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This week in History July 29, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Olympic Games.

Nazis hold First Olympic Torch Relay > On 20 July 1936, the Olympic Flame was first kindled at Olympia, Greece. The High Priestess Koula Pratsika lit the torch of the first bearer Kostas Kondylis. The flame reached Berlin 11 days later after passing through the hand of 3,840 torch-bearers.

first_olympic_torch_relay.jpg  It was not the first time that fire was used to “illuminate” the modern Olympics. In fact, in the 1928 Olympics Dutch architect Jan Wils had included a tower in designing the Stadium and decided to have a fire burn throughout the Games. Therefore, on 28 July 1928 an employee of the Amsterdam Electricity Board lit the first Olympic flame in the “Marathontower”. For the residents of Amsterdam the tower became known as the “KLM Ashtray”.

But the first torch relay was the inspiration of Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s Minister of Propaganda. The Olympics had been awarded to Germany before Hitler came to power, but the Games were cut to measure for the Nazi propaganda machine.

A year before the Olympics, in August 1935, the Greek conservative newspaper “Estia” carried a full-page article entitled “Olympic Flame: An Excellent Idea by Dr Goebbels”. History has fudged this. Due to a reluctance to remember Goebbels as the father of the flame, the authorship of the inspiration was sought in the person of Carl Diem, a senior officer of the German Olympic Movement.

The website of the Greek Olympic Committee states: The lighting of the Olympic Flame and the torch relay were originally held in 1936 on the occasion of the Berlin Olympic Games. Conceived by German academic and National Olympic Committee member Dr Carl Diem, these ceremonial events were submitted by the same man to the Organising Committee for the XI Olympic Games for approval and subsequently adopted. The IOC’s site is even more Spartan in its description.

At the Olympic Museum at Olympia, a special place is afforded for the memorabilia of those Games and special honour is paid to Diem as the inspirer of the torch relay, naming him an “Olympian” professor.

But it comes as a surprise that the flame and the torch-bearing ceremony are no longer seen as part of Nazi propaganda. At the time, the French newspaper “Paris Soir” characterised the Berlin Olympics as a “religious ceremony”. As Greek historian Ioannis Loukas notes: “This whole relay… of the ‘holy flame’ had tremendous significance for German propaganda that had presented the Olympics as a ‘war confrontation’ … The Olympic Flame swept through Germany in national-socialist popular frenzy, suitably organised by Goebbel’s Reichsportsfuhrer Tschammer und Osten, youth organisations, sports clubs and the SS.”

It was Helene Bertha Amalie “Leni” Riefenstahl, the Third Reich’s official filmmaker, who undertook to realise the ideas of Goebbels and Diem, under close supervision of the Propaganda Ministry at that time. Riefenstahl guided the ‘priestesses’ through their paces on 20 July 1936. Another small detail: the torch seen carried in the above photo, was a gift from munitions and armaments manufacturer Krupp, while the reflector was made by the Zeiss optics firm.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics, had said on the occasion of the closing ceremonies of the 1936 Olympics: “Keep the holy flame alight… The memories of courage will remain unextinguished, since courage was necessary to face the difficulties that the Fuhrer had countered with the slogan Wir Wollen Baueun (We want to build)… Let the German people and its leader be blessed, for the things that were just realised.”

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