The torch that Hitler lit

Posted by admin on Oct 23rd, 2009

John Allemang, The Globe and Mail Posted Friday, October 23, 2009

For the ancient Greeks, fire was a potent symbol of purity. In the modern world, where antique pagan symbols generally don’t have much staying power, the flame still has the ability to purify: Witness the Olympic torch relay, now making its patient, painstaking way from the ruined temples of ancient Greece to the stunning Winter Games facilities of Vancouver 2010. The torch relay represents the Olympics’ human side, the part that retains faith in the uncorrupted virtues global sport is meant to bring together every two years.

Through the hand-to-hand transmission of the eternal flame between both ordinary and extraordinary people, Games organizers ask us to see peace and friendship, hope and understanding, personal contact with the Olympic movement’s universal values and an unbroken continuity with the sporting purity of the ancient Greeks.

So, please, don’t mention the Nazis.

The torch relay in all its elaborate rituals and feel-good sponsorship opportunities turns out to be a creation of the people who are the byword for modern evil. Without the propaganda artists who staged the 1936 Berlin Olympics in all its triumphant glory, lovingly recorded in Leni Riefenstahl’s mesmerizing documentary film Olympia, we wouldn’t have the government-supported cross-country relay that is bringing the flame to Vancouver.

“The torch relay is a total fabrication,” says Ira B. Nadel of the University of British Columbia, who has studied the techniques Riefenstahl used to aestheticize the Nazi cause. “The Germans invented it for the 1936 Olympics. There was nothing like it in the ancient Olympics.”

You don’t need to know the details of German history to be skeptical of the idealistic claims made for the modern torch relay. As recently as 2008, the organizers of the Beijing Games showed how easily the Olympic ceremonials could be used to bolster the aspirations of an autocratic state by controversially routing the relay through Tibet and taking the ever-burning flame to the summit of Mount Everest.

Yet somehow the torch relay’s occasional missteps are seen as rare aberrations in a more comforting history that links the Glory that was Greece with Canada’s “Own the Podium” exuberance over Vancouver 2010. So what happens if the ancient connections for the relay turn out to be high-minded Germanic nonsense and this country’s contemporary contribution to torch-relay history – which comes complete with aboriginal flame attendants and honorary elder fire-keepers – is based on a myth?

“Giving everybody a chance to participate and a piece of the glory just wasn’t the Greek way of doing things,” says Mark Golden of the University of Winnipeg, a specialist in ancient sport. “They honoured one person, the winner. There was no silver or bronze medal or ribbons given out just for showing up and taking part.”

The ancient Olympics, Prof. Golden notes, could be ruthless, bloody and highly professionalized. The lens through which the 19th-century creators of the modern Games viewed the ancient world was highly distorting – the ancient ideals of peace and brotherhood and idealistic amateurism were just the figments of their dreamy imaginations.

They saw the Olympics as a cure for the wars and revolutions that had carved up Europe, a way of using the energetic beauty of sport to harmonize the increasingly fractious world.

So completely did they project their battle-weary anxieties onto the past that they decided the ancient Olympics actually possessed the power to halt war and create a period of truce – a false belief that persists to this day, and results in numerous hopeful United Nations resolutions that have minimal effect on the human capacity for belligerence.

A touch of classicism
The torch relay has now become the enduring symbol of the supposed Olympic truce – representing the proclamation of Olympic values to the wider world and the free passage granted to those who carry the flame in peace. But the Nazis, as always, saw things differently, and to their advantage.

“The torch relay symbolized the alleged connection between modern Germany and ancient Greece,” says David Clay Large of Montana State University, author of Nazi Games, a history of the Berlin Olympics.

There were no torch relays before Berlin. Ancient Olympia had no need for a relay since it was the perpetual host of the supreme Greek competitions – when it came to fire and flame, the most significant event at Olympia was not a torch race but the sacrificial slaughter of 100 oxen on the altar of Zeus, a practice that has so far failed to catch on among modern re-creationists.

Still, the elemental power of ancient fire was undeniable, and so the Amsterdam Games of 1928 introduced the flaming cauldron that has now become a standard watchful presence in the main stadium as the sort of portentous, quasi-religious symbol Olympic supporters adore.

(This helps explain why the Nazis’ torch innovation was reincorporated so easily into Olympic tradition after the war – at the 1948 London Games, where it was conveniently rebranded as the Relay of Peace.)

According to recent research by Bob Barney of the University of Western Ontario’s International Centre for Olympic Studies, the mystical flame has its origins not in glorious Greece but in the rites of Freemasonry, and its belief in the regenerative power of fire.

“Jan Wils, the architect of the Amsterdam stadium, was looking for inspiration,” Prof. Barney says. “And so he turned to his lifelong infatuation with the Masonic order.”

This innovation may have caught the attention of the Berlin organizers and prompted their own invention. But first they had to surmount a political difficulty: When the International Olympic Committee in 1931 awarded the forthcoming Olympics to Germany, Adolf Hitler was not yet in power and the IOC’s plan was that holding the Games in Berlin would be a way of restoring Germany to the peaceful-nations club.

Hitler’s forceful takeover of his country in 1933 seemed to change everything, both from the world-peace perspective and from the narrower vantage point of the Olympic organizers, who knew of his opposition to the global games he considered degenerate – he had even dismissed the internationalist, cosmopolitan Olympic movement as “an invention of Jews and Freemasons.”

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief, was much more the Olympic opportunist: He realized that the Games were a gift to the Nazis, a chance to show the regime’s best face to the world and present itself as highly modern yet rooted in the best ancient values, technologically sophisticated but aesthetically sensitive, physically dynamic and highly regimented to be sure, but in the service more of peaceful competition than of the bloody conflicts of war.

The ambiguous values of the ancient Greeks served this strategy well. Liberal-minded classicists viewed the Greeks as the founders of democracy, the free-thinking yet religiously observant citizens who could set aside their differences for a spirited athletic competition in a holy place. The Nazis admired the Greeks as well, but for different reasons.

“They loved the idea of the Greeks as conquerors, as a warrior culture,” Prof. Large says. Not for the last time, the broad Olympic ideals left themselves a little too open to interpretation.

Marking territory
The relay was a key to the Nazi plan in 1936: As put into practice by German sports mastermind Carl Diem, it connected a 3,000-kilometre line between the ancient home of the Games at the religious sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia, Greece, and the massive Olympic stadium in Berlin where Hitler presided in his storm-trooper garb.

In a fabricated ceremony much like the one used this week to launch the Vancouver-bound torch, the pure flame was kindled by a faux priestess using nothing more than the rays of the sun and a parabolic mirror designed by the German optical-instrument firm Zeiss.

More than 3,000 male runners – most of them fit, young athletes, with the occasional paunchy dignitary added for the now-familiar corporate reasons – took turns carrying a high-tech magnesium torch specially designed by the arms manufacturer Krupp to withstand the worst nature could offer.

Their route looks suspiciously like a plan for later Nazi domination, as it wound its way through Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria and Czechoslovakia and finally into Germany over a mere 11 days.

“They were rehearsing the nazification of Europe and ceremonially visualizing what a new Europe might look like,” says John Hoberman, a professor of Germanic studies at the University of Texas and author of The Olympic Crisis: Sport, Politics and the Moral Order. “Their goal was to leave behind a certain inspired fraction of the population who would act out a form of submission to Nazi rule.”

For the apolitical classicists in the Olympic movement, the fire of the torch relay ultimately represents the flame that Prometheus stole from the gods and gave to humankind – the beginning of civilization, in mythic terms. But to see the torch as a Nazi symbol is hardly fanciful.

“The Nazis had a real fascination with torch marches,” Prof. Large says. “On the first night they came to power, they held a torch march through Berlin. To them, it suggested imperial power, in the style of ancient Rome. But there’s another aspect too: The fire that lights up the night is a show of strength and intimidation. Fire is a part of the Nazi aesthetic – they could have had a relay without fire, if they’d wanted to.”

Radio crews supplied live coverage, patriotically beamed back to Berlin, and folkloric festivities were held along the way to mark the passage of the torch. But even then the political side of the relay was clear enough to arouse both pro-Nazi and anti-Hitler demonstrations, culminating in a massive brawl when the torch arrived in Vienna.

Yet by the time the flame reached Berlin, where it was paraded along a boulevard of Nazi banners and watched over by thousands of German soldiers and teams of Hitler Youth, its triumph was complete, from the German point of view.

As the last runner of the torch relay was making his way to the stadium, Olympic organizer Theodor Lewald addressed a crowd of about 5,000 athletes and 100,000 spectators from around the world with some choice racial-purity propaganda.

“In a few minutes,” he said, “the torch bearer will appear to light the Olympic fire on his tripod, when it will rise, flaming to heaven, for the weeks of the festival. It creates a real and spiritual bond of fire between our German fatherland and the sacred places of Greece founded nearly 4,000 years ago by Nordic immigrants.” Hitler, sitting in the stadium’s place of honour, couldn’t have been happier.

All lit up
That speech sounds like complete lunacy now, but it was the kind of pseudo-intellectual, kinship belief that underpinned and justified Nazi aggression.

At a more realistic historical level, the Germans well before Hitler were passionate supporters of the Greek fight for independence in the 19th century and, as avid classical archeologists, were the excavators of ancient Olympia – the relay simply connected the dots. And the royal family that the European powers imposed on Greece when it achieved nationhood was in fact Bavarian.

So there was a link on many fronts that fed the aspirations of the torch-relay enthusiasts. In Riefenstahl’s Olympia, made with Hitler’s enthusiastic support and first shown on his birthday in 1938, the real and symbolic bond of fire becomes the dominant theme.

Interestingly, the film spends little time on the everyday details of the torch relay – the race’s dramatic significance lies more in connecting peaceful, observant Greece as quickly and directly as possible with the power brokers in Berlin, the new guardians of the potent Olympic flame. If the Fuhrer had had his way, we now know, a victorious Germany would have served as the Games’ permanent home.

Thanks to Riefenstahl’s artistic collaboration with Hitler, we can better appreciate the staginess of everyone involved in prewar Berlin.

“The line between actuality and symbolism blurs,” Prof. Nadel says. “For all the abstractedness of the filmmaking and the poeticizing of the athletes, in so many places what you’re seeing is not the Olympic Games but the enactment of the Nazi rituals – the massing of the people, the group behaviour of the crowd, the powerful images of Hitler and then the arrival of the torch.

“It’s all there, and yet even as you watch, you’re not conscious of the switch.”

Nor are we, many Olympics later, as the fire that illuminated Hitler moves on to its next stop.

– John Allemang is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

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