Seelenbinder: The Olympian who defied Hitler by James McNeish (Steele Roberts, 2016), 242 pp., $34.95
The first question for any book purchaser is ‘Why should I buy this book?’ For a biography, the answer may well be ‘to learn more of some person I admire, like, despise, etc’. For a novel, it could well be because you enjoyed previous works by the author, or something in the cover illustration, title, or précis attracted your attention. Here we have a biographic novel of an individual that few will be aware of with a simple monochrome cover – enough ingredients for easy rejection. However, for those who know James McNeish, the author, and make the purchase, their trust will be amply rewarded.
The story begins with a chance encounter, decades earlier, when the author is in Germany researching the background of the enigmatic Jack Lovelock, New Zealand’s first legendary middle-distance runner who won the 1500m event in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
West Berlin was overflowing with exhibitions on a theme of resistance … We had arrived at a moment of political soul searching. What became obvious almost at once was that this awakening belonged to the young. The organizers were students and teachers. Young Berliners were asking their parents two things: One, How were the Nazis possible? Two, Why didn’t you stop them?
This is 1983, six years before the previously inconceivable fall of the Berlin wall and ‘the end of history’ (i.e. the debunking of Karl Marx’s doctrine of historical determinism). A young German documentary filmmaker speaking to McNeish mentions Werner Seelenbinder – ‘the Olympian who defied Hitler’. He has made documentaries commemorating the unsuccessful resistance of the ‘White Rose’ student opposition movement along with Von Stauffenberg and the July plotters, but not Seelenbinder. Why not? McNeish is left with vague responses – somehow, it seems the hero is tainted?
In a manner reminiscent of a Shakespearian play within a play, we move on to the story of the events leading to the writing of the story. It is now 2009, with the Berlin wall and the Cold War twenty years in the past. Starting with a clearly forged ‘Petition for Clemency’, images and reminders of Seelenbinder, the mysterious Greco-Roman Olympic wrestler, compete for the writer’s attention. We encounter the jumbled environment of invention and suppression within which the truth of his life and death must be sought. Problematically, he was a member of the German Communist Party. Accordingly, the unwritten rules of the Cold War from 1945 to 1989 dictated his role as a mythic cult hero to the East Germans, and an embarrassment best forgotten to his countrymen in the West.
McNeish gives us more than the jigsaw of his investigation. Relax and let him draw you into his world of friends and acquaintances as he captures in prose the images of his surroundings. The present intertwines with evocative images of the inter-war past, which will duly be woven into the story of Seelenbinder’s life.
There comes a turning point, when a person’s life is changed forever. A tiny voice whispers, ‘Be a devil. Go on.’ And heigh-ho we’re off. I can fix the time and date exactly, for Seelenbinder as for Lovelock. Different circumstances of course, but the moment of fear and indecision, the siren call of destiny, is the same.
Like our own childhoods, that of Werner Seelenbinder is largely mundane. The peaceful years from his birth in 1904 unexpectedly plunge into the greatest and most bloody war known to man. It will end with his mother dead and his father returning shell-shocked, leaving Werner and an elder sister to run the parents’ vegetable stall and bring up a family of five. McNeish vividly captures the chaos of postwar Germany as the country dissolves into civil war.
Yet even at the height of the revolution, while a government was being hastily formed, death squads licensed and workers who surrendered summarily lined up and shot, the trams ran regularly. The telephones worked. The stores remained open along the Frankfurter Allee as far as the Alexanderplatz, where the fate of the country was being debated in crowded cafes to the sound of machine gun fire and whistling bullets.
This is the world of Seelenbinder’s childhood. Hunger and deprivation are the norm. Death is a recurring image; from the blackened frozen corpses of the emaciated elderly, to the shattered bleeding bodies of protesters gunned down in the streets. A young friend introduces him to the bizarre and mythically ancient world of Greco-Roman wrestling. From decidedly inauspicious beginnings he progresses slowly through competence to excellence. McNeish sketches his sporting progress against a far broader canvas of the times in which it is taking place. Rumours of a dismally failed beerhall putsch will duly herald the birth of a new era, which will lead on to Germany’s glory, destruction and damnation. McNeish deftly captures the spirit of the times as Communism and National Socialism compete for the unquestioning support and membership of the same social classes. He paints the reality of a world infinitely removed from our essentially (and thankfully) bland polite politics. Communism and National Socialism are embraced by their acolytes with a fiercely religious zeal. Both ideologies expound on the primacy of the cause/state over the individual. The National Socialists (Nazis) duly overwhelm the opposition, and Hitler, the formerly obscure rabble-rouser, is embraced with a messianic zeal as the saviour of the German peoples from the years of defeat and chaos. One manifestation thereof is humorously captured when a young acquaintance of Seelenbinder unexpectedly twists and throws up her right arm in salute crying out ‘Heil Hitler’ at the climax of losing her maidenhood – keeping a vow she has sworn with her fellow ‘Hitler Mädchen’ girlfriends.
Seelinbinder is not seduced by Nazi ideology and chooses instead the idealistic but increasingly dangerous Communist opposition. After travelling to the USSR and competing at the ‘Communist Olympics’ Spartikiade of 1927 and 1928 he returns filled with glowing images of the ‘workers paradise’. He is a local hero over there and, undefeated, wins a gold medal plus the award of the Red Star in the Lenin Palace. Those who would decry his failure to realise he was being taken in by Stalin’s well-staged propaganda exercise should factor in the erstwhile George Bernard Shaw having been similarly deceived. Nothing is simple. Yesterday’s hero Trotsky – the victorious leader of the Red armies over the White Russian Czarist opposition – is today’s counter-revolutionary villain. True believers must no longer speak his name.
Back in Germany, the Nazis have closed down all the workers’ sports clubs, replacing them with party-oriented equivalents. There are harsh consequences for the Spartikiade participants – all clubs and individuals attending are expelled from the National Sports Federation. They respond by going underground and stealthily merging with non-proscribed clubs. Personal anecdotes from surviving acquaintances continue to fill in the details of Seelenbinder’s character. He is a great fan of the writings of Jack London, and identifies with the central character of Call of the Wild, seeing parallels with his own situation. His career is subsequently rescued by his communist mentor getting him into an approved club. Triumphantly returning from obscurity, he wins the 1933 national wrestling championship. However, upon receiving the trophy, he fails to join in the obligatory Nazi salute. The negative reaction of the news media is swiftly followed by arrest and jail. Fortunately his sporting reputation seems to have given him a degree of protection and he is duly released less damaged than expected.
This reputation will ensure his final inclusion in the German Olympic team, after fellow athletes refuse to train until he is included. It also gets him revolutionary (and successful) treatment for a damaged knee at a clinic reserved for top Nazis. The pioneering sports medicine specialist will later be hanged for war crimes and crimes against humanity, but I will let McNeish tell that twisted tale, including the involvement of the brutal Reinhard Heydrich who was also a member of the German Olympic Committee.
Halfway through the book we enter what appears to be the endgame. While competing in Sweden, Seelenbinder is asked by Communist associates to denounce Hitler’s war-making plans to the world media while on the Olympic victory dais. No consideration appears to have been given to his safety immediately afterwards. He agrees to consider the proposal. And so – on to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
Does anyone remember the ’36 Olympics? Today, when the queering of sport by politics or money or doping is the norm rather than the exception, it is hard to imagine anyone being taken in by Hitler’s Games, the biggest fraud in the history of organized sport. Yet taken in they were, the throngs of illustrious visitors who arrived in Berlin for the Olympic fortnight. Discovering ‘a limitless prodigality’ in ‘the most law-abiding and quietest capital in Europe’ they were moved to ecstasy, won over by a massive confidence trick which sealed the triumph of Adolph Hitler and masked his preparation for war.
Seelenbinder’s time at the games is captured in finely drawn detail. Lyrical evocations of running through the forested training areas are counterpointed by the pervasive fear of betrayal and contemplation of the poisoned chalice implicit in the successful performance of his planned role. Deliverance finally arrives in the form of his failure to win even the bronze medal. We are given the most plausible possible reasons therefor, and left to decide for ourselves. Such is the reality of life.
The following six years are hardly an anticlimax. While continuing to compete, Seelenbinder works as a courier along with other resistance activities. McNeish captures the ever-present fear of betrayal and arrest along with vignettes of happier times shared with those close to him. We know his arrest is inevitable, and so does he. His trial will be a farce, and his fate unthinkable. If he succumbs to the brutality of his interrogators, his friends will die. He is arrested, convicted and tortured, but remains silent. There is far more, but I will let the author tell his story.
It is humbling when one sits back to evaluate the level of involvement and research McNeish has invested in producing this eloquent tribute to the lives of ordinary individuals swept up in extraordinary times. Seelenbinder the myth is now Seelenbinder the man, stripped of exaggeration and invention on the one hand, and rescued from politically imposed obscurity on the other. I can but echo the praises quoted on the book’s rear cover.
BRIAN CLEARKIN is a writer and reviewer who lives on the Coromandel.