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Pope to hold Mass in Berlin’s ‘Hitler’s Stadium’

/ 04:56 PM September 22, 2011

BERLIN—Berlin’s Olympic Stadium where Pope Benedict XVI will hold a giant Mass Thursday is steeped in history, from the 1936 Games showcasing Hitler’s dreams of racial supremacy to the 2006 World Cup final.

German-born Benedict’s sermon is set to be one of the high points of his four-day trip, his first state visit to his homeland, but the ghosts of his country’s Nazi past will hang heavily in the air.

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The stadium was built for the 1936 games, famous for the performance of black American sprinter Jesse Owens, who made a mockery of Nazi master race theories by winning gold in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and the long jump.

Designed by Werner March, advised by Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, it remains an imposing example of Nazi architecture, with vast gray towers and a neo-classical aspect.

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The stadium survived the Allies’ intense bombardment of Berlin practically intact, and once Germany surrendered in 1945 it became the headquarters for British troops.

Its name was changed from the Reichssportfeld to the Olympiastadion and it was gradually stripped of all signs of the Nazi regime including giant swastikas and “Aryan” statues.

The stadium, around 11 kilometers (seven miles) west of the Brandenburg Gate in the heart of Berlin, underwent a 240-million-euro ($328 million) overhaul for the 2006 football World Cup in Germany.

The refurbished arena reopened in 2004 with a spectacular new roof, improved stands and a distinctive blue running track, on which Jamaica’s Usain Bolt would five years later smash both 100m and 200m world records.

The Olympic Stadium now plays an important role in the cultural and sporting life of the city. It is home to the capital’s only Bundesliga football team, Hertha Berlin, and often plays host when the German national side plays.

It was the venue for the World Cup final between Italy and France, won by the Italians on penalties and made famous by French star Zinedine Zidane’s sending off after a brutal headbutt on Italian defender Marco Materazzi.

The stadium has also been used for concerts by the likes of U2, the Rolling Stones and Robbie Williams.

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Nor will the pope’s Mass be the first religious ceremony held within its vast stands. A week after hosting the World Cup final, some 25,000 gathered for a 10-hour-long Christian festival.

And in July, around 20,000 yoga fans braved persistent rain to take part in a huge festival organized by one of India’s best-known gurus, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

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TAGS: Benedict XVI, Berlin, Germany, mass, Pope
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