Physical exercise and competition played a major role in Nazi Germany in the efforts to spread its hateful propaganda and racial ideologies. Football was a willing participant in the enforcement of discrimination and anti-Semitism, but as Ryan Clarke explores, Hitler would find out personally that this was one sport where the outcome could not be controlled.
Sport is inextricably linked to society in a way that makes it a vital tool for understanding the values and morals of a society. An often cited example is from the reign of General Francisco Franco in Spain, when much of Catalan culture was banned, but the Camp Nou, FC Barcelona’s stadium, was a bastion of Catalan culture; where the Catalan people could celebrate their culture, morals and values without fear.
With the rise of National Socialism in Germany, the Nazi Party quickly understood the importance of sport, the symbols it could create and the propaganda it could produce.
Hitler sought to create the Volksgemeinschaft; creating a ‘racial community’ that showcased the strength of the ‘Aryan’ race above all others. The rise of this ideal underpinned much of Nazi policy, at home and abroad, and sport was identified as a medium of promoting this ‘racial community’.
The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games were an exercise in propaganda to show the superiority of this ‘Aryan racial community’. Despite Jesse Owens becoming synonymous with the Games, the German team won 89 medals (33 gold) in total, across a wide range of sports; compared to the US who came second with 56 medals (24 gold) which mostly came from track and field.
The Games were a resounding success for Hitler; from athletic performance, to the image of the nation and National Socialism that was portrayed. A timely reminder about how despotic regimes often use big sporting events to boost their image and promote their ideology.
Hitler had no interest in sport other than as another instrument through which his ideology could be promoted, and he would his followers compete against each other in interpreting what he might want from them. German football clubs and the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (DFB) showed a complete willingness to fall into line with Nazi policy.
Even before the Minister of Education, Bernhard Rust, had ordered the expulsion of Jews from the nation’s youth, welfare and sporting organisations, the German football sphere had pre-empted this and began a campaign of expulsions. The DFB and football clubs felt that it needed to take this hard-line approach to ‘protect’ the game from being labelled an ‘English disease’ and unpatriotic by the Nazis. The DFB also made use of the magazine, kicker, to announce on the 19th of April 1933 (2 months before Rust’s order), that Jews were ‘unacceptable’ in the organisation; the kick in the teeth here was that kicker was founded by Walther Bensemann – himself a Jew.
A club that Bensemann also founded, Karlsruher FV, forced their former international player Julius Hirsch to leave the club by relentlessly abusing him with anti-Semitic sentiments. Hirsch was later murdered in Auschwitz. 1. FC Nürnberg expelled all their Jewish members, while Eintracht Frankfurt sacked their club treasurer Hugo Reiss. Reiss was integral to building Eintracht, but that did not mean anything to the club so close to his heart.
One of the only bright spots in this period for German football came from Bayern München, who at the time were a small regional team from Bavaria. They refused to toe the Nazi line and stood by their club president, Kurt Landauer, until Bayern were forced to relieve him of his duty. After Landauer escaped to Switzerland in 1939, Bayern visited him when touring the country in 1940. After the war, Landauer returned to Germany in 1947 and was re-elected president of Bayern – fourteen years after being forced from his position.
The propaganda campaign of the 1930s even managed to make its way to London for the England vs Germany friendly in December of 1935. This match was about more than just football; the Nazi labour front – Strength Through Joy – organised 10,000 Germans to ‘invade’ the English capital in a show of the prosperity and organisational skill of National Socialism. Even though the Germans lost 3-0, the occasion went without incident. The behaviour of the invading Germans was exemplary and, despite losing, German players Fritz Szepan (the star of the dominant Schalke side) and Hans Jakob particularly impressed the hosts.
This was an undoubted victory for the image of Hitler’s ‘racial community’ and despite him and Goebbels both being men who had no interest in sport, they understood the value of the ‘spectacle’ that sport could provide them in getting their message across to the people. The historian Arnd Krüger notes:
‘Goebbels set about controlling the thinking of the people, insisting on mass participation in actions that underscored the power of the new system. Sport played a key role in his attempt to secure hegemony: it provided a sense of self-sacrifice, of courage, while displaying the elitism of a natural order according to physical traits. Sport in this way was a secular cult of physical strength and endurance. In assuring Nazi hegemony, a culture of consent was reached to offset the more brutal and coercive elements of the regime: successful sports for national pride and other forms of popular entertainment.’
If the rise of the ‘racial community’ in football needed to be clarified any further, the DFB’s press officer, Guido von Mengden, wrote that ‘National Socialism has restored the meaning of sport, footballers are the political soldiers of the Führer.’ This tangentially connects to the tactics of this period of German football also. Hans Presser, of Austrian side Rapid Vienna, described the German style of football as, ‘they play strictly according to army regulations … it’s their strength-through-kicking football.’
FC Schalke 04, this most successful German team of this period, did not follow this regimented football philosophy and, despite the players’ individual political beliefs, played an imaginative brand of football that was distinctly ‘un-German’. The Schalke style was known as der Kreisel – the spinning top, almost a prototype of the Dutch totaalvoetbal of the 1970s; it was described by their defender Hans Bornemann as, ‘those out of possession running into space who determined the direction of the attack … only when there was nobody left to pass to that we finally scored a goal.’ Using this tactic, Schalke made it to nine finals during the Nazi regime, winning six of those finals.
The tactics of the era were not the only things in football that appeared to be regimented under Nazi control. Children had to be members of the Hitler Youth to even be able to participate. In addition to that, club members also had to prove their ‘Aryan’ descent. The clubs themselves weren’t even seen as sporting organisations, just tools to help the Nazi have a steady flow of fit young men ready to join the Wehrmacht. In fact, there was a plan to get rid of the already existing sporting clubs and groups and replace them with newly created ones, because they would be more easily controllable.
An example of this can still be seen to this day at VfL Bochum, who currently compete in the 2. Bundesliga. Initially a gymnastics club, Bochumer Turnverein 1848 was forced to merge with Turn- und Sportverein Bochum 1908 (football, hockey, track and field, tennis and handball) and Sportverein Germania Vorwärts Bochum 1906 (another local football team) to form VfL Bochum in April 1938. This was a blueprint for what the Nazi regime planned on carrying on with after the War.
The final nail in football’s coffin was the Anschluss with Austria in 1938. It was claimed that the Nazis were welcomed into Austria, but this could not have been further from the truth for the Austrian wunderteam of the 1930s who despised German football, as was highlighted earlier. There was a constant feeling of hatred between the Austrians and Germans and during the match to celebrate the success that was Anschluss, Austrian star
– toyed with the Germans and humiliated the Nazi officials in the stands during the unification game, after which he retired and refused to play for the unified German team. Later, Sindelar and his girlfriend were found dead under mysterious circumstances in his Vienna apartment. The team was to be selected at a ratio of 6:5 or 5:6, according to the Führer and the DFB. This was to be the epitome of the ‘racial community’ in football but it ended in abject failure at the 1938 World Cup, the pan-German team knocked out in the first round by Switzerland 4-2.
The pre-eminent international team of this era, however, were the Italians who were perceived to be invincible – winning two World Cups and two Olympic gold medals. Similarly, to what was highlighted previously, Hitler and the Nazis wanted to use sport, particularly international sport, to show and establish the superiority of the ‘racial community’. Hitler came to believe that football was too chaotic and uncontrollable for propaganda purposes. A major factor in that realisation came during the Third Reich’s most successful sporting achievement, the 1936 Berlin Olympics. With Hitler himself, and many other high-ranking Nazi officials, in attendance the almighty favourites Germany were eliminated in the quarter-finals by Norway.
Hitler had no interest in sport, but he could see the potential that they had when it came to pushing the narrative of his ideal ‘racial community’ and its superiority over all others. Football was a means to an end, and when they sought to emulate the successes of Italy and failed, they concluded that football was simply too volatile to control.