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Introducing Oliver Hilmes’ ‘Berlin 1936’

For July’s Babbel Book Club pick, we’re jumping to nonfiction. This month’s book looks at the human stories behind one of the strangest sporting events in history: Adolf Hitler’s Olympic Games.
Introducing Oliver Hilmes’ ‘Berlin 1936’

It’s soccer season! Once again, the world has come together and put aside its differences to engage in athletic competition. To celebrate, the book we’re reading this month deals with a different international sporting event during a different time. Namely, the Olympic Games held in Germany in 1936. You know, three years before the outbreak of World War II. Oliver Hilmes’ Berlin 1936 recounts the 16 days of the Games, and all the strange events that happened during them.

To start, here’s a brief overview of the book! And if you’re not already a member of our Babbel Book Club Facebook group, it’s never too late to join.

The Book

Berlin 1936 details the actual events of the Olympic Games that were held in the titular city during that titular year. Unlike most histories, this book tries to truly immerse the reader in the past. Each chapter focuses on a single day of the sporting event, and the narrative jumps around the city, telling stories from the athletic fields, the night clubs and everywhere else. Over the course of the book, you meet a whole cast of characters, from American athlete Jesse Owens to Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, and chart their paths through just over two weeks of time.

The author’s most interesting choice is making the book present tense. It’s jarring at first, but it makes the narrative all the more compelling. With an event like World War II, it can be easy to mythologize the history and ignore what it must have been like to actually be in Germany during this time. Berlin 1936 takes a lesser-known story about Germany and uses it to show how the path to fascism was a slow and deliberate process. By the time the events in the book unfolded, Adolf Hitler had only been in power for a few years. Over the 16 days of the Games, his regime was under extra scrutiny because the whole world was watching. Tragically, the Third Reich managed to not only hide their worst elements, but also dazzle the world with feats of athletic strength and upscale parties. It is impossible to read without constantly thinking of what was to come just a few years later, but it makes the reading all the more vital.

The Author

Oliver Hilmes is a German historian who is best known for his biographies of famous German figures. So far, only his books about Viennese socialite Alma Mahler and composer Franz Liszt have been translated into English, and he’s also written about the composers Ludwig II and Cosima Wagner. Hilmes has been praised as a “wunderkind of German biography,” and this book marks one of his first forays into non-biographical history.

The Translator

Berlin 1936 was translated by Jefferson Chase, a German writer who has worked on a number of other translations, including Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Volker Ullrich’s Hitler. For his primary job, he is a Berlin-based journalist for German news company Deutsche Welle, where he reports on politics.

The Language

You probably don’t need much of an introduction to what German is, because it’s the 11th most-spoken language in the world, but it’s worth going over a few facts. It’s spoken by 132 million people, most of whom live in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The language has the same roots as English — though the two split apart about two millennia ago — and Germanic words still abound throughout the English language.

For much of its history, German was a language associated with philosophy and art. Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx and Immanuel Kant, some of the most influential thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries, ensured that the language was valuable for any intellectual to know. The language’s reputation was all but destroyed during the World Wars, however, especially when countries including the United States banned the language from being spoken for a little while. Today, it’s a major language of commerce, with Germany being the financial center of Europe. With its long history, German is a great language to learn (even if the three grammatical genders may trip you up a bit).


Stay tuned for the rest of the month to join discussions about the book and the German language. Want to learn more about Babbel Book Club? Click here.

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