Heroes or culprits? The troubling relationship between Schalke’s glory days and the Nazis

Heroes or culprits? The troubling relationship between Schalke’s glory days and the Nazis

I have always enjoyed delving into pictures from decades ago. There is something timeless about them. The black-and-white photographs leave room for interpretation, encouraging the beholder to vivify the image in their mind’s eye. So when I stumbled across a team photo of Schalke, taken just after the club had won the German Championship in 1939, I was mesmerised.

It’s a magnificent shot. Schalke’s players are jumping around in celebration, hugging each other and bearing the biggest of grins. Sporting low-neckline shirts and ridiculously over-sized shorts, they look both exhausted and exhilarated as they are strutting off the pitch at the Olympiastadion in Berlin, having just thrashed Admira Vienna 9-0 to claim their fourth domestic title.

The photo captures the team spirit of one of German football’s greatest sides – but it does have a shady underbelly? Of course, we are in Nazi Germany, at a time when Adolf Hitler’s tyrannical plans for European domination were unfolding.

The match took place a year after Hitler annexed Austria – that’s why Vienna participated in the German Championship – and only months away from the invasion of Poland, which marked the beginning of World War Two. Nazi propaganda was omnipresent, and football was no exception. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that two Schalke players had the symbol of Hitler’s terror regime imprinted on their jerseys, the Reichsadler, the imperial eagle, as well as a swastika.

It gets you thinking. Schalke, boasting over 150,000 members and ranking among the top five clubs in world football, won six of their seven domestic titles in the Nazi era between 1933 and 1945. The coincidence of the club’s heydey and the Nazi regime is somewhat suspicious, so it’s worth examining whether there was an actual connection between the two. And what’s more, why were two Schalke players wearing shirts bearing the Reichsadler, while the rest of the team didn’t?

Initially, this feature was meant to be a homage to Schalke’s legendary short passing game, developed in the 1920s and widely regarded as a forerunner to the Dutch Totaalvoetbal or the Spanish tiki-taka. Their style of play became known as the Schalker Kreisel – which translates to ‘Spinning Top’ in English – a metaphor describing Schalke’s revolutionary philosophy of rapidly passing the ball on the ground.

In his acclaimed book Tor! The story of German football, Uli Hesse recounts that instead of just hoofing the ball into the box – a strategy most clubs considered the gold standard at the time – Schalke strung together a bewildering succession of short, quick passes, always on the lookout for better-positioned teammates and relentlessly roaming around to create space. At first, Schalke’s anachronistic approach lacked efficiency, but in the long run it would pay off, enabling them to become the best German team for over a decade.

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The spiritual fathers of the Kreisel were Hans and Fred Ballmann. Growing up in Britain after their German parents had emigrated across the channel before the Great War, the brothers were deported in 1920 and returned to Germany. Barely speaking any German, they settled in Gelsenkirchen, a city in the coal-mining epicentre of Ruhrgebiet, where, in 1904, a couple of enthusiastic whippersnappers founded FC Schalke in a working-class district bearing the same name.

One of Schalke’s players, Fred Kühne, had met the sporty Ballmann brothers during captivity in England. Upon their arrival in grimy Gelsenkirchen, Kühne was quick to convince them to join the club. At the time, Schalke were a far cry from being big shots, having just won promotion to the second tier of the regional Ruhr championship. Hans and Fred would change that, though. They taught their teammates the Scottish passing game, which they had imbibed in England and added flair to Schalke’s physical style of play. “They performed bicycle kicks, one-twos – we have never seen such things before,” Schalke striker Ernst Kuzorra would later revel.

Over the course of the 1920s, Schalke developed into a close-knit side and rose to the status of local heroes. The team was overwhelmingly made up of coal miners and drew large crowds, at times over 40,000. Die Königsblauen – the Royal Blues – gradually perfected their short-passing game, dominated their opponents in western Germany and made it to the quarter-finals of the German championship in 1929.

A brief setback followed in 1930 when the German FA imposed a one-year ban on 14 Schalke players because the club board paid them an excessive amount of money. Back then, German football was strictly amateur, and the authorities were keen on enforcing draconian punishments if anyone dared to violate their sacred amateur ideal.

Despite the harsh penalty, Schalke quickly got back on their feet. When the suspended players were finally pardoned and returned to the pitch, they were greeted by 70,000 excited fans at the club’s Stadion Glückauf-Kampfbahn. The team picked up where they had left off, effortlessly embarrassing opponents with their clockwork-like passing game and routinely cantering to the All-Germany finals. In 1934, Schalke’s spinning top was at full speed, and they clinched their first title courtesy of a 2-1 win over FC Nürnberg.

The goals came from Fritz Szepan and Ernst Kuzorra. The two childhood friends formed a congenial attacking pair and were the outstanding players in a star-studded team. They got along splendidly on and off the pitch – Szepan even married Kuzorra’s sister. Together they scored well over 450 goals for Schalke and made several international appearances for Germany, with Szepan captaining the national side on 30 occasions. However, they not only shared companionship and footballing genius, but also a propensity for gullibility and misguided political beliefs.

In 1933, a year before Schalke won their first title, Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany, which drastically changed both the political and sporting landscape. The Machtergreifung heralded a period known as Gleichschaltung, describing Hitler’s evil deeds of Nazification by establishing a system of totalitarian control over all aspects of society.

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The country was teeming with members of Hitler’s right-wing National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), displaying their brutal and anti-semitic beliefs. Over the next years, 7.5 million people would join the NSDAP. In 1939, the Wehrmacht invaded Poland, prompting France and Britain to declare war on Germany. Until their unconditional surrender six years later, Hitler and his henchmen committed unimaginable atrocities, taking millions of lives and leaving Europe in ruins.

It was in this climate of violence and injustice that Schalke had their most successful era. Led by Szepan and Kuzorra, the team – traditionally dressed in blue and white kits – stuck together and excelled, reaching a cup final every year and lifting the championship trophy five more times until 1942. It wasn’t until the latter stages of World War Two that Schalke’s supremacy would eventually fade.

At the turn of the millennium, more than 50 years after Germany had capitulated, Schalke’s connection with the Nazi regime was still uncharted territory. Nobody at the club wanted to know whether Schalke had any skeletons in the closet. Then, in summer 2001, die Königsblauen opted to rename a street nearby the stadium after Fritz Szepan. However, it became public knowledge that Szepan had joined the NSDAP and participated in Hitler’s cruel Aryanisation by taking over a Jewish business for a bargain price. The former owners, Sally Meyer and Julie Lichtmann, would later be deported and executed in Riga.

Schalke’s reaction to the disclosures was commendable. They refrained from renaming the road and commissioned a study on the club’s links in the Nazi era, making them the first German outfit to do so. Social scientist Stefan Goch was assigned to the task and dug into Schalke’s obscure past. His findings were later released in the book Zwischen Blau und Weiß liegt Grau (Between Blue and White, there is Grey). It is a great read; Goch’s research effort and conclusions are both astonishing and illuminating.

Schalke had been a non-political club before Hitler came to power. The voting preferences of club members and players were similar to those of the overall population. In fact, this wouldn’t change during the Nazi era. Several club officials and members joined the NSDAP, but only three players did: centre-back Hans Bornemann, Fritz Szepan and Ernst Kuzorra.

Szepan is the most prominent example. Apart from acquiring a Jewish draper’s shop, he publicly supported Nazi propaganda, urging people to follow Hitler: “We should show our loyalty to our Führer, because he fought for us.” It should be noted that Szepan was the captain of the national team and hence more likely to be instrumentalised. During the Denazification process after the war, despite failing to realise the injustice he had committed against the Jewish shop owners, he was acquitted.

As for Bornemann, there aren’t any records. Kuzorra, however, signed proclamations to vote for the NSDAP. Just like his friend Szepan, he allegedly spoke highly of Hitler and gave speeches of praise: “German footballers rally behind their Führer. Germany has to live on, we will keep on fighting!” Yet contemporary witnesses refuted that he would use such effusive language. When the war ended, he was discharged after a brief interrogation for not being committed to the Nazi ideology. Schalke’s were relieved by the news. To this day, the club’s premises are located at Ernst-Kuzorra-Weg 1.

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Kuzorra himself said: “We just wanted to play football. Politics and religion didn’t matter for us.” This is disputable as Kuzorra and his teammates weren’t required to actively join the NSDAP. But there is a kernel of truth to Kuzorra’s statement that can be applied to the whole club: the overwhelming majority were by no means genuine Nazis, but they showed no resistance either.

When Hitler seized power, the club immediately excluded Jews. Schalke readily obeyed orders and emphasised their loyalty to the Third Reich, most famously after the title win in 1934 when Polish media remarked that most Schalke players are of Polish descent: “The German trophy is in the hands of Poland.” Thus discredited as a ‘Polack club’, Schalke immediately wrote an open letter in which 13 players, Szepan and Kuzorra among them, claimed: “Our parents were born in Germany, we are not Polish immigrants.”

Some players turned into opportunists, enjoying privileges such as leaves of absence for training and matches as well as being spared from serving on the front line. You can hardly blame them for that; it’s just a shame it had to come at the expense of others. Only one player, Otto Tibulsky, reportedly refused to give the Hitler salute, but at big games he couldn’t have done that without causing uproar. Researcher Stefan Goch sums it up: “There were no real culprits in the club, but no heroes either.” They weren’t better or worse than most of the population – or other German clubs for that matter.

In the most elaborate study on football under the swastika, Fußball unterm Hakenkreuz, historian Nils Havemann argues that there were four flagship Nazi clubs. The most obvious examples are Werder Bremen, VfB Stuttgart and 1860 Munich, who actively supported Hitler from the beginning and benefitted financially in return. The fourth club is Schalke – but for different reasons.

In light of their extraordinary success, Schalke were heavily instrumentalised by the Nazis. The team’s origin as a working-class club, the unlikely rise to fame of a bunch of friends working in a coal mine, served as a perfect manifestation of Hitler’s Volksgemeinschaft – stick together, and you can achieve anything. The way Schalke dominated – at times even humiliated – their opponents was abused as a metaphor for Hitler’s depraved Darwinistic ideology. This wasn’t pursued by Schalke but they didn’t opposite it either.

Curiously enough, for a long time it was rumoured that Hitler supported Schalke. In 2008, The Times picked up this irksome myth – without any proof – for their “50 Worst Famous Football Fans” list – a clickbait feature notorious for being terribly incorrect. Schalke’s Head of PR Gerd Voss sent the editor a witty retort: “We checked and double-checked whether the club board between 1933 and 1945 had named a stand the “Führer Stand”, for example, and we watched every episode of ‘Allo ‘Allo in a bid to find a clue. Nothing. To conclude Hitler was a fan of Schalke 04 because they won most of the titles during his regime must make Margaret Thatcher a Liverpool fan. Funnily enough, she didn’t make the list.” And that was that.

Hitler never liked football, a resentment that was intensified by Germany’s embarrassing 2-0 loss against Norway at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the only football match he ever watched. Despite that, football was the most popular sport in Germany, so the Nazi regime felt compelled to impose its twisted morals on the game, labelling footballers as Aryan role models fighting for their homeland.

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This brings us back to the fabled championship final in 1939, when Schalke breezed to a 9-0 win over Admira Vienna. Two players, Otto Schweisfurth and Walter Berg, had already been called up for military service in the Wehrmacht. Schalke’s historical department explains that these players had to wear a Reichsadler shirt: “It must be assumed that the sports association required the players to wear this oversized badge. It was an indication that even football players must serve on the front line. Ultimately, the jerseys were a promotion of the ideals of the people’s community.”

Three years later, when Schalke lined up before the final against First Vienna FC, eight players had the Reichsadler imprinted on their shirts, illustrating how the war had spread and that even football stars weren’t protected from joining the army.

Vienna was a football stronghold at that time. The previous year, Rapid Vienna became the only Austrian team to win the German championship, thanks to a miraculous 4-3 comeback after trailing hopelessly 3-0 in the final. The opponent was, of course, Schalke. However, in 1942, die Königsblauen prevailed and struggled to a 2-0 win over Rapid’s rivals First Vienna. It would be their last trophy for over a decade. The glory days of Schalke had come to an end.

But one question remains: was the legendary Schalke side favoured by Hitler’s henchmen? In Spain, for instance, it is common knowledge that General Franco fixed matches in the 1940s, sending his director of state security into Barcelona’s locker room where he allegedly threatened the players: “Some of you are only playing because of the regime’s generosity in permitting you to remain in the country.” Consequently, Barça lost 11-1 to Franco’s Real Madrid in a match in 1943, having won the first leg 3-0.

Historians believe that nothing like that happened in Nazi Germany, at least within top-level football. There have been occasional rumours of match-fixing, but there is no evidence. Schalke simply happened to be the best team at the time. Ironically, it was a Schalke player who believed that a match was fixed – but against his side.

In his only recorded defiance of the government, team captain and NSDAP member Ernst Kuzorra refused to take the badge of honour after his club lost 4-3 to Rapid in 1941. He suspected the Nazi regime wanted an Austrian team to win the championship, which was supported by a few controversial refereeing decisions leading to Rapid’s sublime win. Again, however, there is no evidence.

Ultimately, Schalke’s connection with the Nazi regime remains ambiguous. The club didn’t defy Hitler and were instrumentalised as a prototype for the spirit of the working-class. On the other hand, Schalke didn’t differ from the rest of the population, and besides, there is only so much you can do in a totalitarian country where your every step is monitored and a minor misdemeanour could lead to imprisonment or worse.

The story of Schalke could have been a romantic tale of how a bunch of young friends invented a unique short passing game, flabbergasted their opponents and rose to national fame. However, the legacy of the Schalker Kreisel will forever be overshadowed by the darkest period in world history.

By Michael Sailer @kultkicker

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