Garmisch-Partenkirchen's Uncomfortable Past German Ski Resort Represses Memory of 1936 Winter Olympics

Bavarian ski resort Garmisch-Partenkirchen is applying to co-host the 2018 Winter Olympics, which it last hosted in 1936 under the Nazi regime. Locals still have fond memories of the games, but they have little interest in dealing with the idyllic Alpine town's uncomfortable past.

By and


An icy wind is blowing through the ski stadium in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Alois Schwarzmüller, 66, has his hands pushed deep into his jacket pockets. Tourists are strolling through the arena, one of Germany's best-known winter sports venues. The Alpine World Ski Championships will be held here in 2011, and the Four Hills ski jumping tournament recently attracted 25,000 fans.

The visitors view the stands and look up at the slalom course on the Gudiberg mountain. A group of Japanese tourists poses for a photo in front of the large ski jump. "And over there, if I may draw your attention to it, is the Führer's gallery," says Schwarzmüller.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: The 1936 Winter Olympics

Schwarzmüller, standing with his back to the ski jump, points to a terrace above the Olympia Haus restaurant, which offers a view of the entire arena. "Up there -- that's where he stood," says Schwarzmüller, who is a retired high-school teacher. Adolf Hitler, accompanied by his deputy, Rudolf Hess, was wearing a heavy winter coat when he opened the 1936 Winter Olympics, the biggest sporting event in Garmisch-Partenkirchen to this day.

A Friendly Dictatorship

At that time in Germany, opponents of the Nazi regime were being murdered or sent to concentration camps. The anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws had been passed only five months earlier. But for 10 days in the Bavarian ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the Nazis presented themselves to the international public as a friendly dictatorship. Half a million visitors attended the games. Signs that read "Jews Not Wanted," which had previously been prominently displayed throughout the town, were removed for the duration of the games.

The 1936 Winter Olympics have faded into obscurity. Nowadays, the Summer Olympics that took place in Berlin a few months later are more commonly associated with the Nazis. This is partly the result of the Nazis' bombastic staging of the summer games in the capital of the German Reich, and of the overblown images shown in filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl's films. But it is also the result of Garmisch-Partenkirchen having concealed its own history for decades.

The town, one of the top resort destinations in the Alps, boasts a casino, fine restaurants and high-end boutiques, and the ski lift up to the Kandahar run is considered one of the most advanced in Europe. Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Munich have submitted a bid to co-host the 2018 Winter Olympics. In February, a delegation headed by German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer will travel to the Vancouver Olympics to present the German plan, and in March the first official application package will be submitted to the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Because of the bid, the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen is keen to play up the sporting achievements of the 1936 Olympics. But residents of the popular tourist destination are less interested in reexamining the political circumstances of the games.

No Need to Examine the Past

Alois Schwarzmüller is now standing in front of the east wing of the ski stadium. Years ago, there was a proposal to establish a museum and research institute there, but the project was abandoned as being too costly. Schwarzmüller is a respected man in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where he represented the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the town council for 18 years. He has also spent many years researching the Nazi past in his hometown. "People here don't feel the need to look into that part of the town's history," he says.

The Werdenfelser Land area where Garmisch-Partenkirchen is located was popular among the Nazi leaders. After the failed 1923 coup in Munich, Hermann Göring fled to Partenkirchen, where he was treated for a gunshot wound. He was named an honorary citizen of the town in 1933. Hitler is said to have wanted to acquire an alpine estate in the region, but the man whose farm he had selected was unwilling to sell, and Hitler had to make do with his mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden.

For the Nazis, the Winter Olympics in Bavaria were the dress rehearsal for the summer games later that year in Berlin. The villages of Garmisch and Partenkirchen were forcibly united. The Alpine panorama, which includes Germany's highest mountain, the Zugspitze, offered an imposing backdrop for the games. However, the organizers were concerned about rampant anti-Semitism in the region.

Widespread Anti-Semitism

Shortly after the Nazis came to power in January 1933, local efforts were undertaken to make it difficult for Jews to move to the area, and notices and signs were posted that read: "Jews are not wanted here." In 1934, "doing business in the Jewish language" was banned, and Jews were prohibited from renting or buying property in the town.

Nine months before the games were scheduled to begin, discrimination against the Jewish population had become so widespread that the head of the organizing committee, Karl Ritter von Halt, became alarmed and voiced his concerns in a letter to the Interior Ministry in Berlin. Halt emphasized that he didn't want to be misunderstood -- "I am not expressing my concerns in order to help the Jews" -- but wrote that "if the propaganda is continued in this form, the population of Garmisch-Partenkirchen will be so inflamed that it will indiscriminately attack and injure anyone who even looks Jewish."

The Jew-baiting in the Alpine idyll did not go unnoticed abroad. An English reporter who had traveled to the Werdenfelser Land region in advance of the games photographed the Partenkirchen Ski Club's clubhouse, where a sign reading "No Jews Allowed Here!" was posted on the wall. The image circled the globe. A boycott movement had already been formed in the United States. Organizing committee chief Karl Ritter von Halt was worried that the entire German Olympic project could fail. "If the slightest disturbance occurs in Garmisch-Partenkirchen -- this is something which we are all well aware of -- it will be not be possible to hold the Olympic Games in Berlin, because all other nations will then withdraw from the event."

Berlin reacted. Adolf Wagner, a high-ranking Nazi Party official, ordered all anti-Semitic signs and posters removed. The Olympics could begin.

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