Guest blog by Kevin Simpson, author of the new book Soccer under the Swastika
This past summer, the world gathered again to celebrate athletic excellence at the 2016 Rio Olympics and at the very same moment, images continued to emerge from the Syrian refugee crisis that continued to tear at the heart of observers of the tragedy. Some would argue sport actually distracts from such events but I am convinced that sport, especially the “beautiful game”, holds great promise for defeating the worst of our human impulses.
Parallels to the mass migrations 70 years ago resulting from the devastating effects of World War II and the Holocaust are easy to make. But what is often forgotten is that before the conflagration of war and genocide, footballers across Germany and Austria were forced from the game they loved, often at the direction of the very same clubs who once sought them out for their footballing talent.
The economic consequences of these decisions crippled one Germany club in particular, a club on the ascendency in pre-Nazi Germany. That club is the Bavarian juggernaut, FC Bayern Munich, Germany’s most successful club that claimed its very first national championship in 1932, defeating Eintracht Frankfurt 2:0 (and managed by a Viennese Jew, Richard Dombi). Led by visionary chairman Kurt Landauer and a host of other Jewish members, FC Bayern would not survive the Nazi onslaught.
Not many contemporary readers will know this, but the “Nazification “of German soccer football clubs and of the DFB happened with lightning-fast speed, often well before Hitler ordered the purges of German sport. Successful Jewish-influenced clubs like Austria Vienna FC were temporarily closed after the purges and placed in administration. Journalists, managers, and the players, who all happened to be Jewish, disappeared immediately from the national footballing scene.
On the very day Kurt Landauer was forced to resign as president of FC Bayern, the Dachau concentration camp (which shockingly had a soccer league inside the camp for a time) was established outside of Munich, the birthplace of National Socialism. FC Bayern would languish another 20 years while their rivals 1860 Munich collaborated and became the “flagship club” of the Nazi era, reaching several league and cup finals during the war years.
Landauer, imprisoned in Dachau for a short time after Kristallnacht, survived the war in neutral Switzerland, returning from exile to the club in 1947. Landauer was fortunate, unlike the vast majority of Jews purged from German soccer. It would be another 23 years after the defeat of the Nazis before FC Bayern would again claim the German domestic title in 1968.
The Nazis moved against professionalization of football, decrying the business of football and the paying of salaries to players who might otherwise contribute to the ‘national community’ of workers. At this same time, Austrian football had risen to the pinnacle of European football precisely because of professionalism of its top domestic league.
Dubbed Das Wunderteam, Austria would lose only three of 33 games between 1931 and 1934, on the eve of the second World Cup, scoring 101 goals in that span. This is the team of Matthias Sindelar and Hugo Meisl, the men credited with inventing modern football, a cultured, intellectual, and refined style of play that many liken today to the tiki-taka football played by FC Barcelona. In the spring of 1938, Nazi Germany “annexed” Austria, forever changing the face of football in that country.
But it was an eruption of violence in the fall of 1938 that signaled to many footballers that the time had finally come to leave the game they loved. Many of those Jewish players and managers remaining in the top-flight of European football left their clubs en masse after the violent outbursts of Kristallnacht, the carefully orchestrated “Night of Broken Glass” on November 9 and 10, 1938 that saw 100 Jews murdered and thousands of Jewish businesses, apartments and synagogues ransacked, looted and burned across Germany and Austria.
After the Nazi ascent to power in Germany, football had become “Aryanised” and the loss of footballing talent, on both sides of the touchline, was gone forever. The economic fallout of these purges is immeasurable and may seem inconsequential in light of the human suffering of the times. But this tension hasn’t stopped clubs and survivors from remembering.
In the postwar years, the FC Bayern ignored the contributions of Kurt Landauer and, like many other football clubs in Germany, repressed the horrors of the Holocaust. The scrubbing of history was most evident when longtime Bayern executives would deflect questions about this period in club history, relying on the euphemistic phrase of the “political events between 1933 and 1945”.
But a documentary aired on German television in 2014 aimed to rectify these denials, building on the support of the most loyal fans of FC Bayern who have recently embraced this forgotten past. These “Ultras”, many unveiling banners and others wearing scarves and t-shirts all bearing the name and visage of Landauer, proudly celebrate the former club president from the grandstands before the vital return leg of a Champions League elimination match against a Russian team from Moscow. These efforts are especially meaningful in the contemporary game as these Russian fans had engaged in racist chanting and the display of far-right symbols in the previous match, which resulted in an empty-stadium punishment imposed by UEFA, the governing body of European football.
With the rise of right-wing politics in Eastern Europe and continued flare-ups of anti-Semitism among supporters in the terraces in Russia, Ukraine, and Croatia, we can appeal at least to the economic self-interest of the European masters of the game by rejecting intolerance on all its forms.
In my new book, Soccer under the Swastika, I take the reader through this rise of soccer in Germany and Austria at the same time the Nazis were seizing political power and inflicting their brand of propaganda and imperialism on the world. Yet, at the same time dictators used football to advance their fascist ideologies, soccer endured. For those footballers purged from the game, many started up leagues inside concentration camps. The most bizarre of these stories finds games in the shadows of the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death camp in southern Poland that has become the very representation of the Holocaust.
These hidden stories of soccer under the Nazis represent a past that is, sadly, slipping away. Images of Nazi Germany’s so-called “enemies” in tattered clothing chasing a football on dusty assembly squares and of imprisoned spectators crowding into balconies to watch league soccer in Jewish ghettos call out from a lost history. Soccer in these times was a pleasure pursuit, a means of survival, and a method of resistance against the most heinous regime the world had ever seen. As modern day football struggles to combat racism, homophobia, and discrimination, these lessons of a not-so-distant past have much to teach us.
Nota bene: We can also get kids to read about this history, much in the same fantastic way Ben Lyttleton has done with his new book, Football School: Where Football Explains the World. Besides getting young readers to stick with reading, they can learn about a history that is disappearing. And they will realize that being a bystander is no longer an option.