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The Olympic Torch Relay's Nazi Origin

04/14/2008 06:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As this year's Olympic torch wends its way across the globe on its journey to Beijing, it has attracted protestors of the Chinese government's actions in Tibet, Darfur, and on human rights in general.

Some decry this "politicization" of the torch relay. "It's all about the sports, and it has never been about the politics," they say. But this ignores the historic origins of the torch relay itself. Read the following statement on the Olympic torch and see if you agree with it:

"The sportive, knightly battle awakens the best human characteristics. It doesn't separate, but unites the combatants in understanding and respect. It also helps to connect the countries in the spirit of peace. That's why the Olympic Flame should never die."

It sounds pretty good, on the face of it. The only problem is that the speaker was Adolf Hitler.

The 1936 Olympics were a showcase of the Nazi government to the rest of the world. The propaganda value of the games was a centerpiece of Nazi planning. Leni Riefenstahl filmed the whole thing (including the torch relay) and released a film called "Olympia" to spotlight the games for the world to see. This film is often given as the textbook example of propaganda in filmmaking (although sometimes other Riefenstahl films are given this honor).

The 1936 Olympics were used as a political tool by the new Nazi regime to present themselves on the world's stage. The propaganda value of legitimizing their government was immense, and they took full advantage of it.

The previous Olympiad, in the Netherlands, had introduced the "Olympic Flame" as a symbol of the games. But in 1936, Hitler went further with the concept, and staged a relay which kindled the flame in Greece and then shuttled it through European countries such as Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, on its way to Berlin. The route itself was political. From a recent BBC story, which draws the obvious parallels between 1936 and 2008:

The route the torch takes has always been a matter of careful political planning too.

This year's route has already proved highly controversial.

Beijing wanted to take the torch through Taiwan's capital, Taipei, but this had to be changed by Olympic authorities due to political tensions between the Chinese and Taiwanese leaders.

And there is now great tension over plans to run the torch through Tibet after recent disturbances there.

In 1936 the torch made its way from Greece to Berlin through countries in south-eastern and central Europe where the Nazis were especially keen to enhance their influence.

Given what happened a few years later that route seems especially poignant now.

. . .

Yet the flame's arrival in Vienna prompted major pro-Nazi demonstrations, helping pave the way for the Anschluss, or annexation of Austria, in 1938.

In Hungary gypsy musicians who serenaded the flame faced within a few years deportation to Nazi death camps.

Other countries on the relay route like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia would soon be invaded by Germans equipped not with Krupp torches but with Krupp munitions.

Further parallel from then to today: a boycott of the games (as a political statement) was widely discussed in the United States prior to the games. In the end, the United States did not boycott the event, and Jesse Owens beat some Aryans to win four gold medals (much to the Nazis' displeasure).

So some good can come, even from a flawed Olympics. Riefenstahl, for instance, not only pioneered movie propaganda, she also pioneered how cameras shoot sporting events -- techniques which are still widely used today. Should we object to camera angles and technical knowledge just because a Nazi propagandist came up with them? Riefenstahl has been imitated so many times it is impossible to count them all -- from sporting event camerawork to the closing scene of the original Star Wars movie, which George Lucas obviously "borrowed" from Riefenstahl's movie Triumph of the Will (which documented Hitler's Nuremberg rallies).

So sometimes Nazi origins can be overcome. Sometimes something good and clean can be saved from such infamous beginnings. Sometimes you can save the baby when throwing out the foul Nazi bathwater.

The Olympic torch relay has successfully divorced itself from its ignoble past. Almost nobody watches the torch relay today and thinks "Nazi propaganda." I respect the entire range of opinion on this year's torch relay, from the protestors who try to douse it as it runs by, to the people who say it should not be linked to China's government, and just be taken on face value.

But please, don't try to argue that people are "making it about politics" -- or some sort of ghastly thing which has never been done before. Because the torch relay itself was born in evil politics. The entire concept was conceived as politics and propaganda. And there is more than a little evidence that China is attempting to use it as a political event this year as well. Meaning protesting it publicly is just a reaction to the politics of the event.

So argue your case either way, by all means. But don't try to pretend that this is sullying some pure tradition in a way it has never before been sullied. Because this particular tradition began in shame, and not in purity.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com

 

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