When German win caused a shudder
The victory of Germany over Argentina in the World Cup this month was shadowed by a recollection of the time a German team first won that cup. That was in 1954, and the reaction of other countries was quite different.
A British monthly magazine called History Today by sheer luck or very intelligent guesswork carried a chapter on that 1954 game in its July issue this year, which appeared at my house on the very week of the final game in Brazil.
The 1954 final game took place at an arena in Switzerland on July 4 of that year, and since Germany was divided by the Iron Curtain, it was officially a West German team that was playing. And there were plenty of West German fans in the stands. The opposing team came from Hungary, an Iron Curtain country which had won the Olympic title three times in a row. The “mighty Magyars” were expected to clean up this time and, in fact, went ahead by 2-0 in the first few minutes.
But to the wonder of many, the Germans came back and scored the winning goal in the final minutes, making the score 3-2. As the winners swarmed around their team captain, Fritz Walter, the alcohol-inspired Germans in the stands broke into their national anthem, “Deutschland, Deutschland, uber alles.”
Now the West German government had officially banned the singing of the first two verses of that song, as being too militaristic. The third verse, which spoke of unity, justice and freedom, had official sanction. Yet here was this yelling crowd in the stands singing the whole anthem, banned verses included, at the top of their lungs. Others from other countries noticed the difference.
A few days later there was a victory celebration for the team in Munich, and the president of the West German football association spoke in what the magazine described as an “atmosphere heavy with alcohol and emotion.” He said the players had been inspired by the Nordic god, Wotan, and also by following the orders of their coach. The speaker referred to this quality as “fuhrerprinzip.”
The word “fuhrer” had been used for two decades to describe Adolf Hitler. So here was a German in a beer hall in Munich, the city where Hitler got his start, using the term “fuhrer.” It is little wonder that the other western European countries gave a shudder when they heard about it.
A Danish newspaper said: “All that was lacking at the final whistle was the seig heil.”
The British Daily Mirror commented: “Here comes swaggering Germany. Even in football, not a noticeably German sport, they wipe out the Hungarians. Nothing can stop these unlovable people.”
A French newspaper headlined its editorial “Achtung” and went on to say: “The memory of those thousands of German fanatics who went to support their team is lasting. Sport? Certainly, but not only sport. Revenge, fanaticism, uber alles. That’s how it all begins again.”
The reaction in Hungary was even more emphatic, but it was aimed at their team. The Hungarians were so sure their team was invincible that they became persuaded the members had been bribed to lose. A rumor went around that each had been promised a Mercedes car. When the team got home, it had to be smuggled in under armed guard, and the apartment of the coach was smashed by an angry crowd.
This attitude was nothing in comparison with the reaction of the East German authorities. They were so sure Hungary would win that they didn’t warn their journalists covering the match what to do. As a result, the radio commentator stayed silent for a minute while the microphone picked up the raucous crowd singing the German anthem. The East German television crew hastily put on a song to drown out the crowd.
The East German reaction was bitter. One newspaper said: “When fascists start singing ‘Deutschland uber alles’ that has nothing to do with sport, but to do with death.”
Another editorial said the West German team captain, Fritz Walter, had been in the German army fighting and had been captured by the Soviets.
Still, the authorities couldn’t keep common East Germans from quietly celebrating. As far as the British were concerned, it was hard to see a sport that had been invented by the British so dominated by Germans.
West German teams won the cup several times in subsequent years, but this year’s win was the first time a team from a united Germany had won.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.