Germany tries to purge Nazi past before World Cup
By Erik Kirschbaum
BAD BOLL, Germany (Reuters) – Hoping to cleanse themselves
of their Nazi past before the World Cup starts, German soccer
leaders have broadened their examination of their shameful
history in the Third Reich and embraced their critics.
The German soccer federation (DFB), now eager to come to
terms with its enthusiastic support of the Nazis during the
Hitler era after covering it up for six decades, has thrown
open its soul, and archives, to try to purge that nightmare
“In a few weeks we’ll be welcoming the world to Germany and
we want to face up to our history,” said DFB co-president Theo
Zwanziger at a symposium held at a church retreat entitled
“Fussball unterm Hakenkreuz” (Soccer under the Swastika).
“We opened our archives and are open for critical
discussions. We want to learn from our past,” added Zwanziger,
“We want to get closer to our history in that dark era. But
this is just the start of a process that must continue.”
At the symposium held in a small town near Stuttgart,
soccer leaders and historians spent two days debating issues
such as whether the DFB collaborated with the Nazis more than
the public at large. Another issue concerns the depth of DFB
crimes against the Jews.
The consensus was that German soccer helped stabilize the
Hitler regime, failed to do anything for Jews and in some areas
was overly eager to please the Nazis even if its overall level
of support for the regime only mirrored that of the public.
The self-critical examination in Bad Boll followed last
year’s publication of a book by the same title that cast light
on how the DFB climbed into bed with the Nazis at an early
The book, which the DFB commissioned, detailed how Jewish
players, club owners, sponsors and journalists were all
excluded from 1933 when Hitler came to power.
Many German Jews, including former leading national team
hero Julius Hirsch, later perished in Nazi death camps.
Although few in the DFB were Nazi party members or
especially vocal advocates of the regime’s racist doctrines,
the book found most were willing tools or opportunists who let
themselves be used out of ignorance or professional ambition.
Many historians and critics praised the book as an
important first step but others complained it is not
sufficiently critical of the organization — which commissioned
the book. The Bad Boll symposium was an eagerly awaited
follow-up to the book.
“The DFB policy of turning a blind eye to their Nazi past
and cover up has now ended,” said Erik Eggers, 35, a sport
historian after the two days of subdued soul-searching.
After the war, the DFB spent nearly six decades concealing
that unseemly collaboration that contributed to the Holocaust,
fending off researchers by saying archives were destroyed.
But pressure on the DFB to open up increased as Germans
began looking critically at the Nazi past after a landmark
speech by former President Richard von Weizsaecker in 1985. He
called Hitler’s defeat a “day of liberation” for Germans.
Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, responsible for sport
told said the DFB’s behavior in the Third Reich was no worse
than that of big German companies. He and other speakers said
DFB treatment of Jews reflected the broader society.
“The truth is that the DFB’s behavior was no worse than
major German companies — they were all part of the same
general trend,” said Moshe Zimmermann, a historian professor at
Hebrew University in Jerusalem who delivered a guest lecture.
“The DFB tried to cover it up after the war but they should
not have bothered. It was well known that they collaborated.
The only new thing that’s come out now is a lot of details.”
Zimmermann said German soccer players and leaders all
claimed afterwards they had privately harbored shame when their
Jewish team mates were forced to leave but that, like the
public at large, they accepted that as a fact of life in the
There were some 40,000 Jews in German sport clubs — or
about one-tenth of pre-war Jewish population of 400,000. By
1945, there were only a few thousand Jews alive in Germany.
“The Germans just accepted it,” he said. “They felt there
wasn’t a lot they could do. Afterwards, they all claimed they
were ashamed. But at the time there was a lot of enthusiasm for
the Nazis. Most thought “So what?” when Jews disappeared.”
Not everyone at the symposium accepted the criticism from
the post-war historians and soccer officials aimed at the
generation that lived through the Nazi era.
“You’re all assuming here that the DFB was a major
supporter of the Hitler dictatorship and I firmly reject that
view,” said Rudi Michel, 84, a long-time broadcast journalist
and close ally of Sepp Herberger, who coached the German
national side from 1936-64, winning the World Cup in 1954.
“There was nothing we could do and we were just following
orders,” said Michel. “We were all forced to live by the laws
under the swastika. Everything is controlled in a dictatorship.
“We couldn’t play youth league matches unless we had a
stamp verifying we were Hitler youth members. If we didn’t give
the Hitler salute we weren’t allowed to play. Every
organization had to follow the Nazi’s orders. That’s the way it