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History in photos

From Hitler to Hertha: The Olympic Stadium in pictures

The history of Olympiastadion in 12 images: from the Nazi grand opening to the ghostly stillness of the pandemic.

In 2036 Olympiastadion will celebrate its 100th birthday. These days football fans (well, Hertha fans) get emotional at the sight of the mighty arena, but this structure bore witness to the darkest epoch of German history. Yet, at the same time, it set standards for modern architecture worldwide.

Hitler attends the grand opening, August 1, 1936,

Hitler had the Olympic Stadium built in just two years, which at the time had a 100,000 person capacity. Photo: Federal Archives/Image 146-1976-033-17/CC-BY-SA 3.0

In 1936 the Summer Olympics were held in Nazi Germany. The so-called ‘German Stadium’ existed on the site of today’s Olympic Stadium until 1934. In the lead-up to the competition, Adolf Hitler had a larger stadium built on the same site within just 28 months.

The Olympic Stadium is thus an example of the remaining Nazi era architecture in Berlin. Numerous symbols of the time are still present today – like the Olympic bell (see below). The former ‘leader’s box’, from which Adolf Hitler once followed the goings-on in the stadium, now serves as a VIP lounge.

The 1936 Summer Olympics

One of the first aerial photos of the Olympic Stadium was taken in the year it opened – as part of Hitler’s propaganda. Photo Credit: Imago/ZUMA Press/Keystone

During the Olympic Games, Germany presented itself as a peaceful, cosmopolitan nation, even though preparations for war were in full swing.

Hitler basked in the praise and admiration he received for his huge stadium. Recordings of the event from a dizzy height were taken from the largest zeppelin ever built, the Hindenburg. Germany emerged as the most successful nation from the event with 89 medals.

… Also the Olympics

The VIP lounge in the Olympic Stadium is located on the site of Adolf Hitler’s former Führerloge. Photo: Imago/Arkivi

The VIP lounge is now on the site of Hitler’s former Führerloge: In the picture above, the Nazi elite are watching the hustle and bustle in the stadium, today special guests enjoy five-star cuisine in this same spot.

Celebrations in Nazi Germany on May 1, 1938

Celebrations for May 1, 1938 in the Berlin Olympic Stadium: the Nazis underscored their need for recognition with elaborate staging. Photo: Imago/Everett Collection

Even before the Nazis came to power, May 1st was considered International Labor Day. However, the National Socialists appropriated the date and Hitler presented himself as a patron in 1933. He declared May Day a public holiday, on which one could stay home and still be paid full wages.

From then on, the Nazis made the 1st of May a huge spectacle. There were processions and parades by the NSDAP, the Hitler Youth and the SS (Schutzstaffel). Olympiastadion was centre stage for all the pageantry and puff.

After years as a spy base: police sports festival in 1956

After the stadium was no longer occupied by the British military, major events such as the police festival could take place again. Photo: Imago/Leber

Surprisingly given the state of the rest of the city, the Olympic Stadium was almost undamaged following the war. The stadium, which at that time still bore the name “Reichssportfeld”, was taken over by the British after the end of the war and used as a spy base against the DDR.

In 1949 Olympiastadion was returned to the German authorities and given its current name. In West Berlin, major events such as the police sports festival of 1956 could now take place there.

Nazi relic: the Olympic bell

Rusty Nazi relic: The steel bell that was once lifted into the bell tower when the stadium opened still exists today. Photo: Imago/Pakusch

A special Nazi relic can be seen west of the southern gate of the Olympic Stadium: the Olympic bell. With the opening of the stadium, the five meter high steel bell was lifted into the bell tower as an Olympic symbol.

After the war, the dilapidated tower was blown up, the steel colossus fell down and cracked. This is still clearly visible and the bell can be clearly identified as a Nazi relic based on the imperial eagle and the swastika.

Repaint needed: The Olympiastadion renovations

The stadium survived the war almost unscathed: it was not until 2000 that the Olympic Stadium was completely renovated. Photo: Imago/Lambert

A good ten years after Germany was reunited, in 2000, it was time to renovate the Olympic Stadium which had fallen into disrepair. On July 3, 2000, the first excavators drove into the historic arena. The conversion cost around 250 million euros, most of which was paid for by the federal government.

Renovations again, 2004

The Olympiastadion has been gorgeous since its 2004 facelift: the almost seventy-year-old stadium had previously fallen into disrepair. Photo: Imago/Lambert

The renovation took four year, exactly twice as long as the original construction by Adolf Hitler. Seventy percent of the historic structure was preserved, all tiers were covered and extensive floodlights were installed. In addition, the blue athletic track was lain in the club colours of Bundesliga soccer club Hertha BSC.

Rain rain go away.

Famous roofing: the roof with integrated floodlights has been its trademark since the renovation of the Olympic Stadium. Photo: Imago/IPON

Olympiastadion had already been partially covered for the 1974 World Cup. But a comprehensive roof with floodlights over all tiers became another hallmark of the stadium, along with the blue athletics track as part of the newest round of renovations. The continuous floodlighting, the so-called ring of fire, prevents shadows during football matches.

Olympic Stadium as a venue for concerts and festivals

Good vibes at Lollapalooza 2019. Photo: Imago/snapshot

International and some national stars (well, maybe just Helene Fischer) can also fill the Olympiastadion – festivals also occasionally take place, like the Lollapalooza in 2019. Almost 75,000 spectators fit into the arena but things have been pretty quiet the last few years.

Empty seats and snow in February 2021

Football fans miss the stadium feeling during the Corona crisis: the ranks have had to remain empty for months. Photo: Imago/Cook

In February 2021, the corona virus had Germany and the world firmly in its grip. Football games at Olympiastadion took place without spectators, whilst Berliners suffered through the winter at home.

The golden chapel in the stadium opens for every Hertha BSC home game

Anyone who wants to understand the essence of football should visit the gold-plated chapel in the Olympic Stadium, which opens for every Hertha BSC home game. Photo: Imago/epd

Club or religion? On the ground floor of the Olympic Stadium there is a chapel whose walls are covered with gold leaf. It is located directly between the player’s lounge and the player’s tunnel.

It has been open for every Hertha BSC home game since the 2006/2007 season and can also be rented by anyone who wants a particularly memorable wedding or christening.