The Nazi Origins of the Olympic Flame Relay

Though dressed up as an ancient Greek tradition, the torch relay ceremony was originally designed to further Hitler's nationalist propaganda.

mftorch may10 p.jpg
Nazi soldiers salute to greet the arrival of the Olympic torch and commencement of the 1936 games. / AP

Adolf Hitler hadn't wanted to host the Olympics. They were "an invention of Jews and Freemasons," he'd said, a celebration of the internationalism and multiculturalism he loathed. But he loved propaganda, the lavish shows of German power and prestige, and by 1934 Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels had convinced him of the Olympics' value in the greater Nazi mission. "German sport has only one task: to strengthen the character of the German people, imbuing it with the fighting spirit and steadfast camaraderie necessary in the struggle for its existence," Goebbels said in April 1933.

The 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics were to be, according to Arnd Krüger and William J. Murray's history of "The Nazi Games," a means of furthering Hitler's ethnic and nationalist messages, a tool of Nazi soft power. Few aspects of the bizarre and highly political '36 games exemplified Hitler's propaganda mission better than the Olympic torch relay and ceremony. Though propagandists portrayed the torch relay as ancient tradition stretching back to the original Greek competitions, the event was in fact a Nazi invention, one typical of the Reich's love of flashy ceremonies and historical allusions to the old empires. And it's a tradition we still continue today, with this morning's lighting of the flame in Olympia, the birthplace of the original games circa 776 B.C., from which it will be carried by a series of relay runners to the site of the games, in this case London.

Though Goebbels and Hitler both seemed to have loved the idea of the torch relay, it wasn't their idea. A man named Carl Diem, the secretary general of the organizing committee of the Berlin games, proposed it, inspired by the torch that had burned over the 1928 games in Amsterdam. Though an official in the Nazi government, Diem was a sport administrator first. After his years-long campaign to hold the Olympics in Germany had finally trickled up to the top of the government, he had lobbied, though unsuccessfully, to more freely allow German Jews to participate in the Olympics. So it's tough to blame Diem entirely for the Nazi propaganda piece that his torch relay became.

Whether or not Diem meant it to, a torch relay fit neatly within Nazi propaganda. Beginning the relay in Greece and ending it roughly 1,500 miles away in Berlin reinforced the idea of a shared Aryan heritage between the ancient power and the new one. It also hinted at Hitler's idea of a natural, civilizational progression from the Greek Empire to the Roman to the German. And the route happened to go through Czechoslovakia, where the stream of Nazi propaganda that surrounded it inspired some members of the ethnic German minority to clash with member of the Czech majority. Two years later, Hitler would invade and occupy part of Czechoslovakia, where he claimed the German minority was at risk.

Hitler found yet more ways to engineer the torch relay as Nazi propaganda. The head of the Reich sports office, Hans von Tschammer und Osten, convinced him to sponsor excavations of the original Olympic game sites in Olympia, further reinforcing the image of Germany as heir and caretaker of the ancient powers. Official Nazi anthem Die Fahne Hoch was played at the torch-lighting ceremony in Greece.

According to German sports historian Arnd Krüger, "The Krupp Company, Germany's largest armament producer, created and sponsored the torches, which were to burn for ten minutes. The first torch manufactured was used to ignite a new furnace for the production of long-range Krupp canons." Krupp's rapidly expanding artillery production would be crucial for early Nazi military successes, and would be staffed in part by slave labor, later including female Jewish prisoners trucked from Auschwitz to a nearby Krupp artillery plant that CEO and convicted war criminal Alfried Krupp had named for his mother, Bertha.

Today's lighting ceremony has nothing to do with Nazis or with Hitler's ethnic nationalism, of course, and though the runners may follow a slightly similar route to London this summer as they did to Berlin in the summer of 1936, it seems safe to say that the world has repurposed the Olympic torch relay from its dark origins to a brighter message of friendly international cooperation. Still, watching today's torch-lighting ceremony, you can discern the faint echoes of that first ceremony 76 years ago: the costumes, the careful orchestration, the iron and the flame, the evocations of an ancient tradition that is in fact quite modern. For all of Hitler's legacies we've excised from the world, this seems to be contribution one we're comfortable maintaining. After all, it is a nice tradition.