Historical Issues

To the Brink of Nuclear War – The Cuban Missile Crisis

“It was a perfectly beautiful night, as fall nights are in Washington. I walked out of the President’s Oval Office, and as I walked out, I thought I might never live to see another Saturday night.”

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara encapsulates the tension an entire world endured during the thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. This event forms a key moment within the Cold War as it reveals how close two superpowers came to nuclear catastrophe. Its origins lie within the opposing ideologies between the United States and communism and the escalating arms race, while its impacts provided a major turning point in the Cold War, leading to a period of relaxed tensions known as detente.

While the arms race was not the immediate cause of the Cuban missile crisis it’s influence was critical in establishing the conditions for the crisis to occur. Without the arms race the crisis could not have happened, and in the aftermath of events the nature of the arms race was changed for the years to come. Only the United States had succeeded during WWII in developing nuclear weapons. Due to this reason historian Alperovitz suggests that the Americans only dropped the atomic bomb in Japan to send a message to Stalin. This message was to demonstrate their position of power.

Short and Long term causes:

From this the arms race developed with the USSR determined to equal the nuclear monopoly held by the United States, and in 1949 the USSR developed their first atomic bomb. The nuclear weapons race continued as innovative developments meant a psychological advantage. For the years preceding the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the USSR went head to head in developing newer and more destructive weapons. While the United States was the first to develop the hydrogen bomb, the USSR were the first to successfully test their Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, and, by 1962, these missiles became the focal point of the Cuban Missile Crisis, thus the arms race forms a long term cause.

The United States’ reaction to Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba forms the immediate cause of the missile crisis. As early as 1823 America considered the Caribbean its own backyard. Under the Monroe Doctrine this sphere of influence was a source of trade and wealth, and in Cuba, just a short distance from the United States’ coast, American businessmen controlled the majority of Cuba’s sugar and oil industry. With living conditions poor, America saw the necessity in supporting the autocratic regime of Fulgencio Batista who seized power in 1933.

Fidel Castro leads Cuba:

Attempts were made to keep Batista in power and subsequently ensure Cuba remained anti-Communist and a source of wealth for the United States. This failed when Fidel Castro led a revolution in 1959. Although not Communist, rather more Cuban nationalist, Castro’s agenda both angered and frightened the United States. The revolutionary nationalised $1 Billion in American investment. As a consequence President Eisenhower imposed a strict trade embargo on Cuba. The Soviet Union filled this trade void which pushed Cuba into the hands of the socialist camp.

Kennedy backs down from retaliation:

Angering the United States was their loss of Cuba as a sphere of influence and source of wealth. What frightened the United States; however, was a revolutionary left-leaning government so near to its coast. This intensified the mutual fear and suspicion Americans had of communists. In an attempt to remove Castro from the Caribbean island, Cuban exiles were trained by the CIA to lead a resistance movement and restore US dominance in the region. In April 61, Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, authorised the invasion, however withdrew American military support to avoid Soviet retaliation in Berlin.

Members of Castro's militia group

Bay of Pigs disaster:

The President wanted the world to be convinced it was purely Cuban rejection of a tyrannical leader and thus rejection of communism by the people of the Caribbean. The invasion ended in disaster for the Kennedy administration. Castro’s Soviet made tanks stopping the 1,500 exiles no more than a quarter mile inland. The failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs had disastrous consequences for the United States. The fiasco pushed Castro further to the left where soon after he declared Cuba a communist nation.

Fearing further American threats of invasion Castro turned to Khrushchev for military support and as a consequence the missile crisis eventuated. At this stage Khrushchev was surely threatened by the United States’ military presence. Over a million US troops were stationed in more than 200 foreign bases. Furthermore, garrisoned along soviet borders was a further three and a half million allied troops and nuclear warheads positioned in Italy, the United Kingdom and Turkey – to which Khrushchev acknowledged “are aimed at us and scare us.” Khrushchev’s bold idea to react to Castro’s pleas of support involved placing Ballistic Missiles on the Caribbean Island.

Khrushchev’s intentions:

The Soviet Premier, in his memoirs, outlines his actions in placing missiles in Cuba. He writes “In addition to protecting Cuba, our missiles would have equalised what the west likes to call the Balance of Power. They had surrounded our country with missile bases and threatened us with nuclear weapons, now they would learn just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at you.” Cold War historian John Gaddis, however, argues that Khrushchev’s decision to place missiles in Cuba was irrational and characteristic of him not thinking things through. Gaddis questions Khrushchev’s motives as solely deterrence commenting “He could hardly have expected the Americans not to respond, since he had sent the missiles secretly while lying to Kennedy about his intentions to do so.”

Soviet ships sail to Cuba:

Khrushchev had also dispatched short range missiles to Cuba, only useful against an American invasion, so what was he thinking? Surely he didn’t want to engage in nuclear war, after all, Soviet weapons were outnumbered up to seventeen to one. Gaddis offers this irrationalism to an emotional connection to Cuba, while comparing him to a “petulant child playing with a loaded gun.” Nevertheless, just the thought of one or two missile being launched against the United States would, when the missiles were revealed to him, scare Kennedy.

In July 1962 sixty five ships sailed for Cuba with ten carrying military equipment. Although it was Khrushchev’s hope to establish the missiles before the Americans found out, a U-2 Spy Plane photographed their construction on the 14th of October. The CIA informed Kennedy that they would be operational within two weeks. His swift action in convening Excomm or the Executive Committee of the National Security Council was due to a number of reasons. In just a short amount of time the missiles would be operational and have enough range to reach every major city on the American mainland with just one exception, Seattle in the Northwest. The flight time of these missiles meant up to 80 million Americans could be killed within just 17 minutes.

Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles had the potential to travel huge distance and provide strike capability from the other side of the world

The intermediate range missiles or the SS-4s possessed firepower 80 times the size of the blast that destroyed Hiroshima. Although the consensus among Excomm was that the missiles must be removed from Cuba, there was disagreement by the means such would be achieved. This group of senior officials are now broadly considered to have been in one of two groups, the Hawks, who were mainly the Joint Chiefs and military representatives who wanted a full scale invasion of the island and the doves who wanted a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Kennedy ordered every sitting of EX COMM to be taped.


The first meeting of Excomm was a critical moment in the course of events as it established how the United States would approach the situation. Discussed first was the idea to place surveillance on Cuba and employ a blockade to stop offensive weapons reaching the island. The most popular course of action among Excomm focused on military parameters, starting with an air strike to eliminate the missiles, followed by a full scale invasion. Gaddis offers the idea that this was the only war plan Eisenhower’s administration had left behind. In action it required the use of well over 3,000 nuclear weapons simultaneously. Kennedy, in instructing his advisors to expand their options may well have averted nuclear war.

Kennedy Addresses the Nation:

The president’s public announcement was certainly a critical moment within the crisis because if Khrushchev misinterpreted the United States’ actions and overreacted, nuclear war may have resulted. Before the announcement the Soviets were unaware that the United States knew of the missiles in Cuba and as Excomm continued to meet, Kennedy could not be convinced that an air strike would destroy 100% of missiles before the Soviets could retaliate. The President booked air time on all American TV stations for Monday the 22nd of October. Even at this stage Kennedy was unsure of what course of action he would take.

He instructed two different speeches to be written, one declaring air strikes and another declaring a naval blockade. The President decided to enact the blockade, rather calling it a quarantine to avoid an act of war. This was a significant moment within the crisis as it provided a way out for Khrushchev unlike a military assault would, but also put the US in a position to increase pressure if the Soviets threatened. In his address to the nation Kennedy declared “the purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere”, continuing to confirm a “strict quarantine of all military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated.”

Kennedy Addresses the Nation


Fearing the Soviets might overreact, Kennedy raised his military’s alert to DEFCON 3 and had several hundred Intercontinental missiles prepared for firing. Publicly, Khrushchev responded aggressively declaring it “a violation of international law”, referring to the Americans as pirates on the sea. However, also fearing that the Americans may overreact, he ordered five ships carrying missiles to turn back to the Soviet Union. This formed a significant moment in the crisis as it publicised the events, increased tensions and consequently forced citizens into a state of panic.

The following day tensions again increased as the Soviet Foreign minister continued to deny the existence of offensive weapons in Cuba for the United States was yet to release the photographic evidence. Excomm met at 10.00am on the 24th, the same time the quarantine took effect. With orders given to use necessary force to stop ships crossing the quarantine line, it appeared that some of the Soviet ships had stopped dead in the water. Tensions still, however, intensified as missiles were still being constructed in Cuba. Later that night, in response to Khrushchev’s telegram to the President in which he refused to back down declaring to “use necessary measures to protect [their] rights”, Kennedy initiated DEFCON 2. This was America’s highest military alert in history. Nuclear war seemed inevitable unless one of the leaders was prepared to back down.

US ambassador to UN confronts Soviet Ambassador:

Still attempting to avoid war Kennedy had the US ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson confront Soviet Ambassador Zorin on the 25th of October in an exchange that has gone down in history books. Here, Stevenson presented the photographic evidence that proved the Soviet Union had been placing offensive weapons in Cuba and had indeed been lying to the world about doing so. America gained the upper hand in the crisis as world opinion shifted in favour of the United States.

In a significant development resolution seemed closer by the 26th with a letter sent by Khrushchev offering a compromise. In this he offered to remove offensive weapons in Cuba if the United States declared never to invade. This letter is considered to have been written by Khrushchev himself, emphasizing his desire for peace. Hopes were dashed the next day with the arrival of a second, more demanding letter. Becoming known as Black Saturday, the 27th was perhaps the most critical of all days and is considered the closest humankind came to nuclear war. Khrushchev, most likely influenced by Soviet hardliners, made a further condition – the United States must remove missiles from Turkey in exchange for the removal of missiles in Cuba.

A deal is struck:

Kennedy was stuck, as removing the missiles from Turkey would fragment NATO relations and thus cause political suicide so near an election. The hawks amongst Excomm again pushed for military action; however, Kennedy argued that starting a nuclear war instead of accepting a trade over Turkey was “an insupportable position”. The President’s brother, Robert Kennedy, who was chair of Excomm proposed the idea to respond positively to the first of Khrushchev’s letters and ignore the arrival of the second more demanding letter.

While this was the public compromise, Robert Kennedy met with the Soviet Foreign Minister to propose a secret deal where the United States would secretly dismantle their missiles in Turkey within months of the crisis. It was stressed it must not be made public in order to sustain their political position. The following day, Sunday 28th of October, Khrushchev agreed to the terms. The crisis was over.

The Cuban Missile Crisis had many short and long term consequences:

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a defining moment within in the Cold War as its consequences shaped the remaining years of the conflict. It influenced a period known as detent, a more permanent relaxation of tensions. In the wake of the crisis both superpowers claimed a victory. For the soviets, Khrushchev stressed they had achieved an agreement that the United States wouldn’t invade Cuba and thus it was a win for his diplomacy. However, in actual fact, the crisis began the criticism of his political judgment that led to his downfall in 1964. Kennedy, on the other hand, gained a massive popularity boost where his political party won their biggest majority in twenty years.

In the immediate aftermath of events, both the USA and the USSR realised the need for better communication. This was emphasized by the time delays in sending and receiving messages that resulted in misunderstandings. A ‘hotline’ telephone link was established between the Kremlin and the Whitehouse which proved effective for future crises.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty:

Possibly the biggest impact caused by the missile crisis was the realization of mutually assured destruction which served as the greatest deterrent of war for the years to come. The assumption behind it, Gaddis explains that if no one could be sure of surviving a nuclear war, there would not be one. He continues to present the idea that the weapons each side developed during the Cold War posed a greater threat to both sides than the United States and the Soviet Union did to one another. The missile crisis forced the realsisation that the time had come, if not for international control of nuclear weapons, at least for agreement on how to manage them. This resulted in the Limited Test Ban Treaty which abolished nuclear tests in the atmosphere. Following this, in 1968 the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty prevented the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries.

The thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis were filled with fear and tension, where an entire world sat on the brink of falling into nuclear abyss. While long standing differences in ideologies and the arms race caused the crisis between the superpowers, just a mere thirteen days impacted the nature of the Cold War for the years to come. The Cuban Missile Crisis therefore forms a significant turning point within the Cold War which transformed the future of man.

National Secretary Advisor McGeorge Bundy writes of the crisis “having come so close to the edge, we must make it out business not to pass this way again.”



John F. Kennedy Cuban Missile Crisis Address to the Nation:

Delivered 22 October 1962

Good evening, my fellow citizens:

This Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military build-up on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere

…Only last Thursday, as evidence of this rapid offensive build-up was already in my hand, Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko told me in my office that he was instructed to make it clear once again, as he said his government had already done, that Soviet assistance to Cuba, and I quote, “pursued solely the purpose of contributing to the defence capabilities of Cuba,” that, and I quote him, “training by Soviet specialists of Cuban nationals in handling defensive armaments was by no means offensive, and if it were otherwise,” Mr. Gromyko went on, “the Soviet Government would never become involved in rendering such assistance”…

To halt this offensive build-up a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers. We are not at this time, however, denying the necessities of life as the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948…

…I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations. I call upon him further to abandon this course of world domination, and to join in an historic effort to end the perilous arms race and to transform the history of man. He has an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction by returning to his government’s own words that it had no need to station missiles outside its own territory, and withdrawing these weapons from Cuba by refraining from any action which will widen or deepen the present crisis, and then by participating in a search for peaceful and permanent solutions…

…Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right; not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.

Thank you and good night.


Greatest Achievements of Leni Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl, while being regarded as the most famous female film director of all time, also had careers in dancing, acting and photography:

During the Nazi era, Leni Riefenstahl was a common household name in Germany. She has, however, been a source of incredible controversy. Many regard Reifenstahl a Nazi propagandist, responsible for the projection of Hitler during his reign. Others see Riefenstahl as a female pioneer, responsible for incredible cinematic innovation. Riefenstahl’s three greatest achievements, The Blue Light, Triumph of the Will and Olympia, are examples of her controversial success.After six years of acting in Dr. Arnold Fanck’s berg or mountain films, Leni acknowledged the improbability of being cast in Hollywood films such as the identities of Marlene Dietrich had. Deciding “I want to make pictures myself” Riefenstahl cast herself in a film she would title The Blue Light. Riefenstahl had learnt a great deal about technique and directing films by observing Fanck during projects such as The Holy Mountain in 1926. While some claim Riefenstahl took the storyline from the 1930 novel Rock Crystal, Riefenstahl herself claimed “everything that happened came to from her head.” While Riefenstahl proved to be an extraordinary director of her films, she lacked the ability to write a structured script. Bela Balazs assumed this role, however was never paid for his work after the film was released and making profits. The Blue Light was seen by Hitler who considered Leni’s dance the “most beautiful thing”. Riefenstahl’s creation of this film ensured she was brought to the attention of Hitler, ultimately serving as a highly significant event.

The Blue Light was Leni’s first film and showed cinematic innovation:

Technically, Riefenstahl’s The Blue Light showed great cinematic innovation. She used new green and red filters on her insistence that they would create a “magical effect.” Furthermore, she was able to manipulate techniques in order to create night time climbing scenes. They were filmed during the day, however, her manipulation of technique made the sky seem like night. In editing, Riefenstahl claimed Fanck had made the film “kaput”. Other versions of the story credit Fanck as “saving the film.” Regardless, Riefenstahl admitted in her memoirs that she was disappointed with it, commenting “the film didn’t look as I had envisaged it.” The Blue Light received mixed reviews from German critics. Those of the right wing seemed to write more favorably about her film, while Jewish critics labeled it “inwardly sick.” Riefenstahl’s direction of The Blue Light forms a significant achievement in her professional life. It started her directing career where she showed great cinematic innovation. Furthermore, Riefenstahl’s first directing projected brought her to the attention of Adolf Hitler, a man who soon after would change her life completely.

Leni’s Triumph of the Will, considered by many as the greatest propaganda film ever made, forms an incredibly significant event within her professional career:

Before the 1934 Nuremburg Rally Germany’s political landscape had changed considerably. With sole leadership within his hands after Hindenburg’s death and Rohm’s execution, Hitler’s consolidation of power was at a crucial stage. By allowing her “artistic and technical responsibility”, Riefenstahl would create a film to promote the image of the Fuhrer. In effect, Triumph of the Will became a ‘vehicle to apotheosize Hitler as absolute leader. “ (Bach, 2007, p. 128) This project was highly significant as Hitler allowed Leni unlimited resources, unrestricted access and most of all, independence from the Propaganda Ministry. It was a rare that someone had such power in Germany, especially for a female who wasn’t a member of the Nazi Party. Triumph of the Will highlighted this as Riefenstahl was allowed access to Hitler whenever she wanted something and had authority beyond Goebbels and the Propaganda Ministry.

Riefenstahl, in an attempt to distance herself from the Nazis during post war trials recalled that she was forced to make the film and had just days to prepare:

However, a letter discovered in Ufa files dated in April, five months before the rally signed her onto the project. In having this time, Riefenstahl was able to intricately plan the program ensuring she would satisfy Hitler’s desires. Riefenstahl, after the rally spent up to twenty hours a day editing the film. After filming four hundred thousand feet of footage, Riefenstahl was required to cut it into juts two hours.

Many of Leni’s signature innovations were achieved in collaboration with Albert Speers:

In collaboration with Albert Speers, Hitler’s favourite architect, Riefenstahl showed great innovation and technique. Her innovation included a lift being built into flagpoles to give high angle panoramic shots of the rally. Rail tracks were installed on Riefenstahl’s insistence that the camera must always be moving. Circular tracks were built below the speaking platform so the camera could pan around Hitler as he spoke. These never before tried techniques provided Leni’s audience with new lively images that would win awards in Venice and Paris. Triumph of the Will was a significant achievement for Riefenstahl, whether viewed as propaganda or simply art. It showcased a revolution in film while promoting the Fuhrer Cult.

Olympia, Riefenstahl’s film on the 1936 Berlin Olympics is regarded by many as the greatest sports documentary ever made:

Continuing from Triumph of the Will, Leni made further innovation in cinema, ensuring Olympia was a significant achievement within her professional career. Leni, after being signed on to film the Olympic Games by Dr. Carl Diem of the Olympic Committee, had to secure financing. Leni attempted to gain support independently, proposing her film to Ufa and Tobis production companies. When both declined to finance her film she negotiated with Goebbels who agreed to the 1.5 million reichsmarks she demanded. While this was more than three times the budget on blockbuster films at the time, Goebbels acknowledged the potential this film had in promoting the ‘New Germany’. Such a ‘sensational’ budget for a woman in Nazi Germany held significance alone.

While Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will secured Hitler’s power within Germany, the international community remained cautious of Hitler:

Countries with high Jewish populations such as America, who also had the greatest representation at the Olympics, opposed Hitler’s regime. Hitler acknowledged the propaganda potential of Leni‘s film where it could be sold that Hitler meant it when he said “Germany needs peace and desires peace!” Therefore, Olympia becomes a significant event and achievement in Riefenstahl’s career as once more she contributed to Hitler’s image through her creation of propaganda.

Similarly to Triumph of the Will, while Olympia can be considered as propaganda, Riefenstahl continued to revolutionize the film industry:

In this way her film also forms a significant achievement in her career. Leni employed the use of the world’s fastest cameras to film events in slow motion. She used cameras with the longest possible telephoto lenses to capture intimate shots of athletes. She attempted to film from high angles, placing cameras in planes and balloons. Although unsuccessful, such thought showed incredible innovation. Riefenstahl continued her use of low angle shots by placing cameras in trenches dug under athletes. In collaboration with Hans Ertl, Riefenstahl captured the first underwater diving shots. Many of Riefenstahl’s techniques continue today to be used by modern film makers. Her innovation in sport documentary and technical advancement ensures Olympia was a significant achievement within her professional career.

While it’s controversially debated whether Riefenstahl actively sought to create Nazi propaganda or simply art, there’s little doubt she made a substantial contribution to history. Her three greatest achievements, The Blue Light, Triumph of the Will and Olympia hold a level of significance not only to her professional career but to history and society in general.

Leni Riefenstahl – was she an opportunist or swept along by events?

Leni Riefenstahl, the most famous female film director of all time continues many decades later to rouse controversy concerning her contribution to the Nazi era

From the earliest accounts of Riefenstahl’s career it is clear that she was prepared to use others to benefit herself. She had become acquainted with a young Jewish banker, Harry Sokal in 1923, who manipulated exchange rates. Riefenstahl acknowledged his wealth and while she had no desire to satisfy his ongoing matrimonial pursuit continued their relationship. Riefenstahl used Sokal to finance her dance debut where he paid for the hall, the advertising, and the musicians. In an attempt to gain positive reviews Sokal also paid critics to be in the audience. For Riefenstahl it may not have been a difficult decision to exploit Sokal and other men as opportunities for women were limited. Riefenstahl acknowledged that she needed to allow Sokal to finance her or risk not achieving success. Therefore, she took advantage of Sokal when it suited her best. He had established her dance career and then, without notice she resolved to banish him forever. This however, was not the last time Riefenstahl sought to exploit Sokal and his money. On the other hand, Riefenstahl considers she had the feeling of being bought. This may be true, however, while she allowed Sokal to finance her movements she was clearly being opportunistic.

Riefenstahl exploited many people to establish her career in German berg or mountain films.

Leni sought out Arnold Fanck to establish her career:

With her clear intentions to succeed within the creative arts industry, Riefenstahl, after seeing the film Mountain of Destiny, sought out film director Arnold Fanck in an attempt to establish a career as an actress. Riefenstahl again turned to the man who established her dance career. Financed by Sokal, she traveled to the Dolomite Mountains in order to find Dr. Fanck. It was there that Riefenstahl met the film’s actor, Luis Trenker, claiming “I’m going to be in your next picture”. Someone being swept along by events doesn’t, as Riefenstahl had prophesied and plan future actions. On news of Fanck’s whereabouts Leni departed the next day in search of him in Berlin. Even though she was not in a relationship with Sokal, she continued to exploit his money in order to find Fanck and would again turn to Sokal at times convenient to furthering her career. Historian Audrey Salkeld (1996) offers a different account of events. She doesn’t mention Riefenstahl traveling to the Dolomite Mountains using Sokal’s finance; rather it was a sightseeing tour that turned out to be her “destiny”. She suggests that this was Riefenstahl being swept along; opposing the more credible argument that Riefenstahl exploited Sokal in order to find Dr. Fanck.

Screenshot of 1924 "Mountain of Destiny" featuring Lewis Trenker who Leni would use for her own personal gainRiefenstahl’s willing independence to seek out Fanck and exploit those around her supports her opportunism:

However, this early relationship with Fanck also credits her claims of being swept along by events. Riefenstahl was not reluctant to exploit tennis pro Gunther Rahn who was “hopelessly in love” with her. She used him to advantage in arranging the meeting with Fanck that would catapult her into the film industry. Fanck instantly admired Riefenstahl’s beauty and just three days later, according to Riefenstahl he visited her in hospital with a script titled ‘The Holy Mountain, written for the dancer, Leni Riefenstahl’. Riefenstahl once again called upon Sokal to finance the film. This contained the same sort of calculation that characterized the start of Leni’s dance career and would be repeated at every major turning point in her life. In Riefenstahl’s defense, however, Salkeld (1996) suggests the extent of Fanck’s fascination with her was not within her control. He considered himself her “Pygmalion” or sculptor, who hoped to make her the “most famous woman in Germany”. Without Fanck’s dedication to Riefenstahl she would never have been successful in her acting career and would not have learnt how to direct films, thus never being projected to Hitler’s attention. In this way Riefenstahl was swept along by events.

Differing historical perspectives of Riefenstahl, concerning her first project as director on The Blue Light, present her in conflicting ways:

Riefenstahl exploited scriptwriter Bela Balacs, Fanck as editor and again Sokal in order to finance. Sokal was naively forthcoming once more, even after Riefenstahl had taken advantage of him and his money several times in the past. Before she acquired his support, in a calculated move to ensure all creative control was with her, Riefenstahl created Leni-Riefenstahl-Studio-Film GmbH. By making the film through this newly established company Riefenstahl was ensured all copyrights and credit. Then, while admitting she could not pay him Riefenstahl sought the work from film theorist Bela Balacs to write the script. Balacs was not immune to feminine charm or beauty which Riefenstahl never hesitated to use to achieve her goals. When Balacs threatened to sue her over debts, Riefenstahl referred the case to the vehemently anti-Semitic Julius Streicher. Her letter to the district administrator transferred “power of attorney in the matter of the claims of the Jew Bela Balacs.” (Bach, 2007, p. 79) This shows that Riefenstahl was opportunistic by playing on the fact that Balacs was Jewish. It ensured she would never have to pay him. In editing, Riefenstahl turned to Dr. Fanck in order to “save the film”. He argued that she had made a mess of the editing herself and that “of about six hundred splices, none were done right.” (Bach, 2007, p. 75) Salkeld (1996) offers a different perspective of events, presenting Riefenstahl in a different light. When writing of Balacs’ employment she comments “so enthusiastic he was that he offered to help develop the screenplay – for no immediate fee, nor prospect for one.” (Salkeld, 1996, p. 67) Salkeld also suggests that Fanck had voluntarily edited her film without her consent, “mutilating it”. Salkeld’s argument establishes that the voluntary actions of those around her were not within her control, however, it is more likely that Riefenstahl exploited whomever she could for her own personal gain.

Leni Riefenstahl with Dr. Arnold Fanck

After receiving poor reviews from Jewish critics on The Blue Light, Riefenstahl’s movement towards the anti-Semitic Nazi Party can be seen as highly opportunist:

The ‘democratic’ Berliner Tageblatt labelled the film “inwardly sick” to which Riefenstahl considered “they have no right to criticize our work”. (Bach, 2007, p. 77) Although Riefenstahl disputed allegations of anti-Semitic vindictiveness, during a radio interview in November 1932 she is reported to have commented “as long as the Jews are film critics, I’ll never have a success. But watch out, when Hitler takes the rudder, everything will change.” (Bach, 2007, p. 77) Riefenstahl argued until the day of her death that she was purely apolitical and never supported Hitler and the Nazis. However, she was seen a short time after receiving poor Jewish critiques reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Heinz von Jaworsky, an assistant cameraman on The Blue Light recalled Riefenstahl’s comment on a train while reading the virulently anti-Semitic book – “I’ll work for them.” (Bach, 2007, p. 81) Such remarks “may have struck a chord with Leni when she stewed over unfavorable reviews” Conveniently for Riefenstahl, if Hitler were to come to power she would no longer have problems with Jewish critics. Her support for such a movement is a clear example of her opportunism even if she remained apolitical to the Nazi agenda.

Riefenstahl’s willing attendance at a Hitler rally supports her opportunism, discrediting claims that she was swept along by events:

At the rally she found Hitler intriguing, describing the experience “like being struck by lightning”. (Bach, 2007, p. 89) Salkeld suggests that “without following much of his argument, she was fascinated by the man himself.” (Salkeld, 1996, p. 81) While Riefenstahl claimed she “rejected his racial ideas” she in fact wrote to Hitler just days before an important press event on her film S.O.S Iceberg. Aware that she might well be risking her career, Riefenstahl then agreed to meet with Hitler on May 22 at Wilhelmshaven, three days before she was due in Greenland. This eagerness to meet with Hitler supports the idea that she saw within the Nazis an opportunity, whether it was based on anti-Semitic ideals or purely artistic. Riefenstahl remembered that during the meeting Hitler announced “once we come to power you must make my films.” (Bach, 2007, p. 91) Although Riefenstahl claimed she denied the request on the basis of his racial prejudices, it’s extreme to suggest that Riefenstahl would “put in jeopardy a film role she had fought – and seduced – to get” if she would walk away without a benefit to her. (Bach, 2007, p. 91) Salkeld, on the other hand suggests it less extraordinary “when you consider the pattern she established early in her life. Whenever anyone made an impression on her, she had to meet him.” Salkeld doesn’t dispute, however, that Riefenstahl was being an opportunist as this stage, commenting “she had the ability to create opportunities for herself, to fashion her own destiny”. (Salkeld, 1996, p. 82) However, Salkeld offers professional and artistic motives rather than anti-Semitic motives implied by Bach. In addition, the legend of the ‘orator-as-hypnotist’ serves as an example of Riefenstahl being swept along by events. As William Shirer observed “it did not matter so much what he said but how he said it.” (Salkeld, 1996, p. 90) This suggests that Riefenstahl was caught up in the euphoria of the Nazi movement, however, exploited the momentum to establish her position within the Nazi realm for the time when Hitler would take power.

Although Riefenstahl relentlessly advocated her dislocation from the Nazis, her establishment within its inner circle contradicted such claims:

Riefenstahl had been Hitler’s personal guest at political meetings and attended the Sportpalast in Berlin on November 2. She was also a personal guest of Joseph Goebbels where she met many of the Nazis most important members. Therefore it is hard to validate her claims that she was purely apolitical. Furthermore, Goebbels’ personal diaries show Riefenstahl’s collaboration as early as June 11 on “a Hitler film” where “she was over the moon about the idea”. (Bach, 2007, p. 108) In addition to the fact that the 1933 Nuremburg Rally was not to be held until late August her enthusiasm would indicate she was not forced to create the film. Riefenstahl took advantage of the opportunity to establish herself within the inner circle of the Nazi Party where, from there she would continue to show her opportunism, creating a film that would become known as Victory of Faith.

Promotional material for Victory of Faith which was a precursor film to her most famous film, Triumph of the Will

Riefenstahl’s self-interested motives continue to be exposed during her direction of the award winning Triumph of the Will:

From Riefenstahl’s first meeting with Hitler in 1932 she claimed she could not make his films because she needed “a very personal relationship with the subject matter. Otherwise she couldn’t be creative”. (Bach, 2007, p. 91) When Triumph of the Will was released the film won gold medals in Venice and Paris. Riefenstahl’s masterful direction of Triumph of the Will would suggest that she did have that “personal relationship with the subject”. Historian Susan Sontag (1975) supports this, arguing that “Riefenstahl was glorying Nazism not only from direction of her superiors but from her own personal fondness for the party and their ideals.” This explains why Riefenstahl acted so opportunistically to accept the project months in advance in April of 1934. Walter Traut, production manager on Triumph of the Will furthermore supports this idea in stating “Leni Riefenstahl was not ordered… She asked to do this picture.” (Bach, 2007, p. 131) Furthermore, on agreeing to “artistic and technical responsibility for the film Riefenstahl insisted that production credit go to her Leni-Riefenstahl-Studio-Film GmbH, thus establishing copyrights in her name and ensuring she received a percentage of the profits. Riefenstahl would try to collect profits “until the day she died”, (Bach, 2007, p. 125) highlighting her selfish calculation of events even after promoting a vehemently anti-Semitic regime.

Riefenstahl exploited both Hitler and Goebbels in order to receive the huge budgets she demanded:

This is effectively presented through her film of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, Olympia where she negotiated with Goebbels and the Propaganda Ministry to secure 1.5 million reichsmarks. Such a budget was three times the size of any blockbuster film at the time. Furthermore, her bad book keeping and unnecessary expenditure ensured she used the full 1.5 million reichsmarks before production of the film had concluded. In a calculated attempt to secure more money, Riefenstahl exploited her ability to go directly to the Fuhrer himself. She “wept unrestrainedly” to persuade Hitler to give her an additional half a million reichsmarks. Riefenstahl said, while speaking of her successes on Olympia, “if I had of been a man I wouldn’t have gotten it” (Bach, 2007, p. 156). This shows her calculated attempts to secure more funding by exploiting others around her, including the Fuhrer himself.

Riefenstahl's Olympia focused on the cult of the body - an idea Hitler emphasized frequently. This adds to the claim that Leni and Hitler shared similar ideas.

Without such massive budgets, Riefenstahl would never have been so artistically successful and innovative:

Her exploitation of huge budgets shows her opportunism to project her career forward. Riefenstahl’s Olympia showed incredible cinematic advancement and innovation, where her use of the newest technology ensured its regard as the greatest sport documentary ever made. Her never before seen innovations included the use of the world’s fastest cameras, longest telephoto lenses, as well as innovation in camera placement. Trenches were dug into the ground to capture low angle images of athletes, while planes and balloons were used to film aerial shots. In collaboration with Hans Ertl, Riefenstahl captured the first underwater images during the diving event. Although it was Ertl who built the apparatus to capture these images, Riefenstahl claimed it was entirely her own work. This further exemplifies the idea of her using others to her advantage. Riefenstahl exploited her massive budgets to which she owes her successes whether they are considered propaganda or purely art.

Different historian perspectives present Leni Riefenstahl in many ways. While many regard Riefenstahl a Nazi propagandist, responsible for the projection of Hitler during his reign, others see Riefenstahl as a female pioneer, responsible for incredible cinematic innovation. Within her life there are many occasions where Riefenstahl showed opportunism in order to advance herself, while at other times such advancements were not within her control.


Bach, S. (2007). Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl. Knopf.

Bonnell, A. (2001). Leni Riefenstahl: Sources and Debates. In Teaching History.

Mason, K. (2007). Republic to Reich. Sydney: Nelson.

Salkeld, A. (1996). A Portrait of Leni Riefenstahl. London: Pimlico.

Sontag, S. (1975). Fascinating Facism. New York.

Webb, K. (2008). Leni Riefenstahl 1902-2003. Get Smart Education.

A Great Reformer – Pope John XXIII

Social reform has accelerated throughout the past decades and the Catholic Church has seemingly been left behind. The greatest threats to the endurance of the Catholic Church were not addressed throughout Pope Benedict’s papal residency and have hurt the church’s reputation across many affairs. With the appointment of Pope Francis the Church must find a way to reform much of their social agenda in order to make themselves relevant to today’s society. There was a similarly conservative agenda before Pope John XXIII was elected Pope in 1958. He was elected a caretaker pope, however, this did not stop him from implementing the greatest reforms in the church’s history through his calling of the Second Vatican Council. Today, Pope Francis must enact even greater social reforms and revive the church’s position amongst society in a world dominated by science and technology.

John XXIII implemented the largest reforms in the church's history in an attempt update it to the 20th C.What was happening at the time of his John XXIII’s election as pope?

The Catholic Church was entrenched in conservative theological beliefs where priests were ordered to vow against modernism, that is, reject technology that questioned the church’s teachings and threatened the church’s unquestioned power and authority. This was a result of increased knowledge about life and the universe where Christians were beginning to question the church and thus threatened the uniformity of the Vatican. Much of the Church’s central administration consisted of aging, Italian ultra-conservatives who, distanced from the modern world, had a vast influence and strong control on the church, and on the Pope. They were generally satisfied with the church the way it was and looked upon efforts to change it with deep hostility.

Furthermore, at the height of the Cold War, nuclear war threatened peace in the world. John XXIII was strongly opposed to Communism which is evident through his papal residency.

John XXIII was named man of the year 1962 in the midst of bitter conflict between the USA and Soviet Union where his influence was far wielding in averting armed conflict.

What were his contributions to the development and expression of Christianity?

John was committed to adapting the church’s stance and ideologies concerning revolutionary changes in science, economics, morals and politics that had encompassed much of the twentieth century. In doing this John’s overarching objectives as pope was to achieve aggiornamento or updating of the church to make it appropriate for the modern day. This was the main idea which is associated with Vatican II (1962-1965). He attempted to move the Catholic Church away from century old teachings and work together with science and politics. John sought to bring the church into closer touch with the modern world where there was a need for science and society to be intertwined with Catholicism. Although this challenged conservatives within the church, John believed that by embracing scientific advancements, Catholics could better understand and marvel in the Creator’s greatness.

Although only a caretaker pope, John XXIII made an undeniably important contribution to the church's modern relevance.Vatican II:

Through Vatican II, John XXIII is credited with many of the reforms that made Catholicism more accessible and attractive to believers in the modern time. In achieving aggiornamento the church would become the ‘people’s church’ – more Catholic and less Roman. “Everyone said they wanted peace and harmony, unfortunately conflicts grew…What should the Church do?… Shouldn’t she stand out as a beacon of light?”

In inviting the many bishops to deliberate, John diverted authority from the conservatives and showed that the real power was held not in Rome, but rather the bishops constituted the leadership of the church. Furthermore, through Vatican II John also established a greater role for the laity within the church where it was recognized the laity formed an essential component of the church. In transforming entrenched ideas of clericalism (rigid power structure) and allowing greater lay participation in much of the mass and other rituals, including communion, the church became much more appealing for adherents and moved from century old traditions, achieving John’s aims of aggiornamento. As well as the usual translation of aggiornamento, a ‘bringing-up-to-date’, it has been said that when asked about the purpose of the proposed Council, he replied, “to let some fresh air into the Church”.

The Mass:

The first session of Vatican II saw significant changes in the ritual of the mass. These included: the priest having the ability to give mass facing his congregation, rather than having to them his back. Furthermore, the mass was to be celebrated in the local vernacular, rather than Latin. This meant that people of all races and ethnicities could actively participate in the mass and be able to understand the word of the lord, thus understanding the teachings of the church. In establishing Vatican II, John XXIII ensured these significant changes would effectively increase the appeal of Catholicism to adherents.

Before Vatican II the mass was said facing away from the congregation. Vatican II changed this and today the mass is said facing the audience and also spoken in local vernacular.


The church’s teachings influenced through scripture were redefined at Vatican II. Pope John spoke of the need for this ‘It is not that the Gospel has changed: it is that we have begun to understand it better… the moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and to look far ahead.’ John acknowledged that the scripture teachings must also be updated (‘aggiornamento’) to appropriately appeal to the modern day, thus fitting more appropriately with science. This was a significant contribution John made, and although at first many were confused and frightened by the changes, today there is an emphasis placed back on bible as the central part of liturgical celebrations. This ensured the church’s teachings were not lost amongst modern day interpretations.

Vatican II brought bishops together from all over the world which made a statement that the church's authority was held by them and not by ultra-conservative Italian cardinals in the Vatican


Influencing not just relations between Catholicism and Protestantism, but rather all religious traditions, John’s contribution to ecumenism heavily impacted much of the later part of the twentieth century. Everywhere he went John made a point of meeting with people of other religious traditions. While in Turkey he rescued and provided for Jews displaced by Nazi authority, and more than any other Pope, welcomed more non-Catholic rulers to the Vatican. John initiated many historic visits to the Vatican, including the first Archbishop of Canterbury since the 14th century. Through Vatican II, John influenced a change in Catholic mentality that the Church alone held the truth. In removing this idea of triumphalism, Christian variants would focus on common grounds, rather than the differences which demonstrated that the walls that divide Christianity do not reach as high as heaven. In calling the Orthodox and Protestant churches “brothers and sisters”, and encouraging dialogue between Eastern and Western Orthodox churches there are many positive relationships maintained between varying denominations through the Christian faith, creating a more loving, supportive and secure atmosphere for all Christian adherents. At Vatican II, John invited members of other faiths as ‘honoured guests’, including leading figures of Islam.

Papal Encyclicals: Pacem in Terris and Mater et Magistra are examples of how John intended to intertwine the church with politics and society:

Pacem in Terris – Pope for Peace:

John contributed not only to peace within Christianity but to peace within the world. This was significant at the height of the Cold War with the Cuban Missile Crisis threatening the world with nuclear war. John issued ‘Pacem in Terris’ (Peace on Earth), a papal encyclical where he promoted world peace “not by recourse to arms, but rather by negotiation.” Such actions of John’s were significant as saw the beginning of the church questioning governments on social issues concerning human, political, economic and religious rights. ‘Today more than ever, we are called to serve mankind as such, and not merely Catholics; to defend above all and everywhere, the rights of the human person and not merely those of the Catholic Church…’

Mater et Magistra – Christianity and Social Progress:

Written in 1961 this papal encyclical translated to English (mother and teacher) refers to the role of the church to promote human dignity. In the thirty years prior the world had changed quite considerably, both politically and economically.

– Scientific advances included atomic energy, new means of communication (radio and television), faster transportation and the beginnings of the space race.

– Social systems had changed with the breakdown of class barriers

– Lack of economic balance among countries

– Breakdown of colonialism with independence

While the church’s main goal is to care for its souls and lead them to heaven, it is also concerned with the livelihood, education and wellbeing. This is shown through Jesus’ ministry where his primary mission is to guide humankind to salvation; however, he fed the hungry and cared for worldly needs.

John saw this as a call for governments to care for the social needs of their citizens. Although John outlines the need economic progress, Mater et Magistra calls for this economic development without sacrifice to the welfare of citizens. Furthermore, in his encyclical, John outlined the need for more developed and wealthier nations to aid struggling nations in the pursuit of justice and human dignity.

“Whatever the progress in technology and economic life, there can be neither justice nor peace in the world, so long as men fail to realize how great is their dignity, for they have been created by God and are his children”

“Rather, it is necessary that economic undertaking be governed by justice and charity as the principle laws of social life”

John XXIII wrote a number of influential encyclicals which had far reaching influences