Football and the Nazis

Alex Gerlis

The Nazis were only to keen to use football as propaganda. The author of a new novel set in the period digs deeper.
Switzerland 2 Germany 1 in April 1941. Credit: Deutsches Bundesarchiv
Home » Articles » Football and the Nazis

Football and the Nazis

Think of the Nazis and sport and it’s usually the 1936 Berlin Olympics which comes to mind, with the Games turned into a sophisticated in propaganda exercise, which the International Olympic Committee and too many participant countries happily went along with.

But the Nazis attempts to use sport for their own means predated Olympics. Soon after they came to power in March 1933 the Enabling Act was passed which gave Hitler complete control over every aspect of German society and this soon included sport.

The German Reich Commission for Physical Exercise – the Deutscher Reichsausschuss für Leibesübungen – was established and soon had direct control of more than twenty sports – including cricket. The organisation was run by a senior Nazi, Hans von Tschammer und Osten who had the title of Reichssportführer.

But the Nazis saw football as their priority.  In 1933 they took over the game throughout Germany, organising it into sixteen regional leagues, or Gauligen, which corresponded to the country’s new administrative regions. The Gauligen system was to remain in place until 1945, with some matches being played as late as April 1945 with Allied troops just a few miles away.

The Gauligen expanded in line with the Nazi conquest of Europe. Gauliga Ostmark became the national league of Austria once that country had been subsumed into the German Reich after the Anschluss in 1938.  Gauliga Böhmen und Mähren was formed after the conquest of Czechoslovakia while the Gauliga Generalgouvernement was formed in 1941 in Nazi Occupied Poland, though both of these leagues were restricted to ethnic German and military clubs.  Gauliga Alsace was formed in 1940 after the Nazi annexation of that region, though this league comprised French as well as  German teams.

Interestingly, Bayern Munich, the club which has dominated the German Bundesliga over the past fifty years, fared less well under the Nazis. Traditionally, Bayern had strong Jewish connections – it was called the Judenklub or ‘Jew club’ by the Nazis. The club’s Jewish president, Kurt Landauer and its two Jewish coaches, Richard Dombi and Otto Beer, all fled to Switzerland after the Nazis came to power.

In my new novel Agent in Berlin one of the main characters is Jack Miller, an American journalist sent to Berlin 1936 to cover the Olympics and stays on, in the process becoming a British spy.

The Gauliga system turned out to be a Godsend for both Jack and myself. Visiting key Germany cities to cover football gave him perfect cover to carry out espionage. Happily, many of the key German cities which were priority intelligence targets for the British were also places where many top football clubs were based.  Gelsenkirchen, in the heart of the industrial Ruhr was the home to one of Germany’s top football teams during the war, FC Schalke 04.

Schalke fans in 1941. Credit: Deutsches Bundesarchiv

Likewise, the key northern port city of Hamburg, was a city of considerable interest to the Allies. What better excuse could a sports journalist have to visit the city than the fact that it was the home of nine teams in Gauliga Nordmark, including Hamburger SV, Victoria Hamburg and St Pauli?

I made sure Jack was especially interested in covering St Pauli. St Pauli were less successful than Hamburger but their ground was then the Heiligengeistfeld, close to the Reeperbahn but far more importantly, near to the strategically important docks, oil refineries and factories on either bank of the Elbe.

I was fortunate in the timeline of Agent in Berlin, that Jack needed to visit Switzerland in April 1941 to catch up with his British spy masters based in Berne. I managed to get Jack accredited (thanks to Herr von Tschammer und Osten) to accompany the German football team when they visited Berne for a match against Switzerland on 20th April, 1941.

This match actually took place, with quite serious repercussions for the German team when they lost 1-2 to the Swiss. Goebbels regarded losing to Switzerland on Hitler’s birthday as unforgivable and is said to have told the Reichssportführer that no further internationals were to be arranged where “the result is the least bit unpredictable.”

1941 Poster advertising the match

The players were given an incentive to avoid further humiliation: another defeat would see them being sent to the Eastern Front. It was little surprise then Germany won their next match six weeks later, beating Romania 4-1.

Goebbels’ reaction is typical of that in a dictatorship, where a regime becomes so all-powerful it indulges in delusional behaviour. In Germany this extended to the regime’s influence into another aspect of football.

In Ajax, The Dutch, The War: Football in Europe During the Second World War the writer Simon Kuper points out how the style of German football evolved under the Nazis.  Prior to 1933 the German national team had a reputation for playing an attractive, skilful style of football. But under the Nazis the concept of Kampf – struggle – became central to the national philosophy and football was no exception. A football match became a Kampf, a footballer was now a Kämpfer and the German ‘soft’ style of football became much derided.

In its place a style of play emerged more appropriate to the concept of Kampf. German football became what it is renowned for to this day: highly organised and efficient, fast and direct.

I’ve now had nine novels published, all set in Europe in and around the Second World War and I strive to ensure the historical and factual context of the stories are as accurate as possible. I believe this is important not just because it helps give the novels a more authentic feel, but also because the more research one does, the more it opens up sometimes unlikely plot lines.

Football and the Nazis turned out to be an intriguing example of this.

Alex Gerlis is the author of Agent in Berlin, available now and published by Canelo.