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.