The Paris Review

Otto the Strange

Otto Peltzer—gay, androgynous, intellectual, and modern—represented a new model of male perfection in Weimar Germany.

Otto Peltzer training at Georgetown University, while on a visit to the United States, 1927. Courtesy Library of Congress.

From the start of the Enlightenment to the end of World War II, there was hardly a strand of German culture that didn’t look to Ancient Greece for guidance and inspiration. Winckelmann, Goethe, and Wagner were all enchanted by the spell of Hellenism; Hitler contended that Greek civilization had actually been built by a band of wandering Germans back in the mystical depths of Iron Age prehistory. What else, ran his illogic, other than Germanic heritage could have been responsible for the Spartans’ pioneering eugenics, the majesty of golden-age Athens, and Alexander’s epic feats of conquest? To gather proof, he established archaeological digs in Crete, Corinth, Argos, Athens, and several other locations. Unsurprisingly, the excavations turned up little, but the Nazis had other ways of spelling out the Führer’s theory—chief among which were the Berlin Olympics of 1936.

Ever since Baron de Coubertin had launched the modern Olympics in 1896, German participation had been highly controversial. Many abroad deemed the nation’s militarism and nationalism contrary to the spirit of the movement, and plenty of Germans considered the Olympics an internationalist carnival of wet liberalism, a corruption of an admirable Greek tradition rather than its resuscitation. Hitler described the Los Angeles games of ’32 as a “plot of Freemasons and Jews.” Four years later, though, he’d recognized the Olympics’ potential as a propaganda tool. Preceded by a torch comes to life as a young German, toned, muscular, and vigorous, Riefenstahl is telling us that her compatriots had beaten the competition before the starting pistol had been fired: the Germans alone were the inheritors of the minds and bodies that had allowed Greece to soar. 

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