When last month you saw at the opening ceremony of the London Olympic games the flame being relayed you probably didn't know that this ritual was staged for the first time at the "Nazi Games" held in Berlin in 1936. It fed Adolf Hitler's appetite for symbolism and pagan rituals and was introduced by a Belgian count. The current president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Dr Jacques Rogge is not the first Belgian president of the IOC. From 1925 to 1942, Henri de Baillet-Latour, a Belgian count, had the privilege of heading the IOC. The first Belgian IOC President who had to steer the IOC through very turbulent times, remains a controversial figure, not least because of his dubious relationship with Nazi Germany.
Count Henri was born on March 1, 1876 into an old Belgian aristocratic family. His father, Ferdinand de Baillet-Latour, was governor of the Antwerp province. After graduating from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven the young count embraced a successful diplomatic career. He achieved immortality in 1923 when he became President of the Belgian Olympic Committee, a post he held until his death in 1942. Baillet-Latour was an accomplished horseman.
Latour achieved some notoriety in the Olympic world as the able organizer of the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp. Despite the short preparation time and the unfavorable political situation in Belgium the Games, coming so soon after the end of the First World War, were hailed as a success. As a result, he was chosen to succeed Pierre de Coubertin as President of the International Olympic Committee.
And then things took a nasty turn...
In 1933 the Nazis seized power and Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. It seems that what was foremost on the minds of President Baillet-Latour and the IOC was to have Hitler acquiesce to the Games being held in Germany, although one would have expected that Nazi ideology would have been a much greater cause for concern. There is little doubt that they were fully aware that the international spirit of the Olympics did not feature high on the scale of values of the German Fuehrer and his fast growing number of supporters.
Long before 1936, Jewish athletes had been excluded from sports clubs and associations. In 1935, the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour were promulgated. The Holocaust Museum in Washington calls the 1936 Games the "Nazi Olympics" because they are full of propaganda praising the Third Reich. Three years before the Berlin Games, there were alarming developments in Germany: the Dachau concentration camp opened in 1933, there was a boycott of Jewish merchants and Jews were barred from the civil service. From 1933, they were not allowed to teach and were stripped of the right to assembly and of free speech. The sterilization of the disabled was made possible by law. Baillet-Latour must have been aware of these awsome developments but he did nothing. Quite the reverse, he gave as reason to have the Games in because because the decision had been made in 1931.
From bad to worse
At the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen on 6 February 1936 and of the Summer Games in Berlin on 1 August the same year, Hitler was flanked by Baillet-Latour. As expected and feared, the Olympics became a giant propaganda stunt for the Nazi regime. A journalist noted: "There are more swastika flags than Olympic flags hanging in Berlin".
Baillet-Latour did not protest when in the years after the Berlin Games the international Olympic movement increasingly came under Nazi influence and domination: in Berlin, the International Olympic Institute was founded, financed and controlled by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Its official gazette was part of the 'Olympic Rundschau' controlled by Carl Diem, a Nazi. Leni Riefenstahl was awarded an Olympic Gold Medal by the Comité International Olympique in 1938. Werner Klingenberg, yet another top nazi, was appointed Secretary General of the IOC. Theodore Lewald, who was half-Jewish, and who had been successful as an organizer of several Olympic Games, was replaced at the behest of Nazi party member Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau, who - how ironic - was to lead the German Sixth Army which occupied Belgium, the homeland of Baillet-Latour. Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau is responsible for the massacre of thirty thousand Jews at Babi Yar in the Ukraine and ordered the murder of ninety Jewish children during the war in the Soviet Union.
Donwplaying the past
After the war the controversial career of the count was both obfusctated and praised. In the IOC Bulletin No. 51, Dr. Karl Ritter von Halt tells some unconvincing stories about how Baillet-Latour had made a stand against Hitler. Hitler thought differently and sent an extatic letter to thank him: "Only thanks to your generous cooperation were these Games so beautifully conducted". The biggest Jew-hater of all times signed "your devoted Hitler"! The minimization of Baillet-Latour's responsibility is far reaching. Joods Actueel is convinced that it is highly probable that a letter the Count sent on 3 May 1933 to members of the German Olympic Committee was tampered with. The letter begins with "Mes chers Collègues" [My Dear Colleagues]. Plural. At the bottom of the first page of the letter there is clear line which suggests that the second page was pasted. The letter ends with " Je compte sur votre dévouement, mon cher Collègue...". Singular. This is an important point which requires further investigation. One wonders what was written on the original letter that it is best not seen. The official IOC biography of Baillet-Latour written in 2011 describes the role of the organizer of the "Nazi Games" thus: "He was re-elected for a second term at the 1933 Session in Vienna, and remained president until his death in 1942". There is not a single reference to his role as an organizer of the "Nazi Games".
Adolf Hitler pays tribute
"Jews usually start screaming before they have a serious reason to do so," wrote count de Baillet-Latour to Avery Brundage, the President of the United States Olympic Committee, in connection with the possible boycott of the Berlin Olympics. Count Henri de Baillet-Latour died in January 1942. More Nazis than athletes attended his funeral. Not only did German soldiers stand guard at the coffin, but his widow, Countess Elizabeth Clary, went to Berlin to pick up some dubious characters from the German sports committee to attend the funeral. Mrs. Baillet-Latour, Countess Clary, was a long-standing admirer of Adolf Hitler. She congratulated the Führer when he invaded the Sudetenland. She also thanked Hitler "for bringing Nazi ideology to Belgium". Hitler's secretary replied "My dear Countess, I am thankful to you for your contribution to our peace efforts". The Countess kept such contacts until the very last days of the Nazi regime.
Joods Actueel journalist, Guido Joris, visited the Baillet-Latour Museum:
Hitler's wreath at the Baillet-Latour funeral
The funeral of Baillet-Latour was an unprecedented Nazi show
The wreath with a swastika Hitler had sent was of course the most obvious. But over a hundred similar wreaths were displayed and the Olympic flag on the coffin was no longer visible.
Next to two high-ranking Nazi German sports officials that Mrs de Baillet-Latour had invited - Ritter Carl von Halt and Carl Diem - numerous German military and political leaders and representatives marched in the long funeral procession. German diplomat von Bargen was present and deposited a wreath on the coffin on behalf of none other than the infamous Nazi von Ribbentrop. Zanzer Alexander, director of the Joodse Centrale, wrote in an article The Myth of Foreign Affairs broken (Centrale magazine # 18) how von Bergen was actively involved in the deportation of Antwerp and Brussels Jews. Diplomats of his kind were not shy of mentioning on their travel expenses that costs were incurred "for the extermination of Jews".
Goebbels and von Falkhausen also had wreaths delivered. Carl von Halt made an inappropriately loud speech in German on behalf Hitler and ... the International Olympic Committee. This explains why the countess drove all the way from Berlin to Brussels and not, as a historian whose opinion we sought, would have us believe that the trip to Berlin was made for "practical" reasons.
Even after the war the IOC saw nothing wrong with the fact that a Nazi leader became chairman of the German Olympic Committee in 1951 and remained in office until 1961. Baillet-Latour was the President who wanted to keep the Olympic Games in Berlin even though it meant cooperating with an anti-Semitic and racist regime. But there is more. After the 1936 Games he became an honorary member of Freude und Arbeit, a Nazi sports organization that was active in 62 countries and had been created by Goebbels as a propaganda machine.
This story sheds a different light on the plans Hitler had for the Games to be held in perptuity in Germany from 1936 onwards.