Fritz Walter: the icon who united Germany after World War Two

Fritz Walter: the icon who united Germany after World War Two

THE PANZER DIVISIONS rumbled to a stop as the unmistakable spires of the Kremlin came into view. Finally, the Wehrmacht were within touching distance of the Russian capital. Since the invasion of Poland in 1939, Nazi forces had marched virtually unchallenged across Europe. As France and the Netherlands fell, the Royal Air Force kept the Luftwaffe at bay in the skies, whilst the might of the Royal Navy forced Adolf Hitler to postpone Operation Sealion and the planned invasion of Britain.

Instead, he looked east and towards the much-needed resources of the Caucasus oil fields, along with Lebensraum – living space for the German people when the takeover of Europe was complete. Operation Barbarossa was the name given to the invasion of Russia, and the Nazis estimated a rapid sweep through the Soviet Union. A six-month timescale to take Moscow allowed no room for error, with the Russian winter around the corner. Hitler’s ego and a stoic defence by the Red Army, despite huge losses, proved to be one of the main turning points of World War Two.

Diverted from Moscow towards Stalingrad, Hitler played a dangerous game of one-upmanship with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, whose name the city bore. Bogged down on the banks of the Volga River with supplies, men and ammunition running out, Hitler seized total control of the fighting forces and ordered them to hold the city and not to retreat under any circumstances. The buckling Nazis, however, finally broke; the Russians held Stalingrad and Moscow would not fall. The rampaging Red Army pushed the Wehrmacht westwards, where the Allied forces were making their way through France and Italy to bottleneck the enemy and help bring an end to six years of bloodshed and destruction.

During the early days of the conflict, the Nazi propaganda machine was in full flow. Despite still being played by amateurs, football had grown amongst the sport and social clubs of Germany with many regionalised leagues dotted around the nation. Football was seen as a way to keep morale up and a leisurely distraction for the German people while the totalitarian regime committed terrible atrocities across Europe.

Germany national team manager Sepp Herberger was a member of the Nazi Party and was able to bring players back from the front line during the war years to play for their country. Once such player was Friedrich ‘Fritz’ Walter, who made his debut in 1940 for the Nationalmannschaft, where he scored a hat-trick during a friendly against Romania.

Walter was born in Kaiserslautern in 1920, the eldest of three brothers. His father, Ludwig, was a lorry driver who worked in America before he returned home before World War One, married a Berlin woman and settled in the Pfalz region. An accident robbed Ludwig of his sight in one eye so he opened a restaurant at the local Betzenbergstadion, home of FC Kaiserslautern.

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The Walter brothers grew up in and around the club and so it was no surprise when an eight-year-old Fritz joined their academy. The attack-minded Walter made his debut for Die Roten Teufel when he was 17 and, despite his reserved demeanour, soon became a key member of the side. Herberger was impressed and soon Walter became a favourite of the veteran German coach.

Walter played in 23 of 25 wartime games whilst deployed in France and Italy with the Wehrmacht. Many of the games were fairly nondescript affairs with the opponents made up of Axis members or occupied nations. One such member of the Axis forces, Hungary, provided the opposition for home and away games in 1941. The first, in April of that year, saw a dominant Germany destroy a weakened Magyar side 7-0 in front of 70,00 fans in Cologne.

The return friendly in Budapest the following month took Die Mannschaft by surprise with Hungary racing to a 3-1 half-time lead. Herberger, aware of the importance of the results to the Nazi leaders, pleaded with his players at the break: “Please don’t let this become a catastrophe.” He knew more than his job was on the line. Led by Fritz Walter, the Germans scored four unanswered goals, the Kaiserslautern attacker with two of them, much to his manager’s relief.

That December, Japan’s surprise attack on the US Navy base at Pearl Harbour brought the Americans into the war, and Germany suffered its first real blows of the conflict. Air raid sirens were a more common occurrence and food shortages showed the German population that all was not as well as the likes of Hitler and his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, would have them believe.

By 1943 Goebbels declared Germany to be in a state of “total war” and that all efforts would be directed towards the front line. Football was still allowed but soldiers now found it more difficult to return from the various fronts to play. Walter spent this time in relative safety but, as the fighting became fiercer, he transferred to the Red Fighter Pilots after Herberger called in a favour from ex-goalkeeper Major Graf to make his golden boy part of his paratrooper regiment and football team.

After the German war machine ground to a halt in Stalingrad, the Red Army, aided by the seemingly endless divisions of men called upon by Stalin, began an offensive that would push Germany all the way back across the Eastern front and to surrender. With the merciless Russians bearing down on their flight base, Major Graf ordered his men to destroy their planes and to head west to surrender to the more forgiving Allied forces.

All went to plan as the surrendered paratroopers were interned in a US prisoner of war camp, however this was short lived as only a few weeks later they were handed over to the Russians, where the deathly conditions of Siberian gulags awaited. A low life expectancy in the worker camps saw inmates face minus 40-degree conditions with only paper clothing to protect them from the elements. An estimated 12 to 20 million perished across the 476 camps during Stalin’s rule.

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Walter awaited his fate along with another 40,000 prisoners in a Ukrainian reception centre, one step away from Siberia and certain death. Having accepted his fate, Walter looked to fill his final days in the camp with football having noticed some of the guards taking part in impromptu games. Whilst watching one game, the ball rolled to Walter who controlled it and promptly stroked it back to the guards. Walter became involved in the game and fate conspired to save his life.

A Hungarian guard noticed Walter and approached him: “I know you,” he said inquisitively. “Germany v Hungary, you won 5-3.” The second half comeback orchestrated by Walter had left an indelible mark on the guard and the following day, the man from the Pfalz region was mysteriously removed from the list for the gulags.

After the war ended, Walter returned home and tried to rebuild both his life and career with the Die Roten Teufel. Youngest brother Ottmar joined him in the Kaiserslautern ranks, while middle sibling Ludwig retired due to injuries sustained during the war with only two league appearances to his name. With most of the Nazi Party bigwigs arrested, dead or in hiding, Herberger was deemed not to have been committed to the cause so escaped the internment camp and was tasked with building a new national team instead.

Football returned in 1947 with four regional leagues beginning in earnest. The Walter brothers scored 46 goals between them that season as Kaiserslautern took the south-west title only to fall to Nürnberg in the first post-war ‘Championship of the Western Zones’ final in Cologne. It was a much-needed boost for the people of Nuremberg still coming to terms with the destruction of their city. Four years later, Walter would lift his first of two Meisterschale trophies as Kaiserslautern defeated the fiercely ambitious Preußen Münster 2-1 in the final, Ottmar Walter with both goals.

Preußen Münster was the first team to take advantage of the Vertragsspieler – a player under contract – rule that was German football’s first step towards professionalism. The North-Rhine Westphalian side had built its team by buying players from others and soon overseas clubs looked to lure German players away from their modest incomes, which they still supplemented with jobs outside of the game.

Legendary manager and the godfather of catenaccio, Helenio Herrera, then managing in Spain with Atlético Madrid, offered Walter DM225,000 to leave Kaiserslautern behind. The stratospheric offer took him back, yet his Italian wife convinced her husband that money wasn’t everything. Several other offers would come in over the next few years but Walter rebuffed them all and was rewarded with his second title in 1953 before he was chosen to captain his country in their first post-war World Cup in Switzerland the following year.

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Now known as West Germany, they were banned from the 1950 World Cup as the country still reeled from the repercussions of the war. The English FA fought their corner and were one of the institutions that pushed for their inclusion this time around. The short trip to Switzerland came as a relief to Walter as he often wilted in humidity after a bout of malaria during the war. A train ride was also welcomed, with air travel avoided where possible after his exploits as a paratrooper.

Despite his standing in the squad, Walter was an unassuming and quiet character who often suffered from crippling self-doubt. When it came to sorting his squad into room-mates, Herberger paired his captain with the brash and outspoken Helmut Rahn, something that turned out to be a masterstroke. Both players brought the best out of each other and Walter found himself relaxed in his teammate’s company at their training base on Lake Thun in Spiez. Any pressure was gone by the time the first game with Turkey came around.

The 1954 World Cup was the first to be televised as football stepped into a new age. Seeding was used in the group stages with the seeded teams avoiding each other. West Germany faced the imperious Hungary in the second group game, the Magyars having put England to the sword at Wembley the year before. With that in mind, victory in the group opener would be necessary were Die Mannschaft to advance in the tournament. Turkey took an early lead, however, much to Walter’s dismay, who could feel the game slipping away. Max Morlock shook the captain from his malaise and inspired a comeback, scoring the final goal in a 4-1 win.

With a vital win in the bag, Herberger played a weakened side against tournament favourites Hungary, who resoundingly beat their German counterparts 8-3. Despite the press back home calling for the manager’s head, there were two positives for Herberger. The first was the impressive performance of Helmut Rahn, and secondly, an injury to the Galloping Major, Ferenc Puskás, following a tackle by Werner Liebrich with the score at 5-1. A debate over the legitimacy of the challenge would rage for years to come.

The Germans needed to put the thrashing behind them as Turkey awaited in a playoff, where the winner would advance to the quarter-finals. It would be Die Mannschaft’s turn to open the floodgates with a 7-2 win. Morlock grabbed an impressive hat-trick and both Walter brothers opened their World Cup accounts. In the next round, Yugoslavia were despatched 2-0 as old enemy Austria stood between West Germany and an unlikely final. The Austrians had beaten hosts Switzerland 7-5 in the game of the tournament the previous round.

Another high scoring affair ensued in Basel with the Walter brothers scoring two each in a 6-1 victory, Fritz’s brace coming from the penalty spot. A final berth was secured and all that stood between West Germany and their first World Cup win was a date with the Mighty Magyars at Berne’s Wankdorf Stadium.

The Sunday morning of the final saw the sun rise high above Lake Thun as the local ice cream sellers looked forward to a busy day. However, by noon, grey clouds had rolled in over the Bernese Alps, unleashing a downpour of epic proportions. This was the scenario that the Germans wanted – ‘Fritz Walter weather’ as it was known, due to the inside left’s propensity for stellar performance in rain-sodden conditions.

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Hope didn’t last long. though, as Hungary raced into a two-goal lead inside the first 10 minutes. The usual dismay descended on Walter, Morlock having to rouse his captain once again. Fans listening to Herbert Zimmermann’s commentary on the radio and those amongst the 58,000 in Berne thought back to the 8-3 mauling and felt they were staring down the barrel of another comprehensive defeat.

The comeback was almost instantaneous, Walter started a move on the right as he knocked the ball inside to Helmut Rahn, whose blocked shot was stabbed in by Morlock. Suddenly belief surged through the side. Walter was reminded of the comeback 11 years earlier when they were 3-1 behind. Pressure mounted on the Hungarian goal an,d with only 15 minutes on the clock, the scores were level, Rahn slotting home at the back post after a succession of corners.

The rain continued to fall and conditions worsened. Sat next to Herberger on the West German bench was football boot maker Adi Dassler. His revolutionary design of removable studs came into effect as the pitch took on water, utilising longer studs to aid grip on the deteriorating surface. The Magyars fought back and enjoyed a spell of dominance as the imperious Nándor Hidegkuti struck the post shortly before half-time. All of the play and chances fell to Hungary yet they could not breach Toni Turek’s goal.

As the clock ticked down, the Germans felt they had weathered the storm, and after a Hans Schäfer cross was half cleared, Rahn faked a shot on his right before firing a left-footed drive past Gyula Grosics. The still-injured Puskás had an equaliser ruled out for offside and ‘The Miracle of Berne’ was complete. Walter lifted the Jules Rimet trophy as the rain still fell and the era of Hungary’s golden team was over.

Walter’s last appearance for West Germany came at the World Cup in Sweden four years later courtesy of an injury in a fierce semi-final defeat to the hosts. Herberger tempted Walter out of international retirement but the injury saw him wind his football career down the following year. His record of 61 caps and 33 goals accompanied 379 games for Kaiserslautern with an incredible 306 strikes to his name.

The link with Herberger continued into retirement with Walter working for the German Football Association helping to rehabilitate and reintegrate young offenders. Kaiserslautern renamed the Betzenberg Stadium after Walter in 1985 but he sadly passed away four years before seeing it host a World Cup game in 2006. A minute’s silence was observed for one of the country’s favourite sons.

For a generation of German football fans, Walter remains the ultimate player, rivalled only by Franz Beckenbauer. He was a combination of sportsmanship, grace, guile and professionalism in what was for a long time an amateur game. Most of all, though, he helped unite a country still struggling to come to terms with the effects of Hitler’s tyrannical reign. The guilt that many of the German people still felt was eased after that memorable day in Berne, washed away in the Fritz Walter weather, replaced with a sense of pride and new beginnings. 

By Matthew Evans  

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