The Olympic Torch Relay at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
1936 Berlin Olympics

“The Olympic torch is designed to shine through the centuries, a signal of peaceful understanding between nations, with the aim of arousing more and more enthusiasm for the ideal of humanity”.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the nobility and sentiment of such a statement was cooked up by the London 2012 Olympic committee in a particularly polished press release. But if you then imagine the words being uttered by Carl Diem, the organiser of the first ever Olympic torch relay in the lead-up to the 1936 Berlin Games, they take on a very different, more sinister meaning.

Although it was disguised as a replica of an ancient Greek tradition, the original Olympic torch relay was actually no more than a thinly veiled platform for nationalist propaganda, an opportunity for Hitler to do exactly what is cited in the speech; arouse ‘more and more enthusiasm for the ideal of humanity’.

Germany and the Olympics

Hitler and Goebbels in conversation
Hitler and Goebbels

In fact, Adolf Hitler was initially reluctant to host the Olympics because they were ‘an invention of Jews and Freemasons’ and a celebration of multiculturalism. Indeed, many in his inner circle agreed. Joseph Goebbels believed that sport and athleticism in themselves served one purpose only: ‘to strengthen the character of the German people, imbuing it with the fighting spirit and steadfast camaraderie necessary in the struggle for its existence’. But for him this was too golden a chance to let pass by. He instantly recognised the potential for a lavish parade of prestige and power. This was the ideal opportunity to flaunt Germany’s power and further Hitler’s ethnic and nationalist messages. Goebbels convinced the Fuehrer of the Olympics’ worth as a means of promotion and the stage was set.

An Ancient Greek Tradition?

The 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics remain the most controversial and politically driven in the history of the event. But no aspect of the games was used as a more explicit front for Hitler’s propaganda mission than the Olympic torch relay and ceremony. The very notion of the relay was the invention of an official in the Nazi government; Carl Diem.

Carl Diem had lobbied with determination for the Olympic games to be held in Berlin and was at the forefront of their organisation. Diem actually fought, to no avail, to allow German Jews to participate in the games. So, although the idea of the torch relay was his own, the blatant show of Aryanism it became may not have been fully based on his concept.

Propaganda and Power

Each of the 3,074 chosen runners was allocated a 1km leg of the relay, which they were required to complete in five minutes. Not even the Nazis could hijack the entire length of the route. The relay began in the Greek city of Olympia, and the first runner was a man by the name of Konstantin Kondyls; he was overtly Mediterranean in appearance. Many other runners were nominated by the Olympic committees of the 6 other countries the relay crossed; Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria and Czechoslovakia. But by the time the torch hit Germany, it was carried exclusively by members of Hitler’s Aryan ‘elite’.

But there were other, subtler messages transmitted in the way the torch relay was engineered by Hitler’s team. The 1,500 mile journey of the Olympic torch, for example; by beginning the relay in Greece and ending it in Berlin, Hitler was communicating the notion that the ancient power (Greece) and the new power (Germany) shared a Aryan heritage. In the eyes of the Nazis, the torch relay was telling the story of the natural sociological progression from the Greek Empire to the German.

This story was reinforced by the Nazi sponsorship of the excavations of the original Olympic games site in Olympia; Hitler had been convinced by the head of the Reich sports office, Hans von Tschammer und Osten, that this would be good publicity. His belief was that such a gesture would reinforce the idea of Germany as the natural heir and caretaker of the ancient powers. It was agreed that the sponsorship would go ahead and the official Nazi anthem Die Fahne Hoch would be played at the lighting of the torch ceremony in Greece.

The Torch

The torch was designed, manufactured and sponsored by the Krupp Company, Germany’s largest armament producer. The first torch created was used to ignite a furnace for the production of long-range Krupp canons. In the years that followed, Krupp would become an essential partner of the Nazi military. During World War II, Krupp factories were staffed in part by slave labour, including female Jewish prisoners transferred from Auschwitz.

The Relay

Siegfried Eifrig carrying the torch on the final lap of the relay
Siegfried Eifrig

The relay, which only stopped for a couple of hours in each new country for civic celebrations, was accompanied every step of the way by a van from the German Broadcasting Company (GBC). As with any subsequent Olympic torch relays, the torch was required to last through varying weather conditions; torrential rain in Greece, shortly followed by temperatures of 122C on the Bulgarian border.

In general, the torch was met with enthusiasm on its travels. However, the route included Czechoslovakia, where the Nazi propaganda that accompanied the torch caused a clash between members of the ethnic German minority and the Czech majority. Hitler claimed that the German minority in Czechoslovakia were at risk, giving him the ammunition needed to invade and occupy part of Czechoslovakia two years later.

The torch made its final approach through the streets of Berlin, where all of the city’s historic landmarks were lavishly adorned with Nazi regalia, particularly Adolf Hitler Platz. The atmosphere on the streets that day was imbued with fanaticism and fuelled by partisan devotees to the Nazi cause. Precisely 28,600 members of the Hitler Youth movement had been enlisted to descend upon Lustgarten to provide Nazi salutes to the torch as it passed.

The final leg of the relay was run by the 26 year old Siegfried Eifrig, a representative from the German Olympic team. He was of average ability, but was the perfect representative of the Aryan race; blonde haired, blue-eyed, and had what was described as a ‘graceful running style’.

Re-writing the History Books

The tenuous link to Ancient Greece was underpinned in the finale of the relay; Greece’s winner of the 1896 marathon, Spirydon Louis, dressed in the national Greek style, awaited the torch and received it from Eifrig. What followed was a barely concealed remoulding of history to suit Nazi ideals. In the stadium, Dr Theodor Leward, president of the Berlin Olympic Committee, described why Hitler had championed the notion of the very first Olympic torch relay. He described it as the creation of ‘both an actual and spiritual bond of fire between our German fatherland and the ancient Greek shrine, founded nearly 4,000 years ago by settlers from the northern lands’.

This manipulation of history is reinforced in the official 1936 Games film, ‘Olympia’ directed by Nazi sympathiser Leni Riefenstahl. One of many Nazi-funded propaganda pieces, an extended section of the film consists of footage chronicling a mythical torch relay in Ancient Greece spliced together with actual footage of Aryan torch-bearers hysterically cheered on by a brain-washed nation.

It seems somewhat bizarre that the world continues a tradition that had such dark and menacing origins. It’s fair to say that the modern version of the Olympic torch relay has been significantly redesigned to portray a brighter, more inclusive message. But the precision of its logistics, the iron and flame, the recreation of a supposedly ancient tradition, all harp back to that first ever relay 76 years ago.

The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936