Elstal – Berlin’s Abandoned Olympic Village
The Elstal Olympic Village was built for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. At that time, the Nazis had taken power and Hitler wanted to use the international event to showcase national socialism to the world. The IOC had awarded the Games to Berlin in 1931 and only two years later, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. Concerns were raised over the antisemetic policies of the German regime but they gave assurances that Jewish athletes would be allowed to compete on the German Olympic team. There was debate about moving the games with the United States suggesting Rome as a replacement. Some countries discussed boycotts but in the end, 49 countries participated at the 1936 Olympic Games.
View of the Berlin Olympic stadium from the Hindenburg
A view of the opening ceremony of the Berlin Olympics from the Hindenburg airship.
The Nazis saw it as a unique opportunity to promote their ideology. No expense was spared. A new 100,000 seat track and field stadium was built. There were arenas, swimming pools, an outdoor theatre and even a polo field.
Jesse Owens receives a gold medal
Jesse Owens receiving a gold medal. He won 4 gold in total, making him the most successful athlete at the Games.
At the Games, American Jesse Owens was the most successful athlete, winning 4 gold medals in the sprint events and the long jump. It was said that he single-handedly crushed Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy. There was controversy as Jewish athletes Lilli Henoch and Gretel Bergmann were left out of the German team despite being world record holders. Despite their promises, the German Olympic committee banned all athletes of Jewish or Roma descent from competing. The exception was Helene Mayer who had one Jewish parent. She was resident in the United States at the time and many believe her inclusion was to prevent a boycott.
Helene Mayer who was the only Jewish competitor on the German team.
The Olympic village was built in Elstal in Wustermark, 30km (19 miles) from the centre of Berlin. Like all facilities built for the Games, no expense was spared. The athletes were housed in dormitories and cottages. There was a large dining hall called the Dining Hall of the Nations in which athletes were encouraged to eat together. A number of training facilities were located at Elstal including a swimming pool, gymnasium, running track and more. Construction of the Olympic village was overseen by Hauptmann Wolfgang Fürstner however he was suddenly demoted 2 months before the start of the games. The Nuremburg Laws of 1935 had classified him as a Jew and as the Berlin Olympics came to an end, he was expelled from the Wehrmacht. He took his own life by shooting himself with a pistol on 19 August 1936, just 3 days after the Olympics ended.
The Olympic Village in Elstal was converted into the Olympic Döberitz Hospital and Army Infantry School for use by the Wehrmacht. It was subsequently used as such during World War II. When the war ended in 1945, the Soviet Union used Elstal as a military camp for its forces during the occupation.
The abandoned swimming pool building at Elstal Olympic Village
The exterior of the swimming pool.
The abandoned swimming pool in Elstal Olympic Village
The interior of the swimming pool building.
Following the war, the question of what to do with some of the buildings that represented Germany’s darkest days was floating around the country. The 1936 Olympic venues attracted much criticism. Germany had been awarded the Olympic Games before Hitler had come to power but it was how he used the event to flaunt his agenda on a world stage that many regular Germans took issue with. They would again hold the Olympic games in Munich in 1972 but this too was not without controversy as the death of 11 Israeli athletes drew the attention of the entire world.
The Olympic Stadium was renovated and restored for the 2006 FIFA World Cup however 14 km (8.6 miles) to the west, the Olympic Village in Elstal remains as it was left in 1945 at the end of the war. 4,000 athletes lived there for the duration of the games. The exception is the restored Weissen House, where Jesse Owens stayed.
The room in Elstal in which Jesse Owens stayed
The room in which Jesse Owens stayed. It has been restored to look as it did in 1936.
The grounds are open to the public now, although safety concerns mean a lot of the area is off limits still. The Jesse Owens exhibition is the only athlete residence which you can go inside. You can take a tour throughout the abandoned Elstal Olympic Village either alone or with a guide.