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  • “Would You Die for the Fatherland?”Disciplining the German Commemorative Body
  • Scott Venters (bio)

Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 film Olympia opens with a lyrical montage of the ruins of the Acropolis slowly breaking into view through a blanket of haze. The heroic sounds of Windt’s and Gronostay’s neo-Wagnerian score function as a docent, leading the viewer to marmoreal visions of the supple Medici Venus and the taut Myron Diskobolus. The latter deliquesces before the eyes to be replaced by the sinewy body of German decathlete Erwin Huber. The antique past is tenderly fleshed out by the German body, and classical Greece is sutured onto the present as an act of commemoration in this documentary of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Yet there was another conversation with antiquity occurring during the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, a conversation edited from Riefenstahl’s final cut; this conversation was a more subtle, more circuitous, more tendentiously manipulated dialogue between the Nazis and the ancients that produced an embodied transcript of Foucauldian-defined discipline enacted by the youth of Germany. Along with his fabricated torch-lighting ceremony and its spurious classical origins, the chief architect of the ceremonies, Secretary General of the Organizing Committee Carl Diem, entertained the crowd from forty-nine nations assembled in the newly constructed Olympiastadion with a four-part mass spectacle entitled Olympic Youth. Hans Niedecken-Gebhard, a pupil of Rudolf von Laban, directed an international agglomeration of children between the ages of eleven and eighteen through a series of lavish [End Page 39] displays. The first scene consisted of games and dances culminating in a human formation of the rings on the Olympic flag. Next followed a mass dance titled “Maidenly Grace” in which 2,300 youthful girls danced in circular, liquid motion and then parted to reveal the venerated modern dancer Gret Palucca, gracefully sliding through the steps of a waltz. In the third scene the children of all participating countries marched into the stadium with their respective national flags. But in the final movement this international harmony was shattered by a call to the youth of Germany to sacrifice their lives when the fatherland was in danger. Drilled into a rigidly formal position on the field by the upper ranks of the Hitler-Jugend (Hitler Youth), the affirmative answer was reinforced by the unrelenting mass of assembled young bodies beckoned by the Führer. A mock sword battle between professional dancers followed, culminating in Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” sung by fifteen hundred voices in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which attempted to reestablish a rapprochement. However, the unsettling call upon the youth to die for Deutschland and the intimations toward war had been made. In just a few years, many would die for or because of the fatherland.1

It is at this performative moment, caught in valorizing official reports published without the benefit of hindsight—when the trained, docile body appears most at odds with the Athenian-Hellenic notion of liberty, when play rubs against war, and when the antinomies of youthful innocence and political ideology become a tangled mass—that disciplinary power is most evident. It is also at this moment—when the corporeality of youth seems completely confined by militaristic discipline, when freedom is coerced from their limbs, and when the romantic oath elicited from the young wears only the mask of voluntarism—that a disturbing call to antiquity is being made. It is in this moment that the hoarse whispers of antiquity mingle with the cries of modernity. Those young, pliant, healthy bodies that would go on to join the SS and gas those deemed adulterated, deformed, and impure—Jews, Poles, Gypsies, the hereditarily ill, and homosexuals—had actually been conditioned into premilitary formation by a complex genealogy that had its roots in a sublimated homoeroticism. In a sense, that very same desire, through a complex historical process, had turned in upon the non-normative “abject” parts of itself. I am referring not to the facile association between the Hellenic Olympics and its original culture’s valorization of same-sex desire but to the distinctly German influence that laid the foundations for Riefenstahl’s...


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