Berlin is vibrant and contemporary, but it is also a city of ghosts. History hides in every corner and in some places it parades in the open. Last week I took a walk in the ‘Olympiapark’ and the past accompanied me every step of the way. It was a cold, grey day and there were few people about, lending the whole site a sense of eeriness. The monumental buildings and the virile statues appeared as stark phantoms of Nazi grandeur and the ground resonated with a legion of personal memories.
Aerial view of the Olympic Stadium in 1936
Originally called the Reichssportfeld (‘Imperial sports field’) and constructed for the notorious 1936 Olympic Games, the Berlin Olympiapark is one of world’s most significant 20th century sports complexes. Surrounded by forest to the west of Berlin, the ensemble of buildings and open spaces represent the epitome of the Nazi ideal of architectural and natural perfection. On July 1st 1945 this area was taken over by the occupying British troops as it became part of the British Sector of Berlin. The 1936 Olympic stadium was handed back to the West-Berlin authorities in 1949 and a year later it became known as the ‘Olympiastadion’. But most of the complex remained in British hands until after German Reunification. The British Military Government was based there until 1990 and the British Berlin Garrison remained until 1994.
Plan of the Olympiapark site
For almost 50 years the site was inaccessible to the population of Berlin. Now, like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, the Olympiapark is gradually coming back to life. Hertha Berlin FC has their training centre and pitches there (where the British used to play cricket) as well as a fan shop on Friesenhof. A secondary school for elite sports students, ‘Sportschule im Olympiapark – Poelschau Oberschule’ has just moved into newly renovated premises in a building originally opened in the 1920s as the ‘Deutsches Sportforum’, dedicated to the teaching of professors of physical education and the study of sport science. They are using a swimming pool which dates back almost a hundred years.
The grand 1920s swimming pool – still in use
The main administrative building of the complex is the impressive ‘Haus des deutschen Sports’, its entrance flanked by two golden eagles mounted on stone columns and completed in 1936 for the Olympics. During the Cold War it served as the Headquarters of the British Military Government. The ground floor is currently used by the Sportmuseum Berlin for their temporary exhibitions, but this will soon be moving to a new site under the spectator stands at the Maifeld, the large field behind the Olympiastadion, used by Hitler for parades and for the 1936 Olympics.
Main entrance of ‘Das Haus des Deutschen Sports’
Before 1990 the Maifeld was used by the British Forces for their rugby, polo and football pitches as well as for the annual Queen’s Birthday Parade and large rock concerts with big names such as Genesis, Pink Floyd and Tina Turner. These days the Maifeld hosts a variety of sports matches and tournaments and the annual ‘Pyronale’ fireworks display in September. It is also now Berlin’s main cricket pitch.
Queen’s Birthday Parade on the Maifeld
The entire Olympiapark site is under ‘Denkmalschutz’ (Protection of Historic Buildings and Monuments) and in 2011 an initiative was launched inviting ideas for its possible future development. Now is the time to walk round while the past is still palpable. Larger than life statues of noble youths recall the Greek athletic ideal which was used by the Nazis to promote the myth of an Aryan super race.
On Jahnplatz, the grand square created by Olympic architect Werner March for sporting events and parades, there are two massive bronze statues of a cow and a bull representing fertility and strength. The Turnhaus (gymnasium hall) is in the background.
The bronze bull on Jahnplatz
During the Cold War the lawns of Jahnplatz were the scene of many British receptions where American, French, Soviet military mingled with West-Berlin dignitaries. It was a dramatic setting, surrounded by classical porticos, statues and stone friezes. The stern inscription above the Deutsches Sportforum building roughly translates as, ‘Forever, from the beginning of existence, the holy word perfection is there to urge us’.
Jahnplatz resonates with memories of sporting triumphs and parties
To gain access to the Olympiapark, enter by the ‘Osttor’ (East Gate) on Hans-Braun-Straße, a ten minute walk along Rominter Allee from Olympiastadion U-Bahn station. But it only makes sense to explore the Olympiapark after you have seen the Olympiastadion itself (see page 43 of Berlin Unwrapped). There are excellent guided tours which take you to parts of the stadium not open to the general public and reveal the absorbing story – both past and present – of this iconic Nazi edifice. The English version of the Olympiastadion website gives details of these tours and a complete history of the Olympiapark. Unfortunately their full tours of the Olympiapark grounds are only in German. But there are plenty of information boards around the site giving historical details in both German and English.
Information board for the ‘Arzthaus’ (Doctor’s House)
For a bird’s eye view of the complex, it’s also worth visiting the Glockenturm (Bell Tower) on the other side of the Maifeld. The tower is a five minute walk from Pichelsbeg S Bahn station and as well as the viewing platform there is an interesting exhibition about the Olympic site and the 1936 games, sponsored by the German Historical Museum.
The Glockenturm in sunny weather – looking across the Maifeld