Originally penned by Jonathan Foley in March, 2021.
Italy’s success at the 1934 World Cup had not gone unnoticed by the Nazis.
Benito Mussolini had shown how a spectacle such as this could be used for great political advantage and with the 1936 Olympics set to be held in Berlin, it should come as no surprise that Adolf Hitler sought to portray German superiority on such a grand stage.
There was just one problem when it came to football. The German national team, in the 1930s, weren’t particularly good.
In 1931, they had played their neighbours Austria twice and been on the receiving end of a 6-0 and a 5-0 hammering. Unlike the Germans, the Austrian ‘Wonder-Team’, as they were known, were highly admired and revered for their style of play. Something which surely goaded ‘Der Fuhrer’, even if he was an Austrian native himself.
On the political front, 1933 saw Germany withdraw from the League of Nations. In essence, Hitler was showing his resistance to democracy, but rather than be seen as an aggressor, he used the power of football to convey a sporting and friendly side of the national character.
In December 1935, despite some anti-fascist demonstrations outside the ground at White Hart Lane, England beat Germany 3-0 in a challenge match, but the game itself was merely a charade for what was lurking underneath the surface.
Reports from the match – including some wrinkly old film footage – consistently refer to the German players being somewhat overly-sporting in their behaviour. Regularly shaking hands with their opposition, never being drawn into a foul and smiles all round in what the press hailed as “a most sporting match.”
All done, under Nazi orders and instruction to shed the country in a positive light, as it was discovered later.
“The Triumph of the Will.”
The Berlin Games in 1936 provided an ample opportunity for an exhibition of Nazism. The opening ceremony was made to look as a beautiful spectacle while the ‘Triumph of the Will’ film by Leni Riefenstahl raised the hearts and hopes of the nation. Over the course of the next few weeks, no country won more medals than the host nation.
These games will inevitably be remembered for the enchanting success story of American athlete, Jesse Owens, throwing out the script to win the medals he did, but in keeping with football, Hitler was to observe another moment which undoubtedly dismayed him greatly.
Generally speaking, most historians tend to agree that when Hitler was invited along to attend Germany’s match with Norway, he was assured of a victory. Something that would no doubt please him after Owens’ successes.
Norway, however, didn’t tow the line. Despite being perceived as a ‘lesser nation’, they ran out comfortable winners over their German counterparts. Perhaps what perplexed the Nazis even more is that Austria – a fellow German-speaking nation – were going from strength to strength and they had one player who caught their eye in particular.
Matthias Sindelar, known to his adoring fans as “the Paper-man”, was seen by many as the greatest centre-forward in the world at that time. His talents on the field inspired works of poetry and, long before footballers became celebrities, he starred in a feature film. In 2001, he was proclaimed as ‘Austria’s Greatest Sportsman of the 20th Century.’
As we saw in the previous article in this series, he was mainly denied a place in the 1934 World Cup Final due to coercive refereeing that favoured the Italians. Nevertheless, his reputation grew stronger, but when he caught the attention of the Nazis, his mercurial talents would be blighted and exploited beyond belief.
In March of 1938, the Anschluss was complete. The Nazis had effectively annexed the Austrain state, forcibly usurped any political autonomy it once held and brought it into the realm of the new, and ever-growing, German sphere of influence.
As a proud Austrian nationalist – even if Czech by birth – Sindelar despised Nazism. Part of which had stemmed from ‘Aryan Only Policy’ when invading troops forced Jewish employees and officials at his club, Austria Vienna, out of their jobs during the period of occupation.
The Austrian national team would soon become no more than a memory as it had to amalgamate with Germany, but while some reluctantly accepted the fate of their nation, Sindelar remained headstrong and used football as an act of defiance.
During the same year, Austria were scheduled to face Germany in what was essentially a ‘farewell game’ before the amalgamation of the two teams officially took place.
It’s widely believed that the plan was for the Germans to win the game. A way of showing their superiority in a symbolic manner and historical references do cite that at half-time, with the score at 0-0, the Austrian players were told to follow suit with this plan.
Refusing to collaborate, Sindelar scored early in the second-half to give the Austrians the lead. He then assisted a second goal and during the celebrations, he visibly taunted the Nazi hierarchy in the VIP section of the crowd. They were not amused. Within a year, Sindelar would pay dearly for his act of defiance.
In a BBC interview, his friend and former clubmate, Egon Ulrich recalled the night of 23rd January, 1939.
“We were playing cards and gambling in the coffee shop. There was plenty of drink taken. Some Nazi soldiers came in and invited themselves to join in the game. They were teasing Sindi all through the evening and, when he finally called it a night, that was the last I ever saw of him.”
Sindelar was found dead the following morning. It’s perceived that the apartment he was sleeping in that night with his girlfriend, was leaking gas fumes and the inhalation suffocated him. His biographer, Wolfgang Marderthaner, believes it may have been a suicide brought on by the shattering of his spirit in the aftermath of the Anschluss.
Either way, be them directly or indirectly responsible, the Nazis shouldered the blame.
An inquest into his death was carried out, but the reports of which were later ‘mislaid.’
As a symbol for Austrian patriotism, dispute and speculation still ring out about the actual cause of his death. Perhaps to keep order, the Nazi administration did allow for a state funeral to take place where some 15,000 Austrians bravely bade farewell to their fallen hero.
“Peace In Our Time?”
The famous words echoed by British Prime Minister, Nevile Chamberlain, when he held aloft the letter proclaiming that he and Adolf Hitler had signed a peace agreement.
At the time, Chamberlain was held up as a hero. A man who would spare a return to conflict just a generation after the Great War. It was to be a false-dawn.
As part of the policy of appeasement towards Germany, England sent a team to Berlin to take them on in a game billed as another friendly between two peaceful nations. Many felt that the English should’ve refused to play the game, but in keeping with the goodwill measures set out by the government, they simply had to play it.
The game itself is remembered for the iconic and somewhat startling image of the England team lining up and giving the Nazi salute. What’s more surprising is that Hitler wasn’t even present. Against their wishes, the players did raise the right arm. Something which many of them deeply regretted for a very long time.
On the political front, the two countries signed the Munich Treaty. Effectively, this meant that the British would not interfere with the ideals it of German expansion.
In the quest for ‘lebensraum’ (living space) and having already acquired the Austrian state, Hitler was now free to invade the state of Czechoslovakia and thus, add to his growing territory.
Shortly after, attention soon turned to the 1938 World Cup in France. An opportunity for the Nazi regime to banish the memories of previous defeats on the football field.
When Hitler rallied support for the new and improved German side – with its acquisition of Austrian and Czech talents – and declared that “Sixty million Germans will play in Paris!”, it became a chilling precursor to the Nazi invasion of France just two years later.
In the tournament itself, however, underlying cracks within the team began to show. In a first round replay against Switzerland, all looked rosy as Germany – now with its five Austrians – led 2-0 at the break.
As the game wore on into the second half, it became evidently more clear that there were deep internal divisions within the camp. Austrians would not pass to Germans and Germans would not pass to Austrians. Switzerland duly pounced on this lack of cohesion and turned the game on its head. They won 4-2 in the end.
Another embarrassing failure for Adolf Hitler on the footballing front.
Even with Germany’s disappointment, Mussolini’s fascist movement was still gaining support through footballing success. They had won – albeit in a contrived manner – the previous World Cup and this time around, they were showing real promise again.
Symbolically, in Italy’s second round meeting with host nation France, Mussolini ordered that – in the face of a hostile home crowd – the Italy team would abandon their traditional colours of blue and white. Instead, just as the foot-soldiers of the Fascist takeover had done, the footballers adorned the Blackshirts.
They would defeat the French 2-1 on their own soil and would then later go on to beat Hungary in the final. It seemed as though Fascism was still the powerhouse but there was one country which was noticeably quiet during this era, but they were soon to be awoken as a political and footballing force.
That country being Spain, who we will look at in more detail in our next article in the series.