soccer under the swastika

Reviewed by Justin Lyons, Cedarville University

30 august 2018       archive

"Today the modern game is a spectacle; in the Nazi era it actually meant life and death." (273)
The above quotation from Kevin E. Simpson's excellent book, Soccer under the Swastika: Stories of Survival and Resistance during the Holocaust is not the first line of the book, but it could fittingly be so. By paralleling the development of national soccer leagues and international athletic competition with the rise of Nazism, the resulting world war, and the horrors of the Holocaust, Simpson transforms the football pitch into a battleground between the forces of life and death. This transformation occurs on two levels: broadly, as a history of soccer combined with the history of early to mid-twentieth century Europe, and more personally as a recounting of the stories of individuals who, amid unspeakable misery and torment, found respite from despair and sometimes survival through the game.

As totalitarianism arose amidst the political and economic tempests that swept Europe in the wake of the Great War, every element of society was modified and mobilized to serve the ends of fascist regimes. Sport was no exception, its politicization most highly visible in the 1934 World Cup hosted by Italy and the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. The Nazis forged strong links between the state and sport, including soccer. The control of soccer served the political purposes of the Nazis, reinforcing the legitimacy of the regime on the international stage. The mass appeal of the sport helped Germany break free of cultural isolation in Europe, and the presence of German teams (accompanied by Nazi agents) acclimatized foreign audiences to symbols of the regime, such as the Nazi salute.

Nazism was of course about more than political status; it was driven by a poisonous racial philosophy aimed at maintaining the purity of a master race. Cleansing Germany (and beyond) of "inferior races" came to define the Nazi movement. Racial cleansing was extended to sport, with forced coordination with Nazi party doctrine reaching even to amateur football clubs from which Jews and others classified as undesirable were banned beginning in 1933. German athletics were to showcase national excellence, demonstrating the collective health of the German body. Prevailing on the football pitch as a nation demonstrated the superiority of the race. Thus, sport and propaganda became intimately linked. This link was pursued most powerfully through sport films such as Olympia, documenting the 1936 Berlin Olympics and Das Grosse Spiel, a fictional soccer film. Both emphasized themes of national community and Aryan excellence.

The extension of these ideals ultimately came through the exercise of war and genocide. The Nazis emphasized Kampfgeist, the "spirit of the struggle," linking sporting excellence with the march of German armies. As country after country fell to German aggression, they were subjected not only to the rule of a conquering foreign power but to Nazi ideology as well. The racial philosophy that called for the expulsion or elimination of the socially undesirable or racially inferior marched with the soldiers of the Reich. One of the great features of the book is that it traces the intersections between this sad but well-known story with the lesser-known story of soccer in these times. Domestic soccer continued in the Reich throughout the war, as it did in occupied countries. German teams sometimes even played against those whom they had conquered, the games becoming symbols of the larger struggle.

The genocide of the Jews and other groups began in Germany and spread outward. One can mark its horrifying advance by the building of the concentration camps. Dachau, outside of Munich, was the first, receiving enemies of the regime into "protective custody" beginning in March of 1933. Many others followed, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibór, Flossenbürg, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen, and Buchenwald. Incredibly, even in these awful places, amid degradation, starvation, cruelty, and death, soccer persisted. Passion for the game among the guards saved some with athletic talent and pre-war reputations from hard labor or death—at least for a time. For others, who remained spectators, soccer matches provided some small window of normalcy, a remembrance of life before terror and torture.

The accounts of soccer in the camps and the tales of the individuals who played or saw the matches form the most compelling part of the book; they are both heart-breaking and inspiring.

By recounting and preserving the stories of the sufferers intertwined with the story of soccer, Simpson reveals the creative, humanizing, and liberating facets of the game with new clarity. At places like Dachau and Auschwitz these spiritual elements took on a poignancy unfelt by even the most enthusiastic modern fan of the sport. Soccer raised the spirits of the prisoners, allowed them a glimpse of joy beyond the grief and despair that encompassed them, and reminded them that though they were treated inhumanly, they were still human. The power of sport to inspire even amidst the most dreadful circumstances is a testimony to the strength of the human spirit, and this book is a fitting remembrance and valuable preservation of the "voiceless voices" of those who suffered in the Holocaust.

Simpson, Kevin E. Soccer under the Swastika: Stories of Survival and Resistance During the Holocaust. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

Copyright © 2018 by Justin Lyons

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