Review: Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August by Oliver Hilmes

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Thank you to blogger Books Are My Favorite and Best for bringing this book to my attention.

My Interest

The between the wars era, the build-up to World War II and the war itself are a major focus of my nonfiction reading. I was captivated by the earlier book (and subsequent documentary) Boys in the Boat as well, so this title grabbed my attention immediately. I’ve watched (on Youtube) Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, which sadly (given who commissioned it and its purpose) was mesmerizing.

The Story

This short book presents vivid vignettes of the Berlin in August 1936. Each begins with the daily weather forecast and most have an excerpt from the State Police Daily Report–mostly monitoring conversations overheard or reported expressing opposition to Hitler and his Reich. Some have daily instructions to the German press or reports from the press. The vignettes were obviously chosen to tie the world of 1936 to today, but that worked very well to me.

Remembering the Biblical adage, “There is nothing new under the sun,” as well as remembering my college history course on Paris and Berlin in the 1920s and other reading on Weimar Germany, I found one of the most moving vignettes was also one of the most obvious for the tie-in to today: “Transvestite” Toni Keller holds a Weimar-issued Transvestite certificate allowing “him” [Emil at birth] to dress as a woman [Toni]. With the swing to arch-conservatism that occurs with Hitler’s take-over, Keller now lives in fear for her safety. Sexual and gender diversity flourished under the Weimar regime in Berlin. People lived their true selves openly in the city, if not nationwide.

We are also reminded that 5 miles outside the Berlin city limits a new concentration camp, Sachenhausen, has been built. This is the side of the Reich the Olympics are at great pains to hide. To win over the tourists, changes have been temporarily implemented. The most virulent anti-Semitic newspaper is not displayed publically, “token” Jews are allowed to compete for the German teams, and the most visible forms of suppression of all opposition to Hitler are out-of-site for the duration of the games. Many of the book’s vignettes show the smoke-and-mirrors at work on the tourists who descend upon Berlin to see the games.

 

My Thoughts

This was an excellent if short, glimpse at the alternative reality the games gave to Berlin that summer. Quotes from Goebbels diary and from that of British politician/socialite Chips Channon add to the “atmosphere” of being there that is so well conveyed by the unique format of the book.

4.5 Stars

Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August by Oliver Hilmes

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