Garmisch-Partenkirchen's Uncomfortable Past German Ski Resort Represses Memory of 1936 Winter Olympics
Part 2: Invited to Coffee with Hitler
The weather was unseasonably warm shortly before the opening ceremony, but then temperatures dropped just in time for the games. When Hitler arrived on a special government train at the Kainzenbad station, directly at the ski stadium, at 10:55 a.m. on Feb. 6, 1936, there were 20 centimeters (8 inches) of snow on the ground. According to the official Olympic report that was later released, Hitler was greeted with "a hurricane of jubilant voices shouting: Heil!"
At the opening ceremony, 1,100 athletes and officials from 28 nations marched into the stadium. Many extended their right arms in a Hitler salute in front of the VIP stand. Willy Bogner, whose son heads the organization in charge of the "Munich 2018" bid, delivered the Olympic oath.
The sports festival provided the Nazis with the images they wanted to see. Swastika flags lined the town's main thoroughfares. The athletes were performing at their best to cheering crowds. Franz Pfnür, a native of Berchtesgaden, won the gold medal in the alpine skiing combined event, while Polish champion Bronislaw Czech trailed behind, finishing in 20th place.
As a reward, Pfnür was later invited to coffee with the Führer at his mountain retreat in Obersalzberg. He also joined the SS.
Czech, however, joined a resistance group after the German invasion of Poland and worked as a courier. He smuggled people and important documents across the Tatra Mountains to Hungary, until his former trainer, an Austrian, betrayed him to the Germans. Czech was admitted to the Auschwitz concentration camp as prisoner number 349. He died there on June 5, 1944, at the age of 35.
'We Don't Sugercoat Anything'
The 1936 Winter Olympics helped to shape Garmisch-Partenkirchen's future. For the town, the games marked the beginning of mass tourism. This year, Garmisch-Partenkirchen celebrates its 75th anniversary.
A commemorative publication was printed for the 60th anniversary of the winter games. It is sitting on a table in the office of Mayor Thomas Schmid, who has had it put there -- as evidence.
Schmid, 48, who has been in office since 2002, is considered a modernizer. He is pinning his hopes on winning the 2018 Olympic bid, which would bring the town new luxury hotels, a new conference center and a better rail connection to Munich.
But what about the 1936 Olympics? Schmid insists that Garmisch-Partenkirchen has done a wonderful job of dealing with its past. "We don't sugarcoat anything, and we address the issue head on," he says, citing the commemorative publication as an example.
The cover depicts a ski jumper in the air. The 1936 games brought Garmisch-Partenkirchen "worldwide prominence and recognition," Schmid's predecessor, Toni Neidlinger, writes in the introduction, adding: "the political circumstances of the time complicate the way we view the event today."
The rest of the publication contains reports on the sporting events, stories about German star athletes like Christl Cranz, winner of the gold medal in the alpine combined competition. The political circumstances are glossed over.
This is hardly surprising. The publisher was historian Gert Sudholt, 66, a stepson of the former deputy Nazi press chief Helmut Sündermann. Sudholt heads the Berg Publishing Company, which has been under observation for years by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency.
He publishes books that dispute Germany's responsibility for starting World War II and is an adviser to the "Society for Free Journalism," the largest right-wing extremist cultural organization in Germany. He spent several months in prison in 1993 for printing an article by a Holocaust denier. That was just three years before he published the commemorative publication for Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the same publication Mayor Schmid is now touting as evidence of how remarkably well the town has come to terms with its past.
Schmid says that this is the first time he has heard about all this. He seems embarrassed when he hears the story.
Naturally the commemorative publication makes no mention of what happened in Garmisch-Partenkirchen after the Olympics. The anti-Jewish signs were put up again. Beginning in 1937, the resort administration inserted notes that read "Jews not wanted" into all brochures sent to addresses within Germany. On Nov. 10, 1938, the last group of roughly 50 Jews living in Garmisch-Partenkirchen was given a few hours to leave the town. Some committed suicide out of sheer desperation. The local newspaper, Tagblatt, wrote: "Now we are among Germans once again!"
Nevertheless, the IOC awarded the 1940 Winter Games to Garmisch-Partenkirchen once again. But the games never happened. A few months after the IOC decision, the German army invaded Poland, marking the beginning of World War II.
Harming the Town's Image
Alois Schwarzmüller still has one of the anti-Jewish signs that were posted in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. An acquaintance found it in her attic and gave it to him. The circular sign, which depicts a swastika on a yellow background, along with the words "Jews Not Wanted," would be a good item to display in an official exhibition.
But Schwarzmüller doesn't think that will ever happen. He senses that town officials are "inhibited and reticent" when it comes to the Nazi past. "They're worried that it could harm the town's image," says Schwarzmüller.
The Garmisch football and track & field stadium is a case in point. Until four years ago, the arena was still named after the president of the organizing committee for the 1936 Winter Games, Karl Ritter von Halt. A member of the IOC at the time, Halt joined the Nazi Party and the SA, the party's paramilitary organization, three months after Hitler came to power.
Later, as a member of the board of directors of Deutsche Bank, he contributed funds on behalf of the bank to a group called the "Circle of Friends of Heinrich Himmler." Shortly before the end of the war, the SS chief appointed Halt to head the Third Reich's umbrella organization for sports.
After a tourist complained that the stadium was named after a high-ranking Nazi, it was rededicated in the summer of 2006. It is now called "Stadion am Gröben."
Members of the town council were notified in an email of the renaming of the stadium, which was done on the quiet. They were also instructed "to refrain from discussing this issue in public."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: German Ski Resort Represses Memory of 1936 Winter Olympics
- Part 2: Invited to Coffee with Hitler