By Charles Trowell (B.Arch candidate) | This column returns us to the 1936 Olympic Games, held in Berlin, to discuss the rhetorical power of state architecture. The writer challenges the popular conception that Jesse Owens broke all racial barriers by winning 4 gold medals at the Olympic Games by examining the latent influence of Nazi architecture in this political context. Though Owens’ victories challenged racism at home and abroad, Hitler’s sanitized image of German nationalism enabled him to engage in greater excesses after the games. A careful examination of this architectural setting would have provided historical participants with a clue of what was to come.
The photograph taken above is known in many cases to be one of the most influential shots from the 1936 Olympics Games hosted in Berlin Germany. It depicts United States African-American athlete Jesse Owens of Ohio State University accepting his gold medal for the long jump. This photograph is iconic not only because this is the Unites States’ first African-American to win a gold medal at the Olympics, a feat the defined domestic civil rights, but also due to the socialist Nazi climate in which he won. It symbolizes a shattered idea of Hitler’s Aryan superiority complex, as well as the myth of white superiority in the United States. Amidst what seems to be the epitome of racial tensions across cultural bounds, Owens reportedly stated, “I never felt snubbed by Hitler, at one point during the track and field competition he glanced up at Hitler in his box seat and the Führer stood up and waved to him, and he had waved back at Hitler.”
These two sentiments don’t initially add up; one might even think that there must be a segment of the article missing. While these concerns naturally come into consideration, the statement made by Owens is in fact accurate. Owens was treated as a celebrity during the 1936 Olympics; in fact most of the athletes across various cultures were treated very well. This treatment all ties back, however, to the Olympic Park Design. The Nazi administration invested over 42 million reichmarks to build the 325-acre Olympic campus, highlighted by a 110, 000 capacity stadium that at the time was the largest in the world. This stadium exemplified the revival of a neoclassic architecture style with its large surrounding colonnade immediately calling reference to the Roman Coliseum. These factors may seem to have their independent role in history. However, looking critically at the information we have today, they begin to foreshadow not the beauty of Hitler’s 1936 Olympic stadium but the horror of his most notable excesses in the years that follow. The iconic photograph of Jesse Owens winning gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the 11th of Olympiad of the 20th century is recognized in history as a rejection of Hitler’s New Germany Nazi administration. However, in reality the architecture of the Olympic stadium and campus associated with Nazi symbolism displays Hitler’s underlying political motives and foreshadow the impending rise of the Nazi party on the European landscape.
This story of Nazi Germany does not begin in 1936, but starts from a theory that allowed the Nazi party to form. Coined in the mid 19th century, the German word “Sonderweg” has inherently destined the historical course of Germany. Translated as “special path,” the connotation of the word implies that German, or German speaking lands, are preordained the follow a course distinctly different from its East and West peers. Hans Ulrich-Wehler of the Bielefeld Scholl dates this disastrous tendency back to the 1870s when industry began to transform countries. As industry proliferated in Germany, so did the numbers of social climates in the region. Reform began to transform traditional autocratic governments into democracies. The people began to demand social reform from those who held power; the political landscape internationally began to shift. Germany too began to grow toward a more modern economy. However, that is where it stopped. Political modernization did not take place; the old Prussian elite remained in power of the army, civil services, and diplomacy.
This social mentality was maintained well into the 20th century. As Germany was voted to host the 1936 Summer Olympics by the International Selection Committee in 1931, the opportunity that Adolf Hitler, who rose to power two years later, was ripe. Hitler was not a sports fan, in fact it took convincing by the minister of propaganda that the Olympics were an opportunity to advance the Nazi cause. The national stage would allow the Nazi administration to display the “New” Germany as well as pull in tourist for capitalism. As construction began on the Olympic Stadium, just 5 miles west of the capital, there was a statement to be made to the world. The Stadium was designed to evoke comparisons to the Coliseum. The neoclassic style of massive, monolithic, and commanding stonework resonate ideals of classic traditions and definitive grandeur, ideals that Hitler intended to be re-associated with the Nazi administration. The facade Hitler was creating through the magnificent Olympic stadium he also mimicked socially. By July of 1936 as teams began arriving to the capital the streets were clean. Undesirable persons were swept off to detentions centers, Olympics flags hung side-by-side Nazi swastikas, and the “Jews Not Allowed” signs had ceased from existence. The mask of Germany had hidden all signs of hostility in the Nazi administration. Hitler had cleaned up Germany, he was deliberate and international. He had set the 42 million reichmark Olympic stage, for the first time televised, for the international audience. Beginning with a magnificent opening ceremony that highlighted the glorious modern day architectural icon that was the Olympic stadium Hitler was in complete control that is, until the results.
Although people came from all around the world too see Jesse Owens shatter records and win gold, the real game the was being played by the Nazi administration and the event was architecture. The Olympic Stadium was designed with the classical style of architecture; this denotes columns, stonework, and domes, all of the features you would expect in typical Greek and Roman architecture. However, the architecture is taken to the next level by employing a style called stripped or modern classicism, which means that buildings are wiped of all ornament, they follow only pure traditional formal simplicity. As beautiful as the stadium was designed and constructed there was always an underlying agenda. The Nazi administration used classical architecture adorned with Nazi symbolism to reinforce socialist ideal upon an established background. This becomes critical when analyzing what impact this created for an international audience on the stage of the first televised world games. By using the classical architectural designs viewers are associated with tradition and a period that bench marked history as one of the most influential times of “modern” manhood. However, by using the Nazi symbolism throughout the stadium, classic events, and even the salutes to the administration reinforced the idea that admiration should be synonymous with traditional and classic models. Hitler choreographed this image of neo-Germany to instill confidence in the international world, to imply that maybe these new socialist ideas weren’t too far off from those of Rome and Greece. This Architecture was used as a tool to test international perceptions of the Nazi regime, and in fact it seemed to be successful. This play may have even have bought Germany time to avoid international investigation of the war horrors committed in the subsequent years.
As Jesse Owens triumphantly takes 4 gold medals at the 1936 Olympic games and annihilates the Aryan racial superiority complex, it seems as if he had won, as if the whole world was won the battle against the Nazi mentality. However the true winner of these games must go to Germany. The use of architectural design as a medium to push social agendas is an act of true devious genius. As much praises as Owens and other athletes gained from their events the real winner of these games was the Nazi administration. The calculated design of the event from the local environment, to the architecture, and even down to ceremonies was all and advertisement for the Nazi socialism, and the world bought the product. The message was clear, despite the results of anyone’s individual events, no matter how monumental, this new Germany was here to stay and the world has to deal with it. The XI Olympic games concluded on Sunday, August 16, 1936 with Germany capturing the overall victory with 89 gold medals, with the United States in second with 56. The results speak for themselves.
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