Bayern Munich, Kurt Landauer and a defiance of the Nazis

Bayern Munich, Kurt Landauer and a defiance of the Nazis

Stepping off the U6 line and out from within the Fröttmaning U-Bahn station, a short escalator ride deposits you at a pedestrian bridge. Suspended high above the rusted-out colored train tracks, a seemingly endless grey path paved in cement awaits. With any traces of civilization now trending towards the horizon, a 10-minute stroll will eventually end with your attention being seized by one of the wonders of world football.

Wrapped in over 2,873 ETFE-foil air panels and brimming with sophistication, the Allianz Arena is the globe’s very first stadium with a full colour-changing exterior. With a capacity of 75,000 and a parking structure that could house a small town, the grandeur of such architectural modernism alone could attract supporters and admirers. While the stadium speaks for itself, the real stars of the show are the tenants in which it houses.

Bayern Munich are the Bundesliga’s blue chip brand, an enduring symbol of West Germany’s golden pulpit of Bavarian-ness and a confidence that masquerades on arrogance. Cultivated by the Franz Beckenbauer-led era of the 1970s, Bayern have been able to attract a following and an admiration that has pushed it onto the Mount Rushmore of football clubs. With 62 trophies won since 1970, ‘FC Hollywood’ have pushed the limits of success to levels many once deemed unattainable. This incredible standard is ingrained into the club’s fabric, making it now not only expected, but downright demanded.

While the story of Bayern Munich may seem like a repetitive tale passed from some of the biggest clubs to the next, eight decades of an unspoken past make it anything but. An identity that had once proudly defined some of the club’s most prominent figures was buried with the intention of never being unearthed again. 

On a frigid January day 117 years ago, representatives from 86 football clubs within the German-speaking areas in and outside the German Empire were ushered into the restaurant Mariengarten in Leipzig. Sitting down for dinner, boiler room-like negotiations would ensue, aided by a stockpile of beer that seemingly disappeared by the gallons.

Eventually, all parties present would come together in agreement, resulting in the founding of the DFB (German Football Association). Arriving at this point was no small feat, for there had been a time in which this foreign and primitive game appeared not to stand a chance. After initially being labeled an “English disease”, football had grown exponentially throughout the empire, specifically amongst its youth. The spread of this new fever may have begun as something gradual, but it had soon become clear that nobody was safe from its symptoms.

Down in Bavaria, 11 local enthusiasts belonging to the sports club Münchner TurnVerein 1879 had decided they wanted to escape the influence of the club’s gymnasts and have a team to call their own. The football division of the club was interested in joining the newly formed DFB, but were swiftly denied permission by the steering committee of the MTV. As a result, the disillusioned 11 disbanded under the lead of Berlin-based photographer, Franz John.

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With another six volunteers recruited, the group headed to the bohemian quarter of Schwabing for a rendezvous at the restaurant Gisela. There, the club’s charter was formed and made into reality by 17 signatories, two of whom happened to be Jewish. One was the Dortmund-born artist Benno Elkan, who would later emigrate to London and become a well-known sculptor. Commissioned by Westminster, he went on to build the seven-branched Menorah that today stands outside the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem.

Fußball-Club Bayern München was born, and with it came the first traces of a Jewish identity. Some years later, financial considerations and a pitch availability problem would see Bayern join forces with the affluent Münchner Sport-Club (MSC). While still retaining their independence, a concession would need to be made to appease their new partners.

The color black adorning the players kits would need to be changed, instead substituted by the present-day red shorts and white colors of MSC. With a new stadium to call home and an 8-1 hammering of local rivals FC Wacker as their claim to fame, support for the club grew at a rapid rate. Bayern were slowly becoming Munich’s most influential side, but the rest of Germany had yet to bat an eye. Leadership and a visionary were needed to take them to the next level, and a familiar face would be the one to provide it.

Born into a Jewish trading family on 28 July 1884 in Planegg, Kurt Landauer was always intrigued by the sport of football. This passion developed into a deep yearning to play, so much so that at the age of 17, Landauer would join the newly minted Bayern Munich side. His adventure wouldn’t last long, though, as pressure from his father for a stable, more practical career would see him move to Lausanne to train as a banker.

After years of apprenticeship, Landauer had become bored with a life in finance. The excitement he found in football was something he struggled to recreate, but the business skills he had acquired would later prove to be essential. Relocating back to Munich, he kept himself around the club by cultivating friendships and shoring up contacts.

As Bayern’s 1913 presidential election drew closer, Landauer understood that this was his best opportunity to affect real change. Without hesitation he declared his candidacy before eventually winning the most coveted seat. Now, at the age of 29, and tasked with more responsibility than he had ever dreamed imaginable, Landauer looked to implement concepts to a sport that were at the very least unprecedented, and at most, outlandish.

Just when it appeared that headway was soon to be revealed, a bullet discharged from an FN Model 1910 pistol would pierce through the neck and kill the Archduke and heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, firmly placing the world on the brink of a war it had never dreamed imaginable.

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Out from his job just a year in, Landauer was now relocating to the front lines of a global conflict to represent his country. Four years of blood, death and unspeakable horrors would cripple his nation’s collective psyche and have a profound impact on all parties involved. Over two million German troops would perish as a result of World War One, but Landauer was left standing as one of the fortunate ones.

Given the opportunity for a second chance at life, he returned to Munich once more, unrelenting in his desire to see forth his vision of what Bayern could become. Elected president once again in the spring of 1919, Landauer placed all his efforts into the achievement of one primary goal: clinching the South German title.

Despite demands from sections of the club’s membership for the construction of a new stadium, Landauer instead favoured internal investment in the team, specifically in the development of a youth system. A unique idea at the time, Bayern’s president believed that the nourishment of a club’s ideals and structure were something that should be taught young, for it was imperative to a player’s growth.

His progressive philosophy would also bring a dazzling brand of football to Bayern. While others were busy imitating the brutish and no-nonsense style of the English, Landauer was inspired by the artistry and intrinsic joy of the Hungarians, which coincidentally was being pushed forward by the best Jewish footballers in Central Europe. Also instrumental in evolving the sport that had up to that point been dominated by pure amateurism, Landauer believed in professionalism and the idea that football could be a respected career in which one was paid for their exploits.

These ideals would not only have a rippling effect on the pitch, as Bayern would claim their first South German championship in 1926, but also in relation to the club’s finances. Fiscal responsibility was crucial in keeping the team afloat from the depths of an economic depression that would ravage the country in the early 1930s.

The year 1931 would see Jewish influence continue to grow at the club, as the Austro‑Hungarian Richard “Little” Dombi was appointed manager of the first team. Ready to challenge the other German giants of the time such as Schalke and Nürnberg, Bayern would finally break through and gain the respect from the nation as a whole, winning the 1932 German championship over Eintracht Frankfurt.

A sense of triumph and validity had washed over Landauer. All of the unconventional methods that may have once manifested itself into internal doubt were now his to proudly project. Unfortunately, that joy would soon be extinguished, as the atmosphere outside of football’s asylum was anything but jubilant.

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Germany’s economy was now in total collapse and the government tasked with fixing it was seemingly incapable of responding. With the force of an anaconda, desperation had finally taken a firm hold of the German people. Recognizing this, the National Socialist Party, an obscure right-wing political movement born out of a beer hall in Munich, looked to fill the void. 

WIth power now consolidated, Adolf Hitler and his government would begin to unleash the full weight of their ultra-nationalist political ideology on nearly every element of life in Germany. No industry was safe; from medicine and education, art and music, to possibly least of all, football.

The rise of the propaganda age saw politics make an entrance into sport, linking countries through the instruments of media that otherwise would have seen them sheltered. Hitler understood that football could serve as a shining example of his Aryan view of peak physical fitness, which, at the time, was embraced as a natural virtue and pathway to ultimate glory on the battlefield. Therefore, the Nazis considered the mere presence of Jews in the sport as an infection in dire need of removal.

On 2 June 1933, Education and Culture Minister, Bernhard Rust, pronounced that all Jews and Marxist athletes were to be purged from their clubs and national organisations. Already seeking favour in this new political reality, some of the country’s most prominent clubs – and even the DFB themselves – had enthusiastically carried forward the new policy weeks before Rust’s decree. Standing in the face of fascism and tyranny, not all clubs were interested in the opportunism that Nazi appeasement could readily supply.

Bayern Munich refused to voluntarily expel their Jewish members. To the club’s supporters, Landauer and Dombi were viewed as the fathers to their success, not roadblocks somehow slowing down the speed of progress. Ultimately, Landauer knew that their act of defiance was nothing more than a temporary stand and would only end in certain capitulation.

On 22 March 1933, the Nazis would open the doors to their very first concentration camp in Germany. Naturally, it was to be known as Dachau, due to its proximity to the ninth-century town situated a mere 16 kilometres north-west of Munich. That very same day, Landauer would resign as president against the will of the club. Dombi would soon follow, leaving Germany to go and manage Barcelona. Viciously characterised as a ‘Judenklub’, Bayern Munich was to be ostracised until all Jewish influence was liquidated.

In the meantime, Landauer went on to become department head with publisher Knorr & Hirth, but was soon forced out, eventually finding menial employment with the Jewish-owned Rosa Klauber laundry firm. Despite his colossal absence, his successor and close ally, Siegfried Hermann, would work on his behalf. Behind the scenes, club matters continued to be run by Landauer, while Bayern furthered their resistance by appointing non-Nazis.

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Other subtle acts of defiance would continue, such as winger Willy Simetsreiter’s, who made it a point to have his picture taken with Jesse Owens, an African American athlete who exasperated Hitler by winning four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. There was also full-back Sigmund Haringer, who narrowly avoided prison time for chastising a Nazi flag parade at a kids’ theatre, and Bayern’s captain, Conny Heidkamp, and his wife, who hid the club’s silverware when others relented to an appeal from Hermann Göring to donate this invaluable metal for the war effort. Ultimately, the end game for Hitler’s government and the country as a whole was yet to be confessed, but two cold days in 1938 would begin to crystallise it for the world.

As an eery tranquility swept over the streets and alleys of German towns everywhere, the clatter of boots smacking against the streets began to reach a crescendo. With their swastika-adorned armbands and German lugers deliberately left at home, the SS zeroed in on their targets. Accompanied by hordes of sympathising mobs with revenge oozing from their pores, stones would be cast and torches set alight.

An orgy of destruction would follow, ending in the ruination of about 200 synagogues, many Jewish cemeteries, more than 7,000 Jewish shops, and 29 department stores. When the first rays of the cold and pale November sun penetrated through the heavy dark clouds, much of what was once classified merely by a Star of David was now nothing more than a heap of stone, shattered glass and smashed-up woodwork.

Over the chaotic two days in which Kristallnacht took place, at least 91 people would lose their lives, in addition to the 33,000 Jewish men arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. Rounded up and registered at Dachau as prisoner number 20009, Kurt Landauer was now facing an almost certain death, but a sacrifice he had made 24 years prior would come to be his saving grace. Due to his decorated military service in World War One, Landauer was granted his freedom from Dachau after 33 days. For others in his family, they would not be so fortunate. Three of his brothers would be murdered in concentration camps, while one sister, Gabriele, was deported and never to be heard from again.

Left with little choice but to flee his homeland, Landauer would emigrate to Switzerland with the help of some well-placed contacts. Five years later and now completely cleansed of Jews, Bayern would travel to Zürich to play a friendly against a Swiss club. With knowledge that their former president lived there, the Gestapo explicitly forbid any member of the team to meet with Landauer, but because the Swiss were free of German occupation, they couldn’t ban him from attending the match. 

In one of the most daring acts of open rebellion by a football club towards the Reich, Bayern Munich’s players spotted him in the stands and proceeded to line up. In unison, all began to applaud, showering praise on the man who had once brought them from anonymity to eventual champions of Germany. In a small way, it may have just saved his life. Despite knowing he may never see his birthplace again, in that moment he was appreciated, loved, and most importantly, alive. It would be the fuel that pushed him to carry on, and eventually, lead to his once-unforeseeable return.

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Two years after the war, Landauer did exactly that. Back in Munich, he was almost immediately appointed president of Bayern for the third time, becoming the longest-tenured chief executive in the club’s history. Even after returning, Landauer had no interest in discussing what had happened in the past. Instead, he insisted on making football matter again, which would prove to be essential in Germany being respected as a civilised country once more. Success on the pitch also enhanced economic confidence, bringing people from all walks of life back to the stadiums to mend old wounds.

He would eventually be voted out of office in 1951. Without his guidance, the club he had called home for nearly two decades before and after World War Two quickly found itself in a spiralling pit of debt before being relegated to the second tier. Bayern would eventually recover, going on to become not only Germany’s but one of the continent’s most successful clubs. However, all of this prosperity on the pitch made it easier to forget and cover up the past. 

In all the years that followed, like so many other German institutions, Bayern decided to bury the Nazi period in official accounts. When the fates of Jewish members were mentioned in the club’s monthly publication, the terms “Jew” and “Jewish” were carefully omitted. Instead, they were classified as “non-Aryan”. Club executives would often deflect questions with euphemistic phrases like “the political events events between 1933 and 1945”, while others conceded to possible “negative reactions” if they spoke publically about their Jewish roots.

However, at the turn of the century, more and more journalists and supporters started to become curious about this time period. Shame and denial were now being supplanted by a sense of curiosity and obligation. One of the leading voices behind such a discovery was Bayern’s ultra-fan group Schickeria. In Landauer, they saw a mirror of themselves – a man who never lost his love for his team despite nearly losing everything else. Theirs and club legend Karl-Heinz Rummenigge’s insistence in honouring “the father of modern Bayern” left their hierarchy and many other clubs no choice but to become introspective, searching hard and sincerely for their abandoned heroes and history.

Landauer’s death in 1961, at the age of 77, would ultimately pry him from the recognition he so desperately deserved, but the past decade has seen the Bavarian club take the proper steps to rectify its faults. A memorial service was held in 2009 to mark the 125th anniversary of Landauer’s birth, while Bayern also covered half of the expense that enabled the Jewish amateur club TSV Maccabi Munich to build a pitch bearing his name in 2010.

The roadway leading up to Bayern’s modern footballing temple is now named after him as well, while during every match, Die Roten play before a packed grandstand built over a museum that honours Bayern’s Jewish past. You may also see supporters dressed in scarves, T-shirts or lifting a tifo bearing the visage and name of their now crowned honorary president.

With the current state of affairs in a world that is slowly starting to resemble the past, keeping Kurt Landauer’s memory alive is not only deserved, but essential. The search for meaning in another’s suffering has never been easy or comfortable, yet if lessons can be learned from one’s resistance and resilience, even if revealed through ordinary tales of football, all of us will be better primed to not repeat the mistakes of generations gone by.

By Justin Sherman @JShermOfficial

*A special thanks to Dietrich Schulze-Marmeling for his invaluable assistance in making this story possible. Find out more about this topic in his 2011 award-winning book Der FC Bayern und seine Juden (FC Bayern and their Jews).

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