Alon K. Raab
Israel Tzvi Raab Z’L, my father, was a speedy winger for Maccabi Tel Aviv in the 1930s and, in the following decade, for Hakoach New York. Among the many football tales he regaled me with throughout my childhood, along hymns to such wizards of the ball as Matthews, Di Stéfano and Garrincha and praises lavished on teams whose players were tough, creative and fair, was also the claim that his American team could, and did, beat elite European teams of the era. My skepticism about such an alleged success, in light of the game’s lowly status in the United States, was answered by a long lecture about Jewish life between the wars, mighty Austrian and Hungarian players who proudly wore their Star of David on their football uniforms, and Jews excelling in every arena of life.
I did not find any information about those Middle-European Jewish stars, (some of which did indeed migrate to the Americas and display their considerable skills in their new lands), or about my father in European Football in World War II: Training and Entertainment, Ideology and Propaganda, but the anthology, co-edited by Markwart Herzog and Fabian Brandle, is an important contribution for understanding a unique period in the history of the game, and the various roles that football fulfills during times of war.
Football literature and scholarship have addressed wars and armed conflicts, from the Congo to Central America but, surprisingly, little has been written about the sport during the Second World War. This anthology joins Simon Kuper’s 2003 Ajax, the Dutch, the War: the Strange Tale of Soccer During Europe’s Darkest Hour and Kevin E. Simpson’s 2016’s Soccer Under the Swastika: Stories of Survival and Resistance During the Holocaust in shedding light on the period, the various arenas and manifestations of the game, and its use by occupiers, victims, and resistors. The anthology, the outcome of a 2012 conference, with its presentations later revised and expanded, is divided into five parts. The first four are arranged geographically – the Greater German Reich; Allied and Neutral Countries; Great Britain and Mandated Territories; Eastern European Countries. The fifth section presents three studies of depictions of the game in film, literature and opera. Combining anecdotal and theoretical information, the anthology’s essays are uniformly of high quality. They are accompanied by many photographs, culled from museums across the continent, featuring players, managers and fans of the era.
The studies included in the anthology cover football in lands that extend from Algiers to Iraq, as the game and its significance were important not only on the European continent but also in the conquered lands and in those territories under Axis or Allied influence. The essays analyze the variety of football contests that took place. While demonstrating the superiority of the Aryan race through athletic victories was a common goal of the Nazi regime, there was often also a tendency towards depoliticization, demilitarization, entertainment and escapism. There was also a space where (as Christiane Eisenberg shows) sport sometimes developed ‘into an enclave of normalcy, in some ways even into an alternative ways, during National Socialist reign.’Several of the Ukrainian players were arrested a week later, one died of a heart attack during interrogation and three players were executed a year later.
In his introduction, Herzog opines that in the 21st century ‘the mythologization – as well as the memorialization and ritualization – of a profane leisure activity has turned football into a religion for many.’ (p.13.) He rejects the ensuing construction of grand conceptions of history and of a supposedly more noble past, and discards several football myths connected with the war and its aftermath. These include Matthias Sindelar, captain of the Austrian ‘Wonder Team’ of the 1930s, whose death by carbon monoxide (alongside his half-Jewish girlfriend) has long been ascribed to his supposed membership in the anti-Nazi resistance. Herzog makes clear that the star actually benefited from the Aryanization of a café owned by a Jewish family, and that the family was sent to a concentration camp. Herzog also deconstructs the ‘Miracle of Bern’ game (the 1954 World Cup final won by Germany) which he shows was a result of superior tactics and conditioning.
Another myth addressed by the editor and also by film historian Jan Tilman Schwab concerns ‘The Kiev Death Match.’ The game, played in the Ukrainian capital on August 9th 1942 between FC Start (a bread factory team) and a German military team, was won by the locals 5–3. The only ‘objective document’ that testified to the match is a single photograph showing the two teams’ players standing peacefully at the end of play. Several of the Ukrainian players were arrested a week later, one died of a heart attack during interrogation and three players were executed a year later. Schwab attempts to separate facts, myth and memory. He presents the literary and filmic depictions and the shifting values and attitudes they represented, as well as their political uses. These began with the war-time Soviet use of the game to glorify Stalin, and rally the population against the invader. He ably demonstrates how the match details became more dramatic as the years went by and with each new artistic portrayal. These included Soviet, West German, Hungarian and American works. Even after historian James Riordan debunked, in 2003, many of the inaccuracies, myths about the game remained.
There were several individuals I had hoped to see in these pages, such as Julius Hirsch and Alexandre Villaplane. The former was the first Jewish player to represent the German national team. A patriot, he served for four years in the Kaiser’s army during the First World War and was awarded The Iron Cross for bravery. With the Nazis’ seizure of power, Hirsch refused to believe that his life or the lives of fellow Jews were in danger and chose to remain in his homeland. He was murdered at Auschwitz. Villaplane captained the French national team in the 1930s and during the war became a Gestapo officer. He participated in the murder of dozens of Jews, and after liberation was executed for his crimes.
These omissions do not detract however from the importance and comprehensiveness of this excellent anthology.
Copyright © Alon K. Raab 2019
Table of Content
Introduction: Football: A Myth Machine. The Second World War, National Socialism and Anti-fascism (Markwart Herzog)
Part I Greater German Reich
Part II Allied and Neutral Countries
Part III Great Britain and Mandated Territories
Part IV Eastern European Countries
Part V Football during the War as a Subject of the Arts