In “Tor! The Story of German Football,” Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger’s absorbing historical survey, he quotes iconic player Helmut Schön about competing during World War II, including the 1944 national championship finals between his Sporting Club Dresden and the Air Force Sports Club of Hamburg shortly after D-Day:
“The Allied Forces had landed in France, in Belarus the Russians began their largest offensive. Didn’t we feel fear? This question, people tend to forget, didn’t present itself to Germans. The map of Europe still led us to believe in strength. Norway and Denmark, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary — they all were ‘firmly in German hands’. No one realised how quickly it could all tumble down.”
Noah Davis settles in on that match in a fine piece today on SB Nation, with Schön at the center of the encounter at the Berlin Olympiastadion. “Last champions of the Third Reich” details the symbolic need Hitler felt for the Nazi regime to attend, since it was the venue for the 1936 Olympics.
Yet there was the fear of Allied bombing, war-weary German citizens didn’t fill the place up despite cheap admission prices and some conscripted players had to work to get military leave in order to show up. As Davis explains, it wasn’t a complete diversion:
“In less than an hour, the fans and players would have to return to the reality of Germany at war. But now, the game was on, and it remained close. Soccer was the main event. Dresden attacked as the second period started, but Hamburg captain Reinhold Münzenberg, a defender who played more for the national team between 1930 and 1939 than anyone else did, marshaled his troops in response. The Luftwaffe Eagle sat prominently on the chest of his LSV uniform as he urged his men to maintain their formation. It was, briefly, a valiant defensive effort by a team being overrun.”
Davis draws from Hesse-Lichtenberger’s work, especially his emphasis on how important it was for the Nazis for soccer to continue during the war, mostly for domestic morale. Both the German championship finals and the German Cup finals were played through 1944, to be followed by several years of inactivity only after the fighting had stopped.
The national team played friendlies until 1942 under Sepp Herberger, who spent the early years of Hitler’s dictatorship in charge of the famous Breslau-Elf team.
By contrast, the English domestic league play was not contested between 1939 and 1946, and its FA Cup was suspended from 1940 to 1944.
West Germany rose fast after the war, upsetting Hungary under Herberger’s guidance to win the 1954 World Cup, admitted back into the family of sporting nations at the dawn of the Wirtschaftswunder.
Schön, whose family survived the devastating Dresden bombings, managed West Germany to the 1966 World Cup finals, won by England at London’s Wembley Stadium in Geoff Hurst’s memorable (and still controversial) two-goal performance.
That event was the international coming out for a young Franz Beckenbauer, who was captain of West Germany’s World Cup-winning team in 1974 and coached it to its last title in 1990. The star of that team was Jürgen Klinsmann, the current U.S. national team head coach.
Davis does well to illustrate how this final wartime sporting interlude, near the end of a tragic period of German and world history, offered a flash of normalcy, if not a completely joyous one.
Hesse-Lichtenberger’s full book, written in English and which I’m finishing now, tells a very rich story of a nation’s embrace of a sport that has been one of its brightest post-war cultural legacies.