On Friday, June 9, 1939, meeting in London, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to award the 1940 Winter Olympics to Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
When I discovered this, I could scarcely believe my eyes.
This was June 1939. This was 84 days before the German invasion of Poland.
Still more dumbfoundingly, it was 15 months after the start of the German invasion of Austria in March 1938. It was seven months after Kristallnacht. It was less than three months after German troops invaded the bits of Czechoslovakia they did not already control, enabling Adolf Hitler to sleep a night in Hradčany Castle. It was a mere 18 days after Germany had signed its "Pact of Steel" military alliance with Mussolini’s Italy.
What can have possessed these supposedly perspicacious gentlemen of sport to entrust their glittering event at this moment to a country ruled by a man now seen as perhaps the leading exemplar of evil incarnate in human history?
It is my attempt to fathom this that has led to this article, approaching the 80th anniversary of what must rank as the most appalling decision taken by the IOC in its 125-year existence.
I scarcely think mitigation is possible when faced with such an abject failure of judgment, but if there are mitigating factors, they fall under two main headings.
Neville Chamberlain was still British Prime Minister, some eight months after his now-infamous trip to Munich. Appeasement had yet to be definitively abandoned and not just in the United Kingdom.
On June 8, the day before the 1940 Winter Games decision, Lord Halifax, British Foreign Secretary, told the House of Lords - as detailed in an excellent new book by Tim Bouverie, Appeasing Hitler - that Britain had not "abandoned all desire to reach an understanding with Germany".
This was on a day on which IOC members sandwiched a business meeting in the Adams Suite of the Dorchester Hotel with trips first to Whitehall, to attend the traditional parade in honour of the King’s birthday, and then Wembley for "an extensive programme of ice skating and hockey".
Halifax subsequently presided over the Session’s closing banquet in the Foreign Office.
Had it not been for the unique awfulness of the man in charge at the Reich Chancellery, it is possible to comprehend why policymakers in the mid to late 1930s would have felt it worth going many extra miles to avoid a conflict that would inevitably devastate large tracts of the world and imperil inhabitants of many great cities.
Memories of the horrors of the First World War, along with friends and family members who had perished, were still fresh.
The fear of still relatively new-fangled aerial warfare and its devastating impact on civilians, as demonstrated by the 1937 attack on Guernica, was vivid and intense.
There was a degree of acknowledgement that the Treaty of Versailles, which brought the First World War formally to an end, had gone too far in punishing Germany.
Hitler was both utterly unscrupulous and capable of charming interlocutors. At least prior to the seizure of Bohemia and Moravia, and for some evidently even after that, it was just about possible to believe that the Führer’s land-lust might be satisfied after bringing all German-speaking enclaves into the Reich.
Even if war was inevitable, its postponement was enabling Britain to mobilise and re-arm.
B) Olympic specifics
Even 80 years ago, it was far from normal for an Olympic Games host to be designated well under a year before the event.
Indeed, Sapporo, the original choice for these 1940 Winter Games, had been selected in 1937. That same year, though, the Sino-Japanese war broke out. This led eventually to a change of host city to St Moritz, which had staged the 1928 Winter Olympics.
At this point, not for the first or last time in Olympic history, a stand-off over amateurism contrived to muddy the waters.
As journalist-cum-historian David Miller explains in his Official History of the Olympic Games and the IOC: "The decision regarding St Moritz was complicated by the refusal of the International Ski Federation (FIS), backed by the Swiss, to compete in Alpine events because of the IOC’s refusal to admit skiing instructors as amateurs."
As IOC members assembled on Park Lane, this stand-off had still to be resolved, while the need to get the next Winter Games location settled once and for all was becoming extremely pressing.
The pall that the threat of war was casting over day-to-day life in Europe at this time is evident in a passage from IOC President Comte Henri de Baillet-Latour’s speech at the official opening of the Session in St James’s Palace.
"It is my sincere wish that [the 1940 Games] may mark the dawn of an era of peace," he said. "Otherwise, we shall be compelled to observe every trace of our civilisation disappear under a heap of ruins and the flower of our youth perish in the turmoil."
The first time that the problem of St Moritz crops up in the account of the meeting published in the Olympic Review was late in proceedings on 6 June - a day that, according to The Times, had started in London with an air-raid-warning test.
It was decided that, since the Swiss NOC had admitted its "inability" to carry out the programme it had accepted, the Games would be transferred to another country.
First, though, a telegram giving the Swiss the "possibility of modifying" their attitude was despatched.
This read: "The IOC insists that the skiing demonstrations be retained in the programme, otherwise the Games of 1940 will be transferred elsewhere. Please inform me before Thursday noon [June 8] whether the Swiss Olympic Committee has altered its decision."
Next morning, June 7, members discussed which cities it would be possible to transfer the 1940 Winter Olympics to. "The possibilities of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Montreal and Lake Placid were considered in this order," the report drily notes.
While awaiting a reply to their telegrammed ultimatum, a number of further wrinkles were ironed out by the Session. It was decided that the number of competitors in both two-man and four-man bob events would remain unchanged.
Members also voted 16-11 in favour of inclusion on the sports programme of skating races for women.
While women’s speed skating had been a demonstration sport in the 1932 Winter Games at Lake Placid, it was only ultimately admitted to the full programme in 1960.
After the deadline on June 8 passed, a second telegram was sent: "The IOC must know by Friday morning [June 9] whether you are willing to include skiing demonstrations in the programme of the Games of 1940. Baillet-Latour Dorchester Hotel London."
It was at this point that de Baillet-Latour appears to have attempted to bring a certain amount of pressure to bear.
After it was disclosed that Lausanne Mayor Jules-Henri Addor had telephoned the Swiss to "correct" the "mistaken belief" that they could alter the programme "at will", the IOC President thanked him before calling attention to the "unpleasant results which might accrue to Lausanne as a result of the attitude of the Swiss Olympic Committee".
Lausanne, he went on to point out, was among applicant cities for the 1944 Summer Games, whose host was also scheduled to be chosen during the Session. The field was a strong one, also including Detroit, Chicago, Montreal, London and Rome. In addition, Athens and Budapest withdrew their bids in the course of the London meeting.
Later, a telegram was received from the Swiss NOC President, but "it did not constitute a clear reply".
The day’s proceedings finished with the awarding of two Olympic diplomas: one to a French weightlifter, Louis Hostin, who had turned down "a cash prize" so as to safeguard his amateur status; the other, "on the motion of Mr [Avery] Brundage”, the future IOC President, to Fräulein Leni Riefenstahl, for her film, The Olympic Games of 1936, which "must be regarded as the outstanding work in the field of sport photography and as an important contribution to the Olympic cause".
Friday afternoon, June 9, and "Mr Fearnley” - doubtless Thomas Fearnley, who had been IOC member for Norway since 1927 - presented motions for a) omission of the 1940 Winter Games, and b) postponement of selection of the host of the 1944 Winter Olympics until the 1940 Session. Both were rejected by 27 votes to two.
By this time, another telegram had come in from Switzerland, this one crystal clear. It stated: "For already announced reasons, the Swiss Olympic Committee cannot include ski demonstrations in the programme of the Winter Games of 1940."
The following resolution was then passed "by unanimous vote": "The Swiss Olympic Committee, having informed the IOC that they find it impossible to organise the Vth Olympic Winter Games 1940 in conformity with the programme which it had agreed to execute, the IOC finds itself obliged to confide the Winter Games to another municipality."
But which one?
In spite of the earlier consideration of the North American pair Montreal and Lake Placid, in the end the IOC decided it had only one genuine option.
"After a careful study of the possibilities of organising the Winter Games in a period of eight months," the account of the meeting states, "it took into consideration all the offers which were made and recognised that Garmisch-Partenkirchen…was alone in a position to undertake the responsibility of the organisation.
"The IOC has therefore charged its German delegates to organise at Garmisch-Partenkirchen the Vth Olympic Winter Games 1940.
"The commission was accepted."
In purely technical terms, one can understand why these villages south of Munich, near Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain, were deemed the only option feasible for stepping into the breach at such short notice. They had, after all, hosted the previous Winter Olympics in 1936, where Norway’s Sonja Henie won her third consecutive figure skating title.
As German sports official Carl Diem wrote in the Olympic Review, "the Olympic facilities in Garmisch were ready for immediate usage and an experienced organising staff could be easily reassembled".
In other respects, the decision quite simply beggars belief.
As Miller puts it: "It defies belief that de Baillet-Latour and his colleagues should have thought it suitable to return without question to Garmisch in spite of Germany’s recent seizure of Bohemia and Moravia."
For me, the episode highlights with the most garish neon glare how even the most distinguished of groupings can commit really shocking blunders.
Of course, war on Hitler was ultimately declared, so the third Nazi Olympics did not take place. Nor did either of the planned 1944 events.
The London Session did not exactly cover itself in glory there either, awarding the 1944 Winter Olympics to Cortina d’Ampezzo in Mussolini’s Italy. The resort in the Dolomites beat Montreal by 16 votes to 12 in a run-off, after Oslo had been eliminated.
The 1944 Summer Games went more convincingly to Session, and eventual 1948 Olympic Games, host London. The United Kingdom capital saw off Rome, its closest rival, by a margin of nine, 20-11. Lausanne amassed one solitary vote.