Soccer in the Third Reich: 1933-1945

Soccer started out on somewhat shaky ground at the start of the Nazi period, but before long, it soon rose to the number one sport even among the Nazis. This article examines some of the history of the sport during those dark years.

January 30, 1933: The beginning of the "Thousand Year Reich" and the end of civilized Germany. From a soccer standpoint, there were immediate repercussions. Already by February 1933, the Communist KPD supported Kampfgemeinschaft für Rote Einheit (KG) was banned by the government. Only three months later, the SPD supported Arbeiter Turn -und Sportbund (ATSB) met with the same fate. (Note: For more info on the workers soccer movement, see the article Arbeiterfussball). Some 700,000 working class athletes were displaced. To add insult to injury, in order to join a Deutscher Fußballbund (DFB) affiliated club, they would need two recommendations from "non-Marxists". By mid 1935, the Nazis effectively banned all church organizations that were not "completely religious", which effectively destroyed the Catholic Deutsche Jugendkraft (DJK). This organization consisted of almost 4,500 clubs and some 240,000 members. The DJK had been organizing a national championship since the 1920s, and along with it's smaller Protestant cousin, Eichenlaub, ceased to exist.

Oddly enough, the Nazis soon decided to replace the worker's clubs with something similar. The so-called Betriebssportgemeinschaft (BSG), organized by company and industry under the auspices of the Nazi Labour Front (Arbeitsfront) grew quite rapidly. By 1938, some 10,000 clubs and almost 2 million players fell into this category.

Jewish soccer players faced a slightly different set of circumstances. For the most part, Jewish players had been fully integrated in DFB affiliated clubs since the beginning; few "Jewish" clubs existed. With the "Aryanization" of German society, clubs were ordered to expel Jewish members, and most acquiesed willingly. There were some notable exceptions, such as Alemannia Aachen, where the members risked serious Nazi wrath in demanding the release from jail of a Jewish member. Oddly enough, for the time being, Jewish athletes however were allowed to pursue their sports in Jewish clubs. While this seems somewhat strange, the main reason was for propaganda purposes. The Nazis didn't want to threaten the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and bad publicity, especially in the United States, could lead to boycotts of the games - which the Nazis wanted as a major showpiece. So it wasn't until after the Olympics that Jewish clubs were banned. (In 1938, after the notorious Kristallnacht of organized pogroms.)

The DFB caves in

The Nazis quickly moved to implement their so-called Führerprinzip at all levels of society, building a pyramid of command in organized sport. The DFB essentially lost it's independance, becoming just another cog under the Deutsche Reischausschuß für Leibesübungen (DRA). Meanwhile, the old nemesis of the soccer players, the gymnasts, had thrown their entire support behind the Nazis in an attempmt to once more become Germany's "leading" sport. The Deutsche Turnerschaft (DT), the German Gymnastics Federation, led by their leader Erwin Neuendorff, attempted to kiss up to the Nazis and claim total leadership of sport under the Nazi banner. The DFB also had a weasel at the top, in Felix Linnemann, who was also kissing ass. In the end, the Nazis ignored both, and a Nazi-Altkämpfer, Heinz von Tschammer und Osten, was put in charge of all sports as Reichssportsführer. The DRA was dissolved and replaced by a similar group, and all formerly independant organizations became mere departments under the new organization, Deutschen Reichsbund für Leibesübungen (DRL). (It later became "National Socialist, i.e. NSRL) There is no question that the DFB rolled over and both clubs and the federation went enthusiastically along with the Nazi plan. but that merely reflects German society in general, and why would soccer be any different?

New league structure: Die Gauligen

This was actually a somewhat beneficial side of Nazi interference. Soccer leagues were essentially organized along the lines of political organizations, the so-called Gau. A total of 16 regions were designated (becoming 17 when Austria was integrated as "Ostmark"), and each region would have a Gauliga consisting of usually around 10 teams. The net effect of this reorganization was to raise the stakes and level of competition. Whereas previous to 1933 there were some 600 clubs available for "top flight" competition, now it had effectively shrunk to around 170.

The new organization was a complete success. The finals of the German championship usually drew crowds of up to 100,000. Higher levels of competition in the regional leagues also led to increased attendance figures.

Nazi era Champions

1933-34	 FC Schalke 04
1934-35	 FC Schalke 04
1935-36	 1.FC Nürnberg
1936-37	 FC Schalke 04
1937-38	 Hannover 96
1938-39	 FC Schalke 04
1939-40  FC Schalke 04
1940-41  SK Rapid Wien
1941-42	 FC Schalke 04
1942-43	 Dresdner SC
1943-44  Dresdner SC

One thing that is immediately apparent is the dominance of Schalke 04. The Ruhr Valley worker's club won more than half the Reich championship, which led to some interesting propaganda maneuvers. As one of the most popular clubs, Schalke was held up as a shining example of the new Germany, although it's players and fans stem from traditionally left-wing backgrounds. In addition to the 6 titles, Schalke was beaten in the finals by a single goal in 1938 and 1941. (The latter after leading 3-0 against the another traditionally "worker" club, Rapid Wien.)

With Nazi expansion, non-German territories were integrated into the Reich, leading to new Gauligen. The most obvious is Austria, which was integrated as "Ostmark", and given their soccer tradition, would soon be a force to reckon with. By 1940, Admira Wien made it to the finals, only to be crushed 9-0 by Schalke. However, soon after Rapid became the first non-German club to win the title. Among other non-German regions entered into the Gauligen, Alsace-Lorraine, Luxembourg and parts of occupied Poland.


With the advent of WWII, soccer changed considerably. However, early on the Nazis decided that soccer was important to keep up the morale of the population, and therefore all efforts were made to maintain league play. In addition, the armed forces became a powerful competitor in the leagues. This was especially true of the Luftwaffe, which had many strong teams competing throughout the Reich. The SS was another organization that sponsored clubs and had some success in the Gauliga. Whereas for the first couple of years league play proceeded more or less normally, by early 1943 the Third Reich was losing the war. Given severe fuel rationing, travel restrictions were increased. Henceforth, only matches within a 50km radius would be allowed. This meant that the original Gauligen were split up into dozens of leagues, and many small clubs entered into "top-level" competition. Combined with increasing mobilization of all available manpower, clubs were unable to field complete squads. Soon this led to some ridiculous mismatches, with scores like 15-1 not becoming unusual. (The record? Germania Mudersbach defeats FV Engen 32-0). In addition of course, more players were being killed in military service, as the so called Heldentod (hero's death) became a common announcement in the press and club newspapers. .


By 1944, the endgame was beginning. Germany had long been subject to round the clock bombing, and German forces were being defeated on all fronts. Soccer competition continued, but under severe conditions. As Germany's situation worsened, it seemed that soccer became more important, as the only diversion for the population. Nevertheless, the situation was becoming untenable. For the 1943-44 Championship, it was announced that the title round was canceled, and VfR Mannheim was declared Champ. This led to protests from other clubs, and the decision was revoked. Since soccer had been declared "critical" for war-morale, it was decided to hold the tournament anyway. Led by Helmut Schön, Dresdner SC defended it's title, defeating Luftwaffen SV Hamburg 4-0 in Berlin's Olympia Stadion. The press claimed attendance of 70,000, but photos seem to indicate lots of empty seats. In a desperate bid for continuity, the new 1944-45 season was started only a couple of weeks later. Perhaps this was in recognition that if the usual 3 month summer break was allowed, the leagues would never start again.

The last recorded match in the Third Reich was on April 23, 1945. It was the München derby between FC Bayern and TSV 1860, won 3-2 by Bayern. Less than three weeks later, Germany surrendered unconditionally.

The Legacy

Germany was totally destroyed. Most of the stadiums were also wiped out during bombing raids and fighting, so there weren't any facilities. When the Allies occupied Germany, all organizations, including sports clubs, were banned. However, within a year, strictly sports organizations (i.e. no political affiliation allowed) were permitted to start up, and most pre-war clubs were reconstituted.

Not surprisingly, most clubs gloss over the Nazi years in their club histories. Certainly the "on-the-field" record is easily handled as any other period, but the club politics are ignored. Many clubs enthusiastically Nazified, a pattern repeated in most segments of German society. A few clubs perhaps at least showed some morale courage and did not acquiesce immediately, but the bottom line was that by the mid 1930s, the game was up. By then, resistance was futile.

(c) Abseits Guide to Germany