain left Bri­tain for talks with the Fuhrer that of­fered the un­ful­filled prom­ise of peace. The per­sonal tragedy and the uni­ver­sal calamity thus co­in­cided.

This is the essence of not only how Hilmes records his­tory but how it is made. Then and now.

For most peo­ple, Berlin 1936 was when the suc­cess of Jesse Owens stuck two fin­gers up at Hitler’s Aryan fan­tasy, but this book delves into a host of other sto­ries sur­round­ing the event

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