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German Soccer Faces Nazi Past

DW staff (win)
September 15, 2005

Sixty years after the end of World War II, Germany's soccer federation (DFB) has presented a study of its role during the Nazi era. While DFB leaders weren't ardent Hitler supporters, they played along as opportunists.

"Heil Hitler": The German national soccer team in 1941

For decades, most Germans have associated the name Sepp Herberger with the so-called "Miracle of Berne." In 1954, Herberger, the German national soccer team's coach, led his group to victory in the World Cup.

Das Wunder von Bern, Film von Sönke Wörtmann, Locarno 2003 The Mircale of Bern,
Herberger carried on the shoulders of German national soccer player in a film about the German 1954 soccer victory.Image: presse

The win created a sense of euphoria in postwar Germany and is credited with playing a large role in the country's economic recovery.

But Herberger's career didn't start in 1945. He joined the Nazi party just a few months after Hitler came to power in 1933 and became national coach in 1937.

"He never had anything to do with ideologies, but he was willingly used for the inhuman ideology," said Niels Havemann, the author of the first comprehensive book on the DFB's role during the Nazi era, adding that Herberger cooperated with the Nazis on a 1941 propaganda film called "Das grosse Spiel" ("The great game").

Bundestrainer Sepp Herberger wird 80
Herberger in March 1977, just a month before his death.Image: dpa - Report

"Unfortunately, a shadow is falling over Sepp Herberger," said German Sports Minister Otto Schily during a presentation of the book, according to Reuters news service. "He let himself become part of the Nazi propaganda."

Hitler's ignorant backers

DFB officials commissioned Havemann, a historian at Mainz University, to write the book, which is entitled "Fussball unterm Hakenkreuz" ("Soccer Under the Swastika"). Studying previously unknown documents from 40 archives in Germany and abroad, Havemann came to the conclusion that, like Herberger, who was 80 when he died in 1977, most DFB leaders didn't support the Nazis out of conviction.

Buch Fussball unterm Hakenkreuz Vorstellung
Havemann (left), Zwanziger (center) and Schily during the book presentationImage: AP

Instead, their thoughtlessness, ignorance, opportunism or professional ambition led them to support the Hitler regime, making them accomplices to its system of oppression, persecution, war and destruction.

"It's perfectly clear that the DFB's leadership was not part of the resistance," said Theo Zwanziger, the current president of the DFB, which is the world's largest single sport association. "People didn't jump on the chances this popular sport would have offered to resist the regime at least a little."

Shedding light ahead of World Cup

Buch Fussball unterm Hakenkreuz
Image: AP

In light of next year's World Cup in Germany, Schily also said the book could answer questions many foreign visitors are bound to ask.

"I can imagine a lot of visitors will be here and asking what happened between 1933 and 1945," he said. "I think this will make an important contribution to those discussions."

An award for tolerance

DFB officials have meanwhile established an award in honor of former German national team player Julius Hirsch, who was killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz death camp.

"With this award, we want to show that we think it's everybody's duty to stand up for our democratic and constitutional values," Zwanziger said. "We want to use our position in society to promote freedom, tolerance and humanity."

Bayern München Deutscher Meister
Bayern Munich's players celebrate after winning the German Soccer Championship 2005Image: AP

The first recipient of the award, which will be given to honor work against racism and xenophobia, is Bayern Munich. DFB officials said the soccer club had an unparalleled history of fighting anti-Semitism and cited a recent friendly match between young Bayern players and Israeli and Palestinian players organized by the club as an example.

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