Professional football in the modern world is omnipresent. No matter what obstacle it faces, the game has a way of overcoming the impediment to continue steamrolling along.
A tsunami strikes your country? Don’t sweat it, you’ll just go ahead and win a World Cup. Your homeland has been at war for the better part of two decades? We’ll just go ahead and call you the “Asian Cinderellas.” Your nation has been embroiled in a five-year civil war? Wow, it pretty much ended because of your famous player.
Whether saddled with despair, destruction or disaster, soccer just seems incapable of being stopped. The sport is so culturally ingrained into the fabric of (most) modern societies, pulling the plug on the game during dire circumstances could have monumentally negative effects. Much like the Romans using gladiatorial games to distract the masses from plague and famine, today’s world leaders know the importance of the game’s ability to sooth the populace during times of trauma.
But when Europe was in the depths of the second Great War, this rule didn’t always hold true.
All across the continent, just as was the case during the first World War, league football finally found reason to grind to a halt. England suspended their first division from 1939 to 1946, Italy during the 1944/1945 season, and France from 1939 through 1945. Between bombed club grounds, the imprisonment of players in concentration camps, and the popular idea of general survival, the professional game didn’t really have the resources necessary to carry on throughout the war.
Curiously though, soccer didn’t take a break everywhere during World War II.
Nazi Germany, the primary antagonist of the era, was one of the few nations that attempted to keep their football leagues running during the war. Already well-known for their reliance on propaganda to influence public opinion, it’s not surprising that the methods of the ancient Roman’s did not go unnoticed by Hitler’s Nazi Party.
So just as was the case with every other aspect of German society at the time, the Nazis went about changing football to suit their interests. No portion of soccer — the club game, the international game, tactics or players– was left untouched.
The Club Game
Upon the Nazi takeover, clubs –along with numerous unions and other organizations– with left-leaning memberships were either dissolved or forced to merge with those that supported the Third Reich ideology. A wave of new Nazi-supporting and military clubs also flooded the regional competitions, often drawing away memberships from clubs that were around prior to the regime.
The club game also saw a drastic reorganization on a national scale, as the regional leagues which predated the interwar years were scrapped in favor of new, Third-Reich-approved regional leagues called Gauliga in 1933. While that development in itself isn’t all that interesting, it does become interesting when you consider that Germany was continuously expanding its borders during this time. This necessitated the expansion of the Gauligen system to
provide distraction to accommodate new territories and peoples. Without this, we would have never seen an Austrian side crowned the “champion of Germany,” such was the case in 1941 when Rapid Wein won the national Gauligen Tournament.
While one of the staples of the Hitler regime’s ideology was racial purity, the expansion of their regional league system along with their expanding empire meant that inferior races could end up being drafted into the competition. Considering the importance of physical superiority to their Aryan racist agenda, how could the Germans allow non-German’s to participate in their displays of athletic dominance?However, I find this direction that club football took under the Nazis to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the Nazi influence on the sport.
Well, they didn’t. Predictably, the Nazis could best be described as “selective” when they considered their Gauligen expansions. While Western European conquests (Austria, Alsace, Lorraine, and Luxembourg) were given their own or incorporated into existing regional leagues, clubs from Eastern countries (Poland and Czechoslovakia) were barred from joining Gauligen and had to play in their own competitions, unless the club was of the German ethnic population in the area.
The other interesting side of the Nazi Gauligen system was their choice to continue on with regional competitions in the first place. While Germany stayed with the traditional system, the rest of Western Europe blazed into today’s 21st century-style national leagues: England’s First Division, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, Holland’s Erediverse, etc. Germany, in a time when consolidating resources to help the greater cause was popular, missed the boat on truly being able to capitalize off of the domestic popularity of football. Additionally, it would have allowed the regime to handpick individual clubs for inclusion instead of having to incorporate entire groups of leagues.
But as we all know, the Nazi’s didn’t always make the smartest of decisions.
The International Game
Just as mentioned above, a big tenet of the Third Reich government’s propaganda was the physical superiority of the German people. After all, you can’t possibly go around claiming that your country’s people are the “master race” if those same people aren’t the biggest bad-asses in all athletic pursuits.
Hitler’s first opportunity to flaunt the extraordinary talents of his athletes was the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The chancellor was, of course, delighted with the medal haul Germany posted during the Eleventh Olympiad, tallying an impressive Games’ high of 89. But the Olympics were too big of a spotlight on the Hitler’s ideology for the party to leave the outcomes to pure chance alone. And the football tournament, recently demoted to the red-headed step-child of international football after two successful World Cups, seemed the perfect place to use the invisible hand of influence.
When the pre-tournament favorite home side crashed out at the quarter-final stage, German allies were the next to receive the benefit of the Führer’s favor. Fascist Italy, who had just hosted and won the 1934 World Cup went on to win the tournament… how much benefit they received from the Nazi’s influence remains debatable. However, the Silver-medalist Austrians certainly couldn’t say the same.
Peru faced off against the soon-to-be-annexed Nazi-neighbors in the semifinal, and went on to win 4-2 after extra time. However, a quick appeal was lodged by Austria over a multiple dubious points: 1) a phantom pitch invasion by Peruvian fans, 2) the pitch wasn’t suitable for football, and 3) that the referee gave favor to the Peruvian players’ who were generally big bullies to the Austrian players during the match. FIFA and the Olympic committee agreed, declaring the match null and calling for a replay in an empty stadium.
Peru, keenly aware they were being bent over, told everyone to shove it and forfeited the match and brought the rest of their Olympic delegation home. After all, the outlandish decision made by the organizers seemed impossible given these following facts:
- Peru had a negligible following at the tournament, given the difficulty of Peruvian citizens to afford the long trip to Germany. So who would have stormed the field for them? Not that it mattered how big their following was: it would have been the responsibility of the Nazi soldiers at the stadium to keep them back, and they weren’t exactly a group known for their leniency.
- Wouldn’t both the Olympic organizing committee and FIFA be the ones responsible for approving the use of the pitch before the game? Additionally, why was the visiting team punished for a pitch invasion? After all, it’s FIFA tradition to punish the hosting side.
- Claiming a referee bias for Peru during the match is ludicrous: they had three freaking goals called back in the nullified 4-2 win. I don’t care how biased you think a referee is against your team, if he cancels out three of the opposing team’s seven goals, he can’t be that biased.
Both FIFA and IOC have since pointed fingers at each other regarding who made the decision to force a replay, proving that both organizations have been corrupt since the dawn of time. Either way, it’s generally accepted that Nazi and Italian Fascist influence played a major role in the decision to make sure that their Germanic/ideological brothers from Austria moved on.
Everyone knows about the militaristic culture that was pervasive in Nazi Germany. Though every Third Reich organization served different purposes — from the Hitler Youth, to the paramilitary Schutzstaffel (or SS), the Gestapo secret police, all the way up to the full-blown Wehrmacht army — they all had one common characteristic: offense is the best form of defense.
Assuming you received your schooling anywhere in the Western hemisphere, you learned all about this Nazi tactic, most commonly called blitzkrieg. If you would rather not try to recall the nightmarish memories of your high school history class, I’ll let Wikipedia provide you a quick lesson:
Concentrating overwhelming force at high speed to break through enemy lines, and, once the latter is broken, proceeding without regard to its flank. Through constant motion, the blitzkrieg attempts to keep its enemy off-balance, making it difficult to respond effectively at any given point before the front has already moved on.
During the early parts of the war, the blitzkrieg strategy so highly effective that the Nazi’s practically waltzed their way through Belgium, Luxembourg, Poland and France. This success quickly inspired the application of blitzkrieg to other, non-military portions of German life.
Being a game of opposing teams doing battle with one another, football made for the natural candidate for the application of blitzkrieg theory. The football application of “lightning war” was championed by Karl Oberhuber, the head of the Bavarian Gauliga at the time of the fall of Western Europe.
Sure, there is some truth in the phrase “a good offense is the best form of defense.” Just look at team’s like Barcelona, who’s offense is so good that the other team rarely sees any possession of the ball. But Oberhuber’s ideas of shifting the formation to a threadbare defensive line in order to provide more attackers up front (utilizing zany formations like a 2-3-5 or 1-3-2-4) took that idea to the extreme. He was so overtly opposed to defensive tactics, especially those of legendary Arsenal manager Herbert Chapmann and German national team coach Sepp Herberger (whose managerial style, to Karl at least, was “too Jewish” or “too English”… one and the same I guess?), that he feared that the country’s footballing standing would suffer.
After threatening journalists and clubs who dared to criticize his footballing blitzkrieg ideas, Oberhuber was able to convince top clubs such as Bayern Munich and FC Nuremberg to adopt the system. And just as you would probably predict, both clubs did horribly with so much space in the defensive third for the opposing team to waltz through. All the opposition would need to do is kick a long ball over the wall of offensive players and then use their numerical advantage at the other end of the pitch.
Needless to say, Blitzkrieg football — and Oberhuber’s sporting future for that matter — didn’t last very long.
While clubs, journalists and supporters were obviously hard hit by the Nazi crackdown in the game, the individual players probably took the biggest beating of them all. Much easier to target and eliminate than larger organizations, players, despite their social standings, were often subjected to the same harsh treatments suffered by the rest of the general populace.
First and foremost, and as to be expected, was the exclusion and elimination of Jewish players from the game. One prime example of this was the murder of Julius Hirsch at Auschwitz in 1945. Hirsch, the first of only two Jews to have ever played for the German national team, was even a decorated German soldier during World War I. A number of other Jewish players lost their lives during the Holocaust, including Henrik Nadler, a Hungarian international.
The Jewish players, however, weren’t the only players to face persecution at the hands of the Nazis. The most famous of example of this is the so-called “Death Match” in Nazi-occupied Ukraine in August of 1942.
A conglomerate of surviving former players from Kiev’s two most successful clubs, Dynamo and Lokomotiv, banded together to form FC Start as a means to play the sport they loved — and indirectly challenge Nazi sovereignty. The side became wildly popular after bashing a series of local and regiment teams in the area, thus becoming a symbol of defiance that didn’t stand well with their German occupiers. Hoping to quickly dispel the folklore gathering around the team’s undefeated record, the Third Reich sent in the heavy hitting Flakelf team. The official German Luftwaffe side was known for dominating within their gauliga, and were fully expected to stifle Start’s potent attack. Instead, they lost 1-5 to the Ukrainians.
Obviously, the defeat of pure Aryan Airforce pilots by a bunch of dirty Russki’s didn’t sit well with the Nazis. A rematch was requested by Flakelf, and three days later, the teams faced off again. Rumor has it that the men of FC Start were visited by German SS officers both prior to the match and at the half to remind them of the outcome that should happen and the possible consequences of their victory. Though descendants of the participants dispute that fact, what isn’t disputed is that Start emerged victorious again, with the score of 5-3. Within the next ten days, a majority of the players were rounded up and dispatched to work camps, where only a few escaped execution or death.
Although the players living in the battlegrounds on the continent were engulfed in Second Great War, they weren’t the only players who’s playing lives were greatly affected by it either. Hundreds, if not thousands, of players from around Europe freely (or not so-freely) gave up their playing careers as they were drafted into their countries’ war efforts. England, unsurprisingly, had an entire battalion composed of footballers. Some footballers served in the army prior to their playing careers, including Russian legend Lev Yashin, Considered to be the finest goalkeeper of all time, a 12-year-old Yashin worked in constructing wartime goods including weapons and tanks parts.
Needless to say, World War II was a dark time in human history. The importance of soccer during that time could easily be considered trivial by many, especially when compared to the atrocities and horrible events that regularly occurred under the reign of terror brought on by Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
But what I found amazing as I was caught up in all of the research needed to write this article, was the power of the sport to help raise the spirits of the oppressed peoples during this dark time. Football was a means of escape from the horrors that were every day life, as well as an avenue for the oppressed to stand up against the might of an impossibly huge enemy. Even when the war claimed a region’s footballing scene as a victim, in almost every case, the game was one of the first things to return to help aid the recovery efforts.
Yet, the lessons of old are just as important now as they were then. Today, we are again seeing a rise in Nazi influence in supporters groups around Europe. While we aren’t at war in the way we were during the 1930’s and 40’s, racist chants and fascist overtones are again echoing through our stadiums. It’s troubling because the clubs it seems to be affecting the most aren’t being near as proactive at stamping it out as we would like.
But I take hope from these lessons from World War II: we know that football can still persevere and conquer its evils. After all, it’s conquered this foe before.