For twelve years National Socialism was the scourge of Europe. Arguably the most brutal totalitarian regime that history has ever borne witness to, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party wreaked havoc throughout the nineteen-thirties and forties, massacring those they perceived to be ideological opponents and uprooting millions of innocent people as they attempted to expand German territory across the continent.
With the National Socialists infamously controlling of all spheres of German society, even leisure pursuits such as football were not immune from the sinister manipulations of Nazi bureaucracy. During the years of Hitler’s leadership football was quickly and forcefully restructured, the DFB (German Football Association) being retained but the game formally being brought under the remit of a national sports bureau known as the Deutscher Reichsbund für Leibesübungen in 1933. High-ranking officials involved with the DFB and the German national team were forced to become members of the Nazi Party, racist ideology insidiously infiltrating the administration of the game.
Of course, it was only a matter of time before the National Socialists’ abhorrent ideas regarding racial purity were put into practice in the sporting sphere. In the June of 1933 all people of Jewish descent were officially expelled from sports clubs up and down the country, football being one of the games at the forefront of the prevalent culture of anti-Semitism. Indeed, the point was stressed beyond all doubt in Kicker magazine, a publication now recognised as one of Germany’s leading sources of football news. As representatives of the DFB had wrote in the magazine at the time;
“Members of the Jewish race and individuals who are members of the Marxist movement are unacceptable in leading positions in regional organisations and clubs, who are urged to initiate appropriate measures, if they have not yet been taken.”
This sinister restructuring of football continued to deepen and develop as the months passed, youth football becoming a branch of the ever-expanding Hitler Youth and clubs of leftist or religious ethoses being disbanded. Other teams were forced to change what were deemed to be ‘foreign-sounding’ names, only those clubs deemed to be ‘pure’ in their German heritage being left untouched.
All the while, particularly during the early days of the Reich, the German national team operated as an exercise in public relations for the National Socialist regime. The squad played England in a friendly in London in 1935 and were relatively well received – the true horrors of Nazi Germany being unknown to British audiences at the time – as they attempted to ingratiate themselves on both a sporting and wider cultural level. However, the aura which seemed to surround the team was dealt a significant blow at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin when Hitler, attending his first ever football match, sat and watched as Germany lost 2-0 to Norway in the quarter-finals.
The restructuring of football in Germany unsurprisingly slowed after the 1936 Olympics as Hitler prepared the country for war, invasions of Austria and Czechoslovakia coming just two years later in 1938. The football associations of both countries were brought under the control of the aforementioned Deutscher Reichsbund für Leibesübungen, but the regime refused to allow many players from the conquered territories to be accepted for the German team, a ratio of at least six Germans to five “non-Germans” being the general rule at the DFB.
The actions of the Nazis may have brought about the end of much of early twentieth-century German football culture, not to mention its destruction in strongholds such as Vienna and Budapest; but the National Socialists never quite managed to quell the organic passion which is such a hallmark of the sport. At the 1938 World Cup in France the German team were met with a hail of rotten fruit and howls of derision wherever they played, just one example of those involved with the game refusing to be intimidated by the intimidatory tactics of the National Socialists.
Mercifully the Nazi regime and its ghastly ideologies were defeated; football triumphantly lives on.