Berlin 1936: Olympic effort for an abandoned village

Filed 25/4/2010 | Updated 12/8/2015
Nearly too knackered by the time I arrived to do any exploring at all. More than 40 kilometers on a bicycle from Friedrichshain to Elstal, a dastardly wind resisting all the way, efforts furthermore compounded by unforeseen diversions derived from the overly optimistic tactic of simply pointing the bike west.
“Who needs maps anyway?” I won’t be doing that again. Then there was the prospect of cycling back! Alter, I was wrecked.
Yes, it truly was an Olympic effort to get there - Jesse Owens himself would have been proud - but there was no way I could arrive at this abandoned village once home to nearly 5,000 athletes, peep through the fence, and simply turn back the way I’d come. I had to go in!
There used to be a time, before the shadow of suspicion accompanied every achievement, when the Olympic Games were the toast of the world. Berlin’s in 1936 were the most captivating games of all, albeit for all the wrong reasons, not only doping.
Coming at a time when the Nazis had been in power for three years, they provided Hitler with a stage to show the world their greatness and prove the superiority of the Aryan race.
That notion was knocked on the head when a member of an inferior race ultimately proved superior to the rest. There was nothing inferior about Jesse Owens as his four gold medals affirmed, much to the pleasure of all but the so-called Führer.
His native Austria only collected a measly 13 medals, compared with his adopted country’s 89, so he masterminded the Anschluß a couple of years later, before his insatiable appetite for more gold medals prompted his bid to take over the world in 1939. Perhaps it’s no coincidence Nazi Germany attacked, fought or annexed countries that finished above Austria in the medal table from that Olympics.
Ireland escaped such a fate as it had boycotted the games, not for any bold political statement against the Nazis, but because of a row over northern athletes competing for the British. The British shared Adolf’s penchant for medals and had long plundered Irish talent as their own.
Anyway, such thoughts were far from my head as I contemplated the empty buildings lurking ominously between the trees behind the fence. This was it! The Olympic Village, 14km west of Olympiastadion, built between 1934 and 1936, and abandoned since the last Russian soldiers left in 1992.
Berlin was supposed to hold the Olympic Games in 1916, but these were abandoned due to the outbreak of the First World War two years previously.
In a bid to bring Germany back into the international fold after its defeat, the International Olympic Committee decided in 1931 that the games should take place in Berlin after all, 20 years after originally planned.
I’d say Hitler, who got into power two years later, couldn’t have believed his luck. What better stage does a zealous despot need to showcase his country’s grandeur and assert his individual might?
The Nazis also saw the benefits of mixing sport and politics, and they weren’t going to let the opportunity slip. The Olympic Village was built on a 550,000 square meter site on land belonging to the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) to the east of existing military camps at Elstal and Elsgrund. The Nazis, considerate souls that they were, ensured that all the constructed buildings would go back to the Wehrmacht after the games.
They spared no expense – they even had animals and waterfowl from the Berlin zoo relocated for the man-made lake. A wooden cabin with veranda provided sauna-fun at one end for the humans.
Some 370,000 curious visitors came to see the site when it was open to the public between May 1st and June 15, 1936.
Then more than 4,800 male athletes, coaches or advisors from some 50 countries moved in in July. They were housed in 136 one-story bungalows. The 500 female athletes were housed at the Reichssportfeld, where the Olympiastadion was (and still is of course). Apparently the luxurious facilities proved a hit with the athletes. Only the constant military presence and shameless propaganda irked them a bit.
Leni Riefenstahl filmed athletes training here for the second part of her 1938 documentary ‘Olympia’ titled ‘Fest der Schönheit’ (Festival of Beauty). She seemed to take great pleasure in filming the naked men splashing about and showering.
The two-story Hindenburg Haus – named after the field marshal and German president Paul von Hindenburg, patron of the Games up to his death in 1934 –was the main administration center with its own theater/television exchange. It was here that the first tests were done on live TV transmissions. The 1936 Olympics provided the first live sports broadcasts to the world via what would later become known as Tacheles.
The fun ran from August 1st to 16th. After a ‘successful tournament,’ feted by the international press, the Olympic Village was renovated and handed over to the Wehrmacht. The first soldiers moved in to what became the Infanterieschule Döberitz (Infantry School Döberitz) in December.
The huge Speisehaus der Nationen, which had 40 canteens to cater for the hungry athletes, was converted into a hospital, while the Hindenburg Haus became a school and lecture hall.
The Nazis got back to their pre-tournament ways and resumed their persecution of Jews and other groups.
Even before the tournament, they had forced several Jews out of German sports clubs and the national team. Part-Jewish fencer Helene Mayer was a notable exception, winning a silver Olympic medal for the country that persecuted her.
Olympic Village director Wolfgang Fürstner took his own life three days after the games ended. He had Jewish roots and learned he was to be dismissed from the Wehrmacht because he had been classified a Jew by the Nazis, so rather than face such humiliation, he shot himself with a pistol not far from the lake. The Nazis covered up his suicide to avoid unwelcome attention.
They got plenty of attention with the outbreak of war three years later, and were left to regret it when it ended nearly six years after that.
The Soviets took over the Olympic Village and used it to house military personnel from the Döberitz barracks, also seized from the Germans. It was they who erected the Plattenbau buildings, huge empty shells of soulless apartments, long after the last athletes were gone.
It’s been abandoned since the last Russian soldiers left in 1992. Now the apartments are left to the wallpaper that still flaps on their walls. Flap, flap, flap! As if trying to talk to you. My heart was in my mouth. Strange noises came from below me, then above; wood creaking, paper rustling, doors groaning, metal banging. Banging, banging, banging. Then I realized it was my heart. I closed my mouth so it wouldn’t jump out and proceeded cautiously.
I was captivated. Everywhere was fascinating dullness, mundane marvels; everywhere an unknown story desperate to be told. Who lived here? What did they do? Where are they now? Where did they buy their wallpaper? I never took so many pictures of wallpaper in my life.
What’s left of the original buildings are now under Denkmalschutz and beginning to look a bit healthier than they did before. Restoration is proceeding at a slow pace, restricted by a lack of money and unsuitability for lucrative apartments. It’s just that too far from Berlin, for now.
Outside I met someone as surprised to see me as I was to see him. A rabbit, he was probably used to having the whole Olympic Village to himself, hopping around, imagining every day that he's Jesse Owens winning another four gold medals. We both froze and looked at each other. He twitched his nose and was gone, running as if going for another gold. Nothing inferior about his race either.

Olympic Village built for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Elstal, Wustermark, Germany.

How to get there
Well, you could cycle like I did from Berlin, but I don't recommend it. Better to take the regional train to Elstal and walk or cycle from there. An ABC ticket will cover you if you don’t want to risk “schwarzfahren.” Here it is on a map.

Getting in
Go around to the other side away from the security and nosy guards, and just hop over the fence. Be careful!
Or, and I write this with a heavy heart, you can actually visit it legitimately before Hallowe’en, paying €4 at the entrance to be allowed wander around at your own leisure. It’s not quite the same of course. You can do tours for €10 for access inside some of the buildings. Dogs are allowed if you think your dog would be interested. They don’t have to pay.

When to go
Anytime before dark, preferably when it's not raining.

Difficulty rating
4/10. Getting there is the main problem, but once you're in, you're laughing.

Who to bring
People who don't mind the sound of wallpaper flapping.

What to bring
Camera. A few bottles of Sterni to break up the journey and/or toast your success on getting there. They'll be warm once you arrive, but what the hell. Maybe bring a few snacks to nibble on too. Unlike the Olympics nowadays, there's a surprising lack of catering stands in this abandoned village. I can't recommend pistachios enough.

The imagination tends to run away with itself when exploring on your own, so watch out for that. Strange noises and eerie silences make for tingly nerves, unless you’ve paid in of course, which will make it as exciting as a visit to the supermarket.
Otherwise, keep an eye out for the security guards. They take their job pretty seriously here. I figured Christmas Day would be a safe day to visit with everyone at home pretending to be happy, but there they were, zooming up after spotting me at the swimming pool and giving chase in a car despite the snow. I ran like Jesse Owens and obviously lived to tale the tale.

WWII 6458043475044486975


Nice dig at the Brits. You poisonous "Irish" can't help yourselves. I presume you are still upset your mates the Nazis lost after all these years? De Valera would have made a great Deputy Chancellor to Adolf I reckon.


Thanks for the comment Lennie. No need to put the Irish in inverted commas though. I can assure you they are a not a figment of your imagination.
I also think it's quite unfair to say they are poisonous. Have you ever eaten one? Very tasty with a sprig of parsley.

EH just a question Elstal BHF seems to be closer than spandau?

Yes! RE2 goes from Alexanderplatz. Well spotted!

Hey I think you should downgrade your schwerigkeit. Its not even hard to get there :)
Bus 663, 667 stays outside the main entrance (But dont go in that way Ithe guards are there .... Go around and hop ver by the motorway. and if you want to go trough the other side (less guards) 662 to some Kirchecommunity.

Schwerigkeit downgraded as advised. Thanks Robin!

Thanks for another great post.

Just a small update: The place operates as a 'museum'. You can get in for 1 euro and walk around by yourself but then the only building you can get into is Jesse Owen's. A guided tour is 4 euro, it's about 2 hours and in German and you go into a couple of buildings which are locked. Nothing really special. The best sight was probably inside the Hindenburger building with a German WW2 wall of soldiers marching and a Soviet painting of Lenin. Using your camera costs 10 euro regardless of the tour choice. The buildings look pretty well boarded up and if you enter the site while they're open you're liable to run into a bunch of retired German tourists. I wouldn't exactly call the guides for 'guards', though. It's just a guy at the front-hut selling tickets and playing with his phone and then it was a woman conducting the tour :-)

Still, a great post and thanks again for the inspiration. Hope to see more in the future.

Wow, thanks for the update! I haven't been out here since I wrote this post so any update on the current state of affairs is very much appreciated. Thanks again!

I notice tomorrow is the last day for the official tours, so I guess from Übermorgen, a bit of Betreten is called for again!

Interesting post!

I wish I had read it before I visited the place.

You might be interested to read my observations and see my photos here

Cheers Andie. Very interesting indeed. I didn't know that about Speer Junior. Mad! Cool pics too.

Was here last week (Wednesday). Workmen all over the place unfortunately, esp. around the main pool, which they're restoring. Jumped over anyway and started moving around discreetly but it was pointless - wouldn't have gotten anywhere interesting without being seen/caught. Even thought about approaching workmen and slipping them some cash for some photos/look around but too many of them (at pool) + even if they were cool prob not worth their while due to insurance issues. Maybe on a Sunday is clearer, but that pool is obv. gonna be restored in no time. I cycled all the way too. Gah!

ps - great site man, thanks for putting it all together.

I am surprised no one has mentioned the little hidden sauna just inside the fence near the motorway.

hello - Im coming to berlin tomorrow (for a rather impulsively book holiday )- just wondering if anyone had been to this place recently? has it all been re-developed since this old post?

Hi, I´m a student from Rome. I’d like to do my final project in architecture on the Olympic Village in Berlin.
Looking for information on internet, I found this interesting post. Do you know if the village is still partially abandoned? Could anyone tell me where could I find further information and more specific material (project drawings)?

Thanks for a great post. Do you know anything about the state of it now? I know that there are tours and such, but is there still construction work going on? Was thinking it might be better to go after the guided tours are finished, so late afternoon, but am unsure as to whether it's best to go on a weekday or during the weekend, do you have an opinion on that?

I haven't been there lately so can't help you there I'm afraid. Best just to head out and see what you find!

Hi again,

I'm the last "Anonymous" who asked about the current state of the village. Finally went there today.

I found it super easy to get to (took the train to Elstal and then walked) but the fence was surprisingly high and with barbed wire. We luckily found a hole in the fence behind one of the construction sites opposite the red houses on the street called Zum Wasserwerk. Since we'd read that the "museum" closes at 4 on weekdays, we went there after that. The site was completely abandoned, there was no security at all. Some things have changed over the last couple of years though. The swimming pool has got a new building, though they've decided to preserve the inside so it still looks like it did in your pictures. The Hindenburg building, the swimming pool and Owens' house all seemed as if they were open during the day if you're willing to pay but we couldn't get into them since they were locked with things blocking most of the windows.

It was definitely worth a visit. However, it felt more like walking around in a museum for the village than just walking around in an abandoned village as there were signs everywhere. It's turning into quite a museum now I guess.

Love your site, keep up the great work!

I think better than blackmailing the museum, It's rather good, cause it better be a museum than utterly destroyed by f*cking retards!

btw: Hi, nice site you got. I like reading your articles! Keep up the good work!
I also live around Berlin, never been into urbex before, but for a beginner can you recommend me something please? I think its not really possible, but I like places which looks really much as they left and not attacked by vandalism. Thanks

Sorry about my english skills, I didnt meant "blackmailing"^^, what I mean is: "talking the museum bad".

I think I know what you mean. You mean it's better they preserve it than allow it to be trashed by vandals, right?
Well, I agree - if that's what you mean.
As for untouched abandoned sites, they are few and far between I'm afraid. Vandals are omnipresent. I've yet to come across a place that hasn't been touched by their mindless stupidity.
Thanks for your comment(s)!

Yes thats what I think.
Maybe they change the walls of the swimmhall with new paint, new tiles, but it will always be the same historic location which will look like the olympic games of 1936 was yesterday. It's better than decay and high possible vandalism.

Which good places do you know?
I would like to go to some place where you can see traces of war.

Wünsdorf-Waldstadt. The place is oozing history. There are broken bunkers, intact bunkers, museums, derelict sites and all manner of stuff to see. Parts of it are well-preserved too. You can do tours if you're not into DIY.

I would rather do "DIY". =D
It would be cool if I can find a intact bunker, then I could make good use of my new 4000 lumen flashlight.^^

Do you know where to find one, or is there a map with the locations of all bunkers?

As a side note Wolfgang Furstner mentioned above is buried at the Invalidenfriedhof in Berlin. It has many historical figures from German history buried here.

Hi! We went there today and it is not abandoned anymore. Visit the Olympic Village cost 2€ and it looks like they are restaurating all the village. Anyway, it was a nice trip but soooo warm.

There is now an association taking care of the site and a man at the gate regulating the entrances. You need to pay 2€ to enter but for this price you cannot/are not allowed to enter into the buildings. There are also guided tours for 5€ or so (only at specific hours) with which you can enter into some of the closed buildings (including the nice and sealed up ones like the swimming pool or canteen).

In many of the more trashed buildings you can actually enter, but the most famous ones (like the swimming pool, the kitchen and the sport hall) are closed and the association seems to be renovating them a bit so that they don't get too trashed. The interest of the other buildings varies, overall it is not great but here and there you can find some interesting stuff

Have to agree with Lennie about the Irish/Nazis - nothing against the individual Irishmen who fought against tyranny, but what where the Government thinking of when they sent their message of sympathy to Doenitz on Hitlers death.

They were sticking to the line of Irish neutrality and diplomatic protocol. It was controversial at the time and remains so to this day. Not all agreed with it, much as you'd like to think to fit your preconceptions.
And I am glad you've nothing against individual Irishmen who fought against tyranny. I'm sure they'll be breathing a sigh of relief too.

We headed out there today but had to jump the fence because it's closed in winter and doesn't open until April. Easy to walk around but everything's done up nice with signs and information boards. There ws a car patrolling around, so had to watch out for that and be a bit stealthy. Now that it's a proper tourist site, jumping in feels sketchy.

We have been there in septembre the 27th, a beautiful day, nog knowing what to find but minding your post and your geusts that it might be restored, ..... and yes... it is restored.... we drove on the grasfield and a kind older gentleman in a kiosk came toward us to friendly ask us not to use DSLR camera's .... so i was... dissapointed ... but i could use the small G10 he said but keep it under your coat .... why? i asked... well a phototour is possibel beut only if you pay 40 euro's ... ok understoot... there we go.. a legal and not to impressed visit .... however glad we done it.
You can find a impression of that visit on my Facebook, if you like
But all credits go to this site wich we used as a guide, as most of our Berlin Urbex journey's. So thanks! for this great site! We are already planning a new visit soon!

Regards from Ria

Hi! I will be visiting Berlin soon and I came across your website. Just a quick question, are people allowed to visit this abandoned Olympic Village? How can I reach this place? If I take a taxi, will the driver take me here? Looking forward to your answer, thanks!

Irish berliner ..can you check out you mail i have send a message and i hope you reply..

A very interesting area... and my dog ​​was very interested ;-)Very nice captures, Irish berliner! Many greetings!

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