German football’s legends and reality

In all areas of life, we’experience at some point the difference between what we perceive as reality and the actual truth. At times, we are ignorant or simply not all that interested in the matter; other times history has been re-written over the years and the perceived reality has been agreed upon by vast groups of people, while the actual truth has been buried. Furthermore, younger generations might grow up with that perceived reality and pass it on to the next generation until it eventually turns into something that is accepted as universally true.

German football is blessed with fans who know their history. For example, there is the Bayern München fan group, Schickeria, who have taken a keen interest into their former Jewish president, Kurt Landauer, and his life, even causing a stir which saw historians investigate the matter; with even a movie was made about Landauer’s life. The fan group’s interest was a lovely way of raising awareness of a very important issue, and furthermore, drawing attention to a man who was essential in building Bayern München. Before the Schickeria started to dig, there was a hole in Bayern’s club history which would have remained empty if not for their relentless initiative.

There are similar examples from all over Germany. Indeed, many people visiting German football grounds from abroad are astonished by how well many supporters know their history and how they are fighting to preserve it.

The context of history

To understand who we truly are we must know our history.

This notion doesn’t simply just apply to football fans, but it is valid for people from all walks of life. Many have taken a closer look at their family tree to see from whence they came and to understand how they could become the person they are these days, the post-war generation of Germans have struggled to reconcile themselves with what their forefathers had done during the Hitler years. The examples of this phenomenon are almost endless.

However, it is only human to create a fitting explanation of a phenomena, which we use to explain all the information that we have gathered. Many years ago, for example, I got talking to an older man sitting next to me at a football match in Germany and he told me that the Nazis as a matter of fact hated football and that they left it untouched because they didn’t want to stir up a controversy. I’ve been told that this a common misconception within parts of the German population, which probably is based on the fact that Hitler only attended one match in his entire life. Der Führer was furious when he saw Germany lose to Norway during the 1936 Olympics, leaving the match cursing that he didn’t attend the Olympic rowing competition instead.

However, this one anecdote doesn’t change the fact that the Nazis did in fact take a closer look at football and they changed it drastically, like any other aspect of German life. For instance, Jewish players and officials (like Landauer) were expelled, while the structures of the clubs were changed, enabling clubs to follow the Nazi ideology. Those who were allowed to stay part of the footballing community were often times stern Nazis themselves, such as the former national team coach Otto Nerz. Over the years, as a player and a coach, Nerz depended on Jewish well-doers who supported the clubs he worked for, but all that good will was seemingly forgotten when he wrote a scathing article about the bad influence Jews had on German football. The fact that the highest ranking sports official in the Nazi regime, Hans von Tschammer und Osten, named the predecessor competition of the DFB Pokal after himself serves also as further evidence that not all Nazis weren’t as opposed to football as Hitler himself may have been.

Denial is a potent force. From time to time, it can be so strong that people who have committed murder have blocked out what they have done and are unable to remember the foul deed they had commited. The crime feels unreal to them, because they simply cannot reconcile their actions with their own sense of morality. In Kurt Landauer’s case, the club president experienced lingering resentment towards the Jewish community after he returned to Germany; he also observed that many who had fought actively on the wrong side weren’t feeling guilty about what had happened over the years during Hitler’s reign over Germany. Parts of the leadership of the DFB after the war had been in bed with the Nazis for years, meaning that much of the leadership wasn’t interested in exposing how the authorities and the world of football had been linked with each other between 1933 and 1945.

Who are we and how do we define ourselves?

Many seem to think that our history defines who we are as fans. However, we define our history ourselves as well, and by doing so we may create a different reality which isn’t based on the truth. This phenomenon may be especially pronounced as we take a closer look at something like the Nazis years, but it even still extends to this day and age.

The fact that most clubs are run in a similar way these days, as well as the way that Borussia Dortmund and Bayern München think about their business isn’t radically different, means that we have to find another context for loving our teams if we aren’t locals who have gone to the matches of our hometown team all our life. And even then, one could argue, these days most players aren’t on the pitch out of loyalty and love for the colours they are wearing, but rather because they are employees, like all of us. If they’ll get a better offer from another company, they’ll move on, just like we would. The argument of supporting your “local boys” simply doesn’t hold up in this day and age it seems.

So how can any fan stake a claim that his team is superior than any other team?

Maybe the answer can be found in how we define the character of the club through its history, meaning that today’s team is measured by those exact same values no matter what. Certain areas of Germany have an idea about how they like to live their lives. In the Ruhr area, values like camaraderie and hard work are essential values more so than anywhere else. After Jens Keller was sacked this year there were two fans holding up a sign in the stadium, reading:

“Danke Jens, für die Maloche!”

This translates to “Thank you Jens, for all the hard work”. The German word malochen is actually a verb describing hard work and is probably mostly used by people who live their lives in this part of Germany.

The footballers themselves know about these values and they have to adjust their behaviour on and off the pitch accordingly if they want to be a fan favourite at the Veltins Arena. Footballers from this region are said to be hard-working on the pitch and they rely on the team spirit in order to be able to fight back against their opposition. Footballers like Julian Draxler, who are coming from the region have heard about these characteristics from their parents, but somebody like Draxler would himself state that he isn’t a typical Ruhr area footballer. Several fans will tell you that in the good old days the players were drinking with the fans and they were working in the coal mines alongside those fans.

While this may be true for several teams coming from this area of Germany, a team like Schalke had a different recipe to be successful. Even during the last time Schalke won a German championship in 1958, the players were far from the working class heroes some people think they were. In Christoph Biermann’s book Eine Heimreise – Wenn wir vom Fussball träumen former player Willi Koslowski reveals that the players had comfortable jobs and that they weren’t doing any of the strenuous work performed by the miners in the Ruhr area. He even goes as far as calling the notion many of the fans have, rubbish.

As it turns out, the local values that some fans held in such high regards weren’t necessarily represented on the pitch, despite what many imagined.  Technique and a good passing game were the keys to Schalke’s success in 1958 and the same can be said for the period between 1935 and 1942 when the Royal Blues won 5 championships in the space of 7 years.

Back then, the team featured Schalke legends such as Ernst Kuzzora and Fritz Szepan. The team dominated possession to such a degree that the phrase Schalker Kreisel (Kreisel can be translated to rotating an object in this setting) was formed to describe their way of playing: passing from one player to another until the opponent would eventually allow the Royal Blues to break through. At times, the press even criticised the players for playing the ball back and forth between each other too much.

Believe it or not, if the newspaper reports from today are to be believed Schalke’s most successful squad was not the gritty hard fighting team most people would imagine them to be; they were rather playing the football Pep Guardiola would like to see from his players almost 40 years before the Catalonian coach himself played football.

The fact that so many people wouldn’t be able to imagine those things stems from the fact that they have been fed a different narrative growing up, and the media have been more than happy to use these stereotypes about how people imagine Schalke to be, feeding the impression that this team made its name by hard work and hard work alone.

These days a match between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04 sees a spike in media coverage all around the globe, and those same old cliches about the hard-working Ruhr area clubs are trotted out time and time again. The Revierderby is sold to us as the classic rivalry between working class fan groups. An interesting side note in that regard is the fact that the biggest newspaper of the region, the WAZ, only started using the word back in 1977. After Borussia Dortmund had won the match in the 1976/77 season, their president Reinhard Rauball assured the reporters that his club would do their utmost to help their neighbours from Gelsenkirchen in the battle against relegation by winning their next match against Arminia Bielefeld. Ten years later such a statement would have never been made by neither side.

The club belongs to the fans, but does it really?

It’s strange to think that certain things may not be as they seem to be on the outset if one digs a bit a deeper. Interestingly, this is what Biermann was told by the marketing department of Borussia Dortmund when he was doing the research for his book. Fans, the marketing pros told him, are to be regarded as prosumers. They don’t simply consume a product, but they are so important for the existence of football that they actually also do produce the product in itself as well.

Tradition is held in high regards by most German football fans, and the fact that the clubs have allowed historians to do research into their histories is a result of how much the fans have valued accomplishments and failures of the past. There is an eagerness to find out what was going on many years before most of the fans were born.

Having a history one can point to has in itself been utilised as an argument against such teams as RB Leipzig and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim. Additionally, most fan groups are livid about the fact that one single man or an Austrian soda maker can pour in incredible sums of money into a team. While there is little doubt that RB Leipzig is an unprecedented feature in the German football landscape, one could make the argument that German football has had a place for men such as Hoffenheim benefactor Dietmar Hopp for many years now.

Similar examples include Georg Melches, who helped Rot Weiss Essen to become the best team they could by using all the influence he had at his hands. Others like Jean Löring were even more visible at the forefront. The man, who lived his life outside of Cologne in a massive castle that even housed a cheetah, made Fortuna Köln into his own club and led them to the Bundesliga 2, and for one season, even to the Bundesliga by footing most of the bill. It might be true that such figures such as Hopp weren’t necessary any more to make German football progress; however, for German football to get out of the starting blocks the interest from wealthy men who supported the teams financially and who often times decided to get directly involved in the clubs business was vital.

Many fans would claim that their club has tradition. Oftentimes, this term is used in an utterly vague form, given how the definition of tradition varies from fan group to fan group; frequently, these same fans will accuse Hoffenheim’s Hopp of going against the traditions of German football. The key question in this regard, however, would be how one defines tradition. There’s more than enough precedence to prove that figures such as Hopp have gotten involved in the making of football clubs after all, clubs which are now presented as traditional football clubs, ironically enough.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 32-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

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