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Berlin’s Olympic Stadium


Early history

The area of today's Olympic stadium complex has been used for sporting events since the times of the German emperors. By 1909 it was the site of the Grunewald horse race. Four years later the 'German Stadium' was built on the site in the hope that Berlin might host the Olympic Games of 1916. The architect was Otto March (1845-1913), father of Werner (1894-1976) and Walter March (1900-1969) who later conceived todays Olympic stadium. The First World War forced the Olympics of 1916 to fall through.

In the 1920's Werner March developed plans for a 'German sport forum' on the current site. Close to todays stadium sport students were to be trained in an 'Academy of physical exercise'. Only a few of the buildings were realized before 1933. As the IOC decided on Berlin to host the XI. summer Olympic Games, the Post Stadium on Lehrter Straße was to be converted to host the games, but as Adolf Hitler was presented with this plan he decided that a new stadium should be built (at this stage called the German stadium – 'Deutschlandstadion' – to accommodate 100,000 spectators).


The building and the Olympic games

Abandoning plans for the original German Stadium, in October 1933 Hitler ordered and new and bigger design based on Professor Werner March's original plans to achieve the desired propaganda effect. Todays Olympic Stadium was built soon after this to Werner and his brother Walter's plans, completed between 1934-36 seating 100,000 people.

The earlier stadium was demolished in 1934 and cleared. The rubble was reused as foundation material for the building of the Bahndamm and Ruhlebener Straße. The new complex was orientated in a clear geometric order mirroring classical sports grounds. The lower level of seating was set below ground level so that still today only the upper circle of seating is visible from the exterior producing the desired antique form, otherwise the building would have appeared over bearing. As foundations March chose small reinforced concrete pilings. The original design included many glass elements between the steel frames. However, as these did not fit in the National Socialist architectural vision, March's modern touches were replaced with massive sills and Rüdersdorfer sandstone cladding to achieve the imposing aspect the powers that be required.

The stadium was opened for the summer Olympic Games from the 1st to the 16th August 1936, a great propaganda spectacular for the Third Reich. The 132 hectare site was proclaimed the best architectural project of National Socialism as the regime developed the Sports forum into the so called Reichs Sportfeld. To the stadium ensemble were added a swimming pool, the bell tower and Langemarck Hall with the May Field and the Waldbuhne auditorium.

The so called Langemarck Hall is the central element of the May Field. It was built a memorial to the young soldiers of WWI (1914-1918), who badly trained and equipped sacrificed themselves on 10th November 1914 in the attack on Langemarck, near Ypres in Belgian West Flanders, as well as to the thousands of other victims of the outbreak of war.


World War II and the post war period

With the increasing frequency and accuracy of Allied bombing raids on the capital from 1943, the production of armourments was forced increasingly underground. The subterranean levels of the Olympic Stadium were used for this purpose. Blaupunkt and Henschel were two firms who made use of the basement spaces. The Blaupunkt works went under the VIP box, and Henschel made use of the marathon tunnel entrance on the southern side of the stadium. The so called Blaupunkt bunker was around 2000 square metres, protected by the reinforced concrete above. This bunker was discovered in January and February 1950, when British engineers were last active in the area in their attempts to demolish the complex. The attempts at demolition left the stadium in a dangerous state, threatening to collapse causing hundreds of thousands of Reichsmark worth of damage. A local firm was then brought in to 'neutralise' the bunker. The cost of the damage caused was never paid by the British. They were claiming it was an accident.

The war damage was eventually corrected by the West German Government between 1954 and completed in 1961. A further bunker was discovered on the western limit of the Sport Field. It was used since1940 as the control post by the staff of Air Raid Brigade Mitte's HQ, responsible for the defence of the greater Berlin region. By 1941 this bunker was too small, and a further bunker was constructed in Zehlendorf (Wannsee). The bunker at Murellenschlucht continued to be used as a command post. The destruction of this bunker in 1950 partially damaged the drainage system of the Waldbuhne auditorium causing periodic soiling of the surrounding woodland.

At the end of WW II, a tragic scene played out here as thousands of Hitler youths bodies were discovered here. They died simply to delay the Red Army taking the stadium a few days earlier. The clock tower was also damaged in the last days of the war, as a film stored underneath caught fire. The hot smoke and heat rose up the tower like a chimney, melted the steel reinforcing and the tower collapsed. The Olympic bell, already damaged by artillery fire now cracked, losing it's chime forever. After the war the bell was buried and rediscovered in 1947, the Swastika and grenade damage still visible.



As a result of its Nazi past, the Olympic Stadium complex became historically important. A section of the complex survived as a HQ by British forces, and by 1970 the stadium was being rebuilt, in preparation for the 1974 Fototball World Cup. Another 30 years passed until 2000-2004 the stadium was rennovated and modernised this time to plans put forward by the architects Gerkan, Marg and Partners for the Football World Cup in 2006. Now the playing field was lowered by several seating rows to provide a better 'footballing' atmosphere. A new surround roof finally completed the building.

On completion, the stadium now houses 74,500 spectators and has official monument status. As a result of this, all new stone had to be matched with the original, of which 70% remains. There was great discussion about the colour of the running track, which despite protest was finally blue. The official reopening was Juli 31st-1st August 2004.


Expedition under the Olympic Stadium

In 1996 and 2001, members of our organisation explored the underground spaces of the stadium and the surrounding area. As a result, a forgotten specatator access tunnel from the Nazi period running under Passenheimer Str. was rediscovered, and shortly afterwards filled in. Underneath the Stadium itself was the most exciting region. We explored the storage areas that served as a hospital during WWII and also remains of the Blaupunkt bunker. Most impressive was the underground entrance to the VIP seating stand. The deeper we went the more the traces of history came to light. We even found grafitti from the time of the earliest construction, where 1930's builders had scrawled 'We have the Fuhrer to thank that we can build this building' There was even grafitti in Italian joking about the 'Duce' Mussolini.

There was more for those technically minded, an intact section of the Berlin Pneumatic Postal System. Through this pipe came the first reports of Olympic victories, sent out all around the world. Other highlights included tunnels connected with the 'House of German sport' and the swimming pool complex nearby. Unfortunately after renovation little or nothing of the Pneumatic Postal System survived. Our desire to have this unique network be preserved in our exhibition was left unheeded. Amazingly, and as so often with Berlin's recent underground history, everything was buried. At least regarding the underground catacombs of Berlin's Olympic stadium, the monument status seems not to get a look in.


Built: 1934–1936
Size: On the cross-section approx. 840 m
Purpose: A sport stadium, during WW II used as an underground production facility for ammunition (1943-1945)
Condition: Intact, accessible, but in parts not open to the public
Informations about guided tours, offered by Olympiastadion Berlin GmbH can be found here

Author: Dietmar Arnold, Reiner Janick, Gudrun Neumann, Ingmar ArnoldStatus: 27.05.14 Top