The authorities are closing in on Trump, but the story of the week for me was Hitler's oak. It put me in mind of WH Auden, and it's always good to be put in mind of Auden. No one wrote better of tyrants and empires. But let me begin at the beginning.

In 1936, when the Luftwaffe were rehearsing for the World War II by bombing Spanish peasants, Hitler was using the Berlin Olympics for propaganda. All Olympics are propaganda in one way or another, but Hitler went at it with especial vigour. He more or less invented PR.

He had Jews banned from competing, he made all he could of German victories, and he famously resented the success of Jesse Owens, who was all too conspicuously black. At the same time Hitler had a film made of the games by Leni Riefenstahl, a brilliant and beautiful piece of propaganda that showed just how potent the moving image could be. Even in 1960 it was voted by film-makers as one of the 10 best films of all time.

John "Jack" Edward Lovelock won the 1500 metres event at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Photo/Getty Images

Today we look at those games through the lens of history because we know how it all turned out. But would we at the time have seen Hitler for what he was? I doubt that I would, but Auden did. And I'll come to him by and by.


Every gold medallist in Berlin was given a baby oak tree. Most went to Germans. for it is an interesting truth that the medal table at every Olympics, without exception, is topped by the country with the biggest military. (Throughout my lifetime that has been the USA. But ooh how the Chinese are climbing the table.)

The German gold medallists planted their oaks in and around Berlin. No records were kept so even if the trees survived the war, nobody can identify them.

Of the other Hitler oaks around the world only a few still live. Some succumbed to disease. Rather more succumbed to superstition, having been ripped from the ground and burned during the war because they were morally contaminated by association. It makes no sense of course, but superstition never did.

Only one tree came to New Zealand and it came with Jack Lovelock who had won the 1500m in 3 minutes 47 seconds, which, by an extraordinary coincidence, is my personal best time for the 800m.

Lovelock donated the tree to the school he attended, Timaru Boys High, where it was planted and tended and where it still grows. (It has comfortably outlived Lovelock who sadly fell to his death in front of a New York subway train in 1949.)

The tree's become something of a local totem. Every year the winner of the Lovelock Classic race in Timaru wins a trophy made from its wood. And every time a rector's portrait is added to the Timaru Boys High hall, the frame is made from its wood. And thus the tree in a mere 80 years has transcended its origins and shrugged off its associations. And it is this that has put me in mind of Auden.

Auden was formed by the 1930s. He acted as a stretcher bearer in the Spanish Civil War and bore witness to the cruelties of fascism. But though he wrote some of the most memorable verse ever about the rise of tyranny, as he himself observed, "poetry makes nothing happen". Tyranny still rose.

But in Auden's work there is something that dwarfs all tyrannies. It is the belittling natural world, that rolls on regardless of human affairs. In 1940, when Hitler looked unstoppable, Auden wrote The Fall of Rome. Here's the first verse

US President Donald Trump during a White House event on April 12 in Washington, DC. Trump screams and crumbles, but the Timaru oak keeps growing, writes columnist Joe Bennett. Photo/Getty Images
US President Donald Trump during a White House event on April 12 in Washington, DC. Trump screams and crumbles, but the Timaru oak keeps growing, writes columnist Joe Bennett. Photo/Getty Images

The piers are pummelled by the waves;

In a lonely field the rain

Lashes an abandoned train;

Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

It suggests the collapse that awaits all human civilisations. The next verse offers a series of fresh and startling images of decline

Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

And it concludes with two of the best stanzas in the English language. They imply the endurance of the natural world when all human folly, all human power has crumbled, the indifference of birds and deer to everything we do. Hitler kills himself, Trump screams and crumbles, but the Timaru oak keeps growing and

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.