Few football clubs can lay claim to a history as successful and yet ultimately tragic as that of Hakoah Vienna. An exclusively Jewish team which enjoyed global fame for a short time before being unsentimentally dissolved by Nazi invaders, Hakoah’s history now stands as a monument to the Jewish culture which blossomed in Central Europe during the first decades of the twentieth century, only to be abominably stamped out by the forces of the Third Reich.
Founded in 1909 by world-renowned operatic lyricist Fritz Löhner and his friend Ignaz Körner, the establishment of Hakoah (meaning “strength” in Hebrew) is thought to have been inspired by the doctrine of ‘Muscular Judaism’ which was popular at the time. Introduced by the Hungarian Zionist leader Max Nordau in 1898, the doctrine encouraged Jews to strive for athletic prowess in order to extricate themselves from what he believed to be the negative stereotype of the “weak intellectual”.
Hakoah – a multi-sport club which also fielded sides in hockey, swimming and athletics – quickly became a social and sporting centre for the Viennese Jewish community, the football team rising to prominence in 1922 as it finished second in the Austrian league. However, Hakoah didn’t focus primarily on their domestic competition, the club taking the decision to become a nomadic team during the off-seasons in a style we might now associate with the Harlem Globetrotters.
In 1923, with a young centre-half by the name of Belá Guttmann on their books, Hakoah travelled to London on a short tour which saw them take on a number of clubs from the English capital. Arguably the team’s most historic result came against West Ham United at Upton Park, Hakoah running out 5-1 winners against a reportedly weakened Hammers side to become the first foreign team to defeat an English club on home soil. It was to be a result which paved the way to a period of great domestic success.
Between 1924 and 1926 the Viennese club won consecutive Austrian titles and began to attract the very best Jewish footballers from across Europe. Internationals such as Max Gold, Max Grünwald and József Eisenhoffer all helped Hakoah on its way to serial triumphs, the team becoming one of the most famous on the continent in the process. Indeed, in 1926 the club was in a position to be able to afford a tour of the United States, its appearances in New York drawing large crowds of enthusiastic supporters.
Many of the players were so taken with the Eastern Seaboard and the friendly reception that they had received there that they decided to stay. Anti-Semitic sentiment had been building in Europe during the 1920s, and it must have been refreshing for the players to play their football somewhere which wasn’t so quick to judge them for their Jewish connections. Several players, including Guttmann himself, joined the local club Brooklyn Wanderers, while others decided to form their very own team, New York Hakoah. The Austrians may have helped to spark interest in the game in the United States, but the loss of their most talented players to the clubs of New York meant that Hakoah struggled to compete domestically throughout the rest of its existence.
Tragically, 1938 spelled the end for Hakoah, the club being forcibly closed down by the Nazis following the unification of Germany and Austria in the Anschluss. With the club’s Prater Park ground having been commandeered by the German army, Hakoah’s founder Fritz Löhner was just one of many people connected to the team to be arrested and transferred to a concentration camp. Originally sent to Dachau in the April of 1938, Löhner was moved to Buchenwald that autumn as the true horrors of the Final Solution began to be revealed.
It was while incarcerated at Buchenwald that Löhner used his gift for music to write Das Buchenwaldied, the song which became the anthem of many of the prisoners there. In 1942 the man who had founded the great Hakoah Vienna and done so much to bring the Jewish community of the city together was taken to Monowitz camp, a part of the Auschwitz complex, and is appallingly thought to have been beaten to death on the 4th December that same year.
Like so many other pillars of Jewish culture, Hakoah had been devastatingly ripped apart by Nazi barbarism during the Second World War, its history and the happiness it had brought to so many lost in an ocean of thoughtless murder.
The club briefly reformed in 1945, survivors of the war and those who had gone into hiding returning to re-establish Hakoah in the Austrian Second Division. However, for reasons that are not entirely clear, the club became defunct in 1949 and has not returned to the professional game since.
That said, Hakoah was revived in 2008 under the name Maccabi Wien after a Jewish community centre built on the site of the old football ground established its own amateur team. Now playing in the lower reaches of the Austrian football pyramid, Hakoah Vienna may never make a full return, but Maccabi Wien is a lasting reminder of the rich history, great success and unspeakable loss of its predecessor.