How Polish migrants shaped the early success of Schalke

How Polish migrants shaped the early success of Schalke

While they are enjoying a better season on the pitch than was expected, Schalke’s 2019/20 has been tarnished by a couple of high-profile racist incidents. The season had barely started when a wealthy board member, Clemens Tönnies, caused outrage and a fierce debate within the club – and protests from Schalke fans – with idiotic remarks about Africans and climate change. 

The club were then fined in February for racist abuse from a handful of fans in a DFB-Pokal match against Hertha Berlin directed towards Jordan Torunarigha, including monkey noises. This case brought swift condemnation from the club, manager David Wagner, and the vast majority of Schalke fans.

While every club in world football has its idiots, that racist incidents would be associated with Schalke is a sad irony. Few teams have such a strong history and identity as Schalke – a club so proud of its industrial roots it goes by the nickname The Miners. The story of the club, and its home city of Gelsenkirchen, is also founded to a massive degree on the contribution of immigrants.

In the 1850s, when the very first football clubs were being set up in the UK, Gelsenkirchen was a tiny village. The discovery of what they called “black gold” totally transformed Gelsenkirchen and the wider Ruhr region as huge coal reserves were discovered in the area. A great mass of labour would be needed to exploit these natural resources, and this came largely from the eastern expanses of Germany at the time, which extended right across present-day Poland. By the eve of the First World War, an estimated 500,000 people from the area of Poland had found their way to the Ruhr.

While coal might have brought money, there was a distinctly wild edge to a place experiencing rapid development and absorbing many migrants. Diethelm Blecking, a professor of sports history from the University of Freiburg, told Austrian football magazine Ballesterer that violence, bars selling schnapps and prostitution are some of the defining images of life in the mining communities of the Ruhr area in the latter 19th century. Good money for migrant miners went with major health risks, of course, with few being able to work beyond the age of 40 if they had navigated mines with German-language warning signs many couldn’t read, along with the threat of pistol-bearing foremen.

Sport became a welcome relief for many migrants in their leisure time, and many clubs provided a powerful sense of identity. Some on a community basis, but others on an ethnic or national basis, such as the clubs of the Sokol movement, which combined physical training with Slavic nationalism, and became popular among Poles in this part of Germany.

The founders of Schalke were a group of teenagers who played street football near the market place in Schalke, a suburb of Gelsenkirchen that had sprouted up amid the industrial boom. The driving force behind the club from its early years though was the nearby Consolidation Mine, which was one of the largest in the region, employing over 2,000 miners. 

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Employment at the mine after the end of schooling was the norm for young lads like Ernst Kuzorra and Fritz Szepan, both of whom were children of migrants. Schalke’s first chairman after it was officially registered as a club in 1909 was a weighman at the mine – a position none of the founders could legally take up as they were still teenagers.

Playing football went hand-in-hand with work in the pits for many youngsters. Kuzorra started playing in the youth ranks of Schalke as a 14-year-old in 1919 and continued to work in the mine for a few years after making his first-team debut in 1925.  

Siegfried Gehrmann, a now-deceased history professor from the University of Essen, identified 32 Schalke players between the ages of 1920 and 1940 who bore surnames of Polish origin. The grit and determination of the migrant culture perhaps helped the club. It would take an additional international influence though to propel Schalke to become the dominant force in German football. 

Hans and Friedrich Ballmann were born in nearby Dortmund but spent their childhoods in England, becoming fond of the Scottish style of pass and move football. They duly imported this style on returning to Germany in 1919, playing for Schalke. The club developed a distinct playing style through the 1920s known as the Schalke Kreisel – the Schalke Spinning Top – for the way their unfamiliar quick passing disorientated the opposition.

In an era with a much more modest transfer market, the Schalke team of the 1920s was allowed to slowly gel and perfect its distinctive tactics, after some criticism of having an over-elegant approach lacking sharpness. By 1929, Schalke had won three regional championships in a row and were crowned West German champions for the first time. 

Before the Bundesliga was founded in the 1960s, German champions were decided each year with a playoff tournament between regional champions. In the 1929 edition, Schalke beat Wacker Leipzig in the last-16 but lost to Hertha in the quarter-finals. They would reach the same stage the following season before being banned from competitive football for a year for breaking rules on amateurism with illegally excessive expenses payments to the players – an indication that the wealth of the mines provided a solid base for the club to compete for national honours.

After their return to action, Schalke would enjoy a decade of dominance. The club won six out of nine German titles between 1934 and 1942, a feat that is probably even more impressive than it first appears due to the knockout structure at the end of the playoffs (which now also featured an initial group stage). They were also beaten German championship finalists in 1933, 1938 and 1941, and made five of the first eight finals of the German Cup (known as the Tschammerpokal during the Nazi era), becoming the first team to win a national double in 1937.

Kuzorra and Szepan were the leading lights of this era of glory for Schalke. Kuzorra was a formidable forward, smashing 265 goals in around 350 appearances for the club, while Szepan revolutionised the centre-half position to act as a playmaker – while banging in 234 goals himself. Both players represented Germany, with Szepan captaining Germany in both the 1934 and 1938 World Cups. 

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The duo combined in remarkable style to clinch Schalke’s first-ever German title in 1934, with Szepan equalising against Nurnberg in the 87th minute and Kuzorra scoring in the last minute for a 2-1 win. The pair cemented their partnership off the pitch in equally dramatic fashion by marrying each other’s sisters.

In the Schalke side that won the 1934 title, several other players had names clearly showing Polish heritage: Valentin Przybylski, Ernst Kalwitzki, Ötte Tibulsky, Ferdinand Zajons and Ala Urban. Left winger Emil Rothardt had Germanised his birth surname of Czerwinski. Polish sports daily Przegląd Sportowy reported at the time on Polish players winning the German title and a “triumph of our compatriots”, who it suggested had overcome discrimination in Germany. The origins of the players was well known, and it saw Schalke being mocked throughout this time as the Polackenverein (“Polak club”).

With the Nazi government engaged in repressing Polish communities along with other minorities, this report in Poland created a headache for the Schalke hierarchy. The club sent a letter out to Kicker magazine and other German publications declaring “Enough of the Polish rumours!”, stating that the team were “all German boys” and providing details of where the parents of the players were born. 

They were indeed all born in what was Germany territory, but the vast majority came from eastern areas of the country, in what is now Poland and at the time contained large communities of Polish-speaking people.

The question of identity and nationality was complicated by the way the borders had changed over the centuries. Different bits of Poland had been absorbed into Prussia, and then a united Germany, at different times. The largest share of the players, eight – Kuzorra and Szepan among them – had parents from Masuria, a lake district situated close to the Baltic coast in what is now north-eastern Poland. 

This region had been part of Prussia (and later Germany) for several centuries, and while a large share of the populace had Polish roots and spoke a version of Polish, it had become protestant back in the 16th century when the rest of Poland mostly remained catholic. A consequence of all this is that despite being an identifiable minority, Masurians predominantly felt German, typically supported the German state, and looked down on Polish Catholics. 

The Nazi government did everything it could to separate Masurians, which it claimed were ethnically German, from Poles who were subject to brutal repression. Nonetheless, many normal Germans gave little consideration to these historical details, and Masurians were largely perceived to be Polish and subject to the same kinds of casual discrimination. 

Kuzorra and Szepan were of Masurian descent and had no qualms about identifying as German under the Nazi regime. There has been significant debate as to how much the pair embraced Nazism, and both were clearly happy to tolerate it and bask under Nazi propaganda. The team performed Nazi salutes at trophy ceremonies, while Szepan and Kuzorra both joined the Nazi Party in the late 1930s. 

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Szepan took over a local department store that was confiscated from its Jewish owners, and was declared a Nazi collaborator after the war by the Allies. Kuzorra has been judged less unfavourably by history, seen as having been disinterested in politics, and was prepared to criticise authorities after a controversial German championship final defeat to Rapid Vienna in 1941. He also gave tickets to Jewish children after they were forbidden from attending sporting events. 

Schalke as a whole were celebrated by the Nazis for exemplifying the working-class spirit and were taken on tours of occupied territories during World War Two to play soldiers, twice travelling to occupied Warsaw. 

Despite the complications provided by this dark period of history, the influence of the migrants who flocked to the mines around Gelsenkirchen is a clear thread of the Schalke story that continued in the post-war period. Reinhard Libuda, a legendary winger who had three spells for Schalke in the 1960s and early 70s, bore a name of Polish descent. 

The historical traces can be shown right up to the present day, with Leon Goretzka, who was born and developed in nearby Bochum before playing for Schalke for five years, having a surname believed to be a Germanised version of the Polish surname Gorecki.

Schalke’s mining identity and the influence of Polish-speaking migrants have been reflected in the names of its stadiums. Its ground from 1927 to 1973, the Glückauf-Kampfbahn, was located on the premises of the Consolidation Mine and incorporated the special greeting that miners in the Ruhr area used to wish one another good luck: ‘Glück auf’. 

There is a theory that the quirk in the German language that means opposition teams are described as playing on Schalke (auf Schalke) instead of at Schalke – a term not used with any other club —was also inspired by the language of Polish-speaking migrants in the area. The theory plausibly suggests Polish-speaking fans directly translated the Polish term for going to a match – iść na mecz – asgoing on a match’, as the preposition na can mean either ‘to’ or ‘on’ depending on usage. When the club opened a new stadium in 2001, they called it Arena Auf Schalke until the sale of its naming rights in 2005.

Blecking says the story of migration in Schalke’s roots is not one the club or fans pays particular attention to with the club anchoring its identity instead fully in its industrial tradition. Renditions of a traditional mining song at home matches, Der Steigerlied, are incredibly moving. The club marked the closure of the last mine in the Ruhr area in 2018 with a mining band performing it at a darkened stadium. The club even used to send its players down a local mine once a year to help them identify with the local industrial heritage.

At a time when the influence of the wave of Polish migrants before World War One was becoming a matter for the history books and the mines were slowly closing – the Consolidation Mine shutting in 1993 – the story of migration in Gelsenkirchen continued. Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündoğan were both born in the city as the descendants of Turkish migrants, and both spent time at Schalke in their early playing days. Özil, of course, feted at times by both Merkel and Erdogan, has made a significant contribution of his own to questions of nationality, identity and racism in present-day German football.

By Dan Billingham @D_Billingham

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