BERLIN—Adolf Hitler couldn't stand even 90 minutes of soccer. After a Norwegian—by legend, a Jew—scored his second goal in the 84th minute, sending the favored, and "racially pure," German team crashing out of the 1936 Olympics, a red-faced Hitler stormed out of his beloved Olympic Stadium.
Trailing him was a panicky Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, who later noted in his diary: "The Fuhrer is incensed. I can hardly bear it. A bag of nerves."
On July 9, the world's attention once again will be focused on that same field for the championship game of the World Cup soccer tournament. Soccer fans who've never been inside will have a creepy sense of deja vu: They've been here before, in scenes from grainy newsreels shown a hundred times in documentaries and history programs.
"It's impossible to walk into that place without evoking the ghosts of our past," said Erik Eggers, a German soccer journalist whom the German soccer association once banned from its facilities because of stories he'd written about the stadium's Nazi past.
The stadium hasn't changed much since Hitler, from his seat on the right side of the VIP terrace, raised his arm in a stiff Nazi salute and tried to use sport to advance his belief in racial superiority before he set about conquering Europe and killing 11 million civilians, including 6 million Jews.
While a $250 million renovation added a partial roof and moved some seating, the stadium remains one of Berlin's most visible reminders of the Nazi era. Left in place are its statues of heroic athletes and its monumental entrance, with giant Olympic rings suspended between two huge towers.
As originally conceived under the Weimar government of Chancellor Paul von Hindenburg, the stadium had a simple steel-and-concrete facade. But Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, imposed a grand limestone front, in keeping with Hitler's "value of ruins" theory of architecture: that structures should be built to look grand 1,000 years after they've fallen into disuse.
That facade still stands, 60 years after Nazism collapsed. The stadium and the surrounding sports complexes are considered the only grand architectural scheme completed under Hitler that survives.
Other German cities built new facilities for the World Cup, including Munich, where the 1972 Olympic Games were marred by the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes whom Palestinian terrorists had taken hostage. Berlin's decision simply to remodel the 1936 stadium angered some.
"There is an argument today about whether the stadium, the grounds, are Nazi or simply reflecting the style throughout Europe at the time," said Verena Dollenmaier, an assistant at the Georg Kolbe Museum in Berlin. "But there is no way to look at that without bringing to mind what followed. It should have been replaced."
Others supported the decision.
"There is no denying the symbolic ties of the stadium to Hitler," said historian Manfred Goertemaker of Potsdam University. "But, in the German character, you can't simply tear something down if it is still standing, and serving its function, even if it has a negative meaning."
More controversial was the refusal by the Federation Internationale de Football Association, the organization that governs world soccer, to allow a German government-sponsored exhibit explaining the stadium and its history. The government had installed the exhibit, but FIFA ordered it closed, saying it was a security risk because visitors to the exhibit could see the playing field.
"Of course, people have questions," said Hans Joachim Teichler, a professor of sports history at Potsdam University. "They should have been answered. The Nazis wanted it to look like a fortress, unconquerable."
After the war began, teams from newly occupied countries would be brought in to play Germany, "to learn who was boss," Teichler said. "It didn't work. The team kept getting embarrassed."
So on one level the stadium was a site of embarrassment for Hitler. And while his most famous defeats at the 1936 Olympics came through Jesse Owens, the African-American track and field star, it's clear that Hitler never quite knew what to do about soccer.
"There was no way to control the game," journalist Eggers said. "It didn't follow a script; you couldn't direct it or impose a strategy on it. What makes the sport so popular—its freedom, and its unpredictability—drove them mad."
Prewar Germans loved soccer, and important matches drew crowds of 100,000 and more. Hitler, however, wasn't a fan and attended only one match, during the 1936 Olympics.
Germany won more medals during that Olympics than any other nation, and aides had persuaded Hitler that another medal would come from soccer. The Norwegians were lightly regarded. Hitler attended with Goebbels, Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess.
Six minutes in, a Norwegian named Magnar Isaksen scored, putting Norway up 1-0. To German ears, the name meant Isaksen was a Jew. Isaksen scored again 78 minutes later, sealing a 2-0 win and knocking Germany from the tournament.
Roger Solheim, a spokesman for Norway's soccer association, said there was no record of Isaksen's religion. He added that the name is common in Norway and often has no religious meaning.
"He's remembered here," Solheim said. "We had never before reached such heights. His team is known simply as `the Bronze team,' for the medal they won in those Olympics."
Also remembered is that the Norwegians robbed Hitler of another victory salute. "He left very angry. That is very special for us," Solheim said.
It wasn't the last time soccer infuriated the Nazis. Among the dead in the infamous Babi Yar massacre in Kiev—100,000 people, an estimated 90,000 of them Jewish—were the members of a Kiev soccer team that had beaten a German army team.
The German national team also was eliminated from the 1938 World Cup and lost a game to Switzerland on Hitler's birthday. Germany stopped playing international games in 1942 after Goebbels found himself at another embarrassing loss.
"In the end, soccer did not fit with Hitler's mental structure," said Nils Havemann, who wrote a book called "Soccer Under the Swastika." "He was more in line with boxing and martial arts. He did capitalize on the game, but he could never control it to his satisfaction."
After the war, a soccer-mad Germany, hungry for any respite in a devastated country, was willing to ignore the Nazi pasts of players and coaches as long as they produced good soccer. Lorenz Peiffer, a sports historian at Hanover University, said it took Germany a long time to come to terms with Nazism in soccer.
It's important now to be open about what the game and the Olympic Stadium meant to Hitler's Third Reich, he said.
"We cannot erase our history," he said. "We need to confront it."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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