SB Nation

Noah Davis | November 13, 2012

Last champions of the Third Reich

Helmut Schön could feel it in the summer air. All of Germany could. As the 28-year-old soccer star donned the red shirt and black shorts of the Dresden Sporting Club he had played for since he was 17 years old, pincers continued to close around his country.

Germany was on the defensive in the second Great War. The final defeat inched nearer. Two weeks earlier, the 156,000 Allied troops on nearly 5,000 amphibious vehicles had landed in Normandy, France and began fighting their way east through occupied Europe. While Schön laced up his leather boots in the bowels of Berlin's Olympic Stadium on the afternoon of Sunday June 18, 1944, thousands of predominantly American, British, and Canadian men forced German warriors from strongholds across France.

In less than a year, Germany would be defeated and the war in Europe would come to an end.

In the port city of Cherbourg, roughly 200 miles from Paris, raids by United States P-47 Thunderbolt planes killed or wounded 800 of Schön's countrymen. In the nearby Brittany capital of Rennes, Marauder and Havoc bombers blew up rail yards. In Washington D.C., Representative Clarence Cannon, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told American officials, "There is a general belief that the German armies will collapse not later than the first or second week of September, and perhaps much sooner." In Algiers, General Charles De Gaulle presided over a ceremonial session observing the fourth anniversary of the French resistance. More than 2.3 million Soviets troops were poised to fight west through Eastern Europe. The reign of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and the National Socialist German Workers' Party was not over, but the tide had turned. In less than a year, Germany would be defeated and the war in Europe would come to an end.

Schön and his teammates, in Berlin to contest the final of the 1944 national soccer championship, didn't know the specific details of the battles but they understood that war was approaching Germany's beating heart. The notion of defeat had begun to take hold a year earlier when Goebbels, Propaganda Minister for the Nazi Party, asked his fellow countrymen to commit to "total war," a sign of growing desperation. By the summer of 1944, Germany's citizens understood they were in for a defensive struggle, the outcome of which did not look positive.

As Schön prepared to lead his club on to the field, Olympic Stadium – a massive monolith that seated up to 100,000 screaming fans – remained an important symbol, the only place left in the crumbling empire that could hold the match and provide a measure of symbolism for the country's leadership, linking it to a time when the future of the Third Reich seemed limitless. Hitler had opened the 1936 Games with a rousing speech in the hulking structure designed for the event by the architect brothers Werner and Walter March. Now, for propaganda purposes, the government needed to have the final played in the same place it had been held since 1936, for even as the iron grasp of the Third Reich loosened around Europe, Nazi ideals still held strong inside the stadium's 40-foot tall limestone walls. The grand setting allowed an alternative narrative to exist, a fantasy, one where things were not as bad as they seemed.

Minutes before kickoff, Schön, the son of an art dealer, sat and listened to the muted sound of 55,000 waiting supporters. Soldiers home on leave and other Berlin residents flocked to the game, searching for a distraction from the conditions around them. The relative lack of decoration and adornments – significantly fewer than those displayed at the 1943 final – reflected the ravages of war, but the game still provided relief, inspiring feelings of camaraderie and patriotism among both players and fans. With a championship match occurring on the field, it was still possible to pretend Germany was winning off it.

Nazi ideals still held strong inside the stadium's 40-foot tall limestone walls.

German military officials, however, knew the truth. They feared that the opposition would bomb the stadium in hopes of killing the Nazi leaders who would no doubt attend, and so they did not promote the match over the radio until that morning. Although Allied bombing runs did not come as frequently as they had during the height of the Battle of Berlin in the winter of 1944, the British Royal Air Force and the American Eighth Air Force still made regular forays into the city, dropping devastating firebombs on the reeling metropolis.

The match was the final contest of a disjointed, at times absurd, nationwide knockout tournament. There was a lack of men and supplies, and traveling around a country at war for games was difficult, but continuing the national championships took on an outsized significance. The tournament began in April with the 31 winners of the regional leagues. With rosters decimated by the war, it saw lopsided score lines like Dresden's consecutive 9-2 victories over Germania Konigshutte and Borussia Fulda in the first and second preliminary rounds, respectively. Nevertheless, the games went on throughout the spring and early summer at the behest of the German government. According to tradition, the winner of the final in Olympic Stadium would receive the Victoria Cup, presented to every national champion between 1903 and 1943. Playing for it in 1944 served as yet one more way to pretend daily life was as it had been.

Amid the relative quiet that preceded the chaos of the game, Schön peered around the concrete room under the stands that served as a changing area for the players. The space doubled as one of the places where the players, and the fans, would retreat to should the bombers arrive. The high-scoring forward, who would go on to become one of the West Germany's most successful national team coaches, watched his Dresden teammates suit up to defend the championship they won the previous season. His boyhood idol Richard Hofmann, the stout striker with a square head and no right ear, slowly pulled on his gear. Willibald Kreß, a six-foot tall veteran goalkeeper nearing the end of his career, was there as well. He and Schön, who came from a staunchly anti-Nazi family, were close friends. They both refused to join the political party. The SS had pursued them as well, but they also said "no" to the storm troopers. Although their status as sporting heroes provided some protection, the defiant pair still lived in fear of the military draft. For them, the war could come in an instant.

Midfielder Herbert Pohl, who lost his left arm to a bomb on the Russian front in 1943, had played with Schön at Dresden since 1937 and again joined the star in battle. A year earlier, with both arms, Pohl helped his club win the championship. Now, as more able-bodied players were forced into military service, Pohl faced little competition for his spot on the team, but a one-armed man on the field provided a constant reminder of Germany’s increasingly dire situation.

Certificate of leave for semifinal between DSC and Nurnberg

In a similar room elsewhere in the depths of the stadium, Dresden's opponents prepared as well. Luftwaffen-SV Hamburg, one of the most successful military wartime clubs, was the other squad fighting for the championship. Colonel Fritz Laicher, head of the northern city's anti-aircraft batteries, organized the Air Force Sports Club of Hamburg, an outfit similar to the American military baseball teams formed during the war that sometimes featured major league stars like Bob Feller and Phil Rizzuto. The German side boasted former national team winger Karl Höger as manager and included the legendary Willy "The Gentleman Goalkeeper" Jürissen, known for the clean white gloves he wore while playing, and defender Reinhold Münzenberg. Laicher had managed to keep most of his players based in Hamburg. His counterpart, Martin Mutschmann – the Nazi regional leader for Saxony who was an avid hunter – similarly used his political power and influence to ensure the majority of Dresden's players stayed close by as well. Still, some key participants needed to receive military leave to play. The match was important enough that they were allowed to do so. Besides, refusing such a request would be a public admission of private fears.

It was not supposed to be the last major match of the Third Reich.

The contest between Dresden's red and black-clad men and Hamburg’s blue and white took place in front of an army’s worth of spectators who were unaware they were witnessing the end; it was not supposed to be the last major match of the Third Reich. The new season was set to begin a few weeks later and another final – this one for the Tschammer Cup, a separate nationwide tournament – was due to be contested in July. However, as the German army suffered defeat after defeat, government officials soon called every able body, even famous footballers and the infirm, to the front lines. The match on June 18, 1944 would be the final important game of the wartime era, the fifth German final of the war, and the last national championship of the Third Reich.

NEW INVASION SET, GERMANS DECLARE; Berlin Radio Asserts Allies Have Nearly Million Men Poised to Strike

LONDON, June 17 (AP) -- A German broadcast tonight estimated that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had fifty to sixty divisions of 500,000 to 900,000 men waiting for the "second phase of the invasion, which in all probability will be an attack on the French-Belgian coastal area" northeast of the Normandy front.

The Nazis and Soccer

Hitler could not remove the game from the fabric of the German cultural experience.

Adolf Hitler did not approve of soccer for one compelling reason: He could not control the outcome. The Chancellor discovered this fact at the only match he is known with certainty to have attended. After dispatching Luxemburg 9-0 in the opening round of the 1936 Olympic Games, Germany was a heavy favorite over Norway in the quarterfinals. But on August 7, 55,000 spectators including Hitler, Goebbels, and other high-ranking Nazi party officials, watched the hosts fall 2-0 at Berlin’s Poststadion while other competitions took place in the Olympic Stadium. A prime opportunity to evince German superiority had been squandered. "The Führer is agitated. I'm almost unable to control myself. A dramatic and nerve-racking fight," Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, wrote in his diary. Two days later, American Jesse Owens won his fourth gold medal of the Games.

Despite his disdain for the sport, Hitler could not remove the game from the fabric of the German cultural experience. "Football, it seems, would not yield entirely to the Nazi Party. The game retained its insufferable tendency to upset the smooth acclimation of power," David Goldblatt writes in "The Ball Is Round," a history of the sport. Still, the Führer's government tried to bend soccer to its will, reorganizing the league and banning Jews and Marxists from playing and participating in any official capacity in 1933. Bayern Munich president Kurt Landauer was forced to resign his position while Walther Bensemann – a fellow Jew and the founder of Der Kicker Fußball, which remains the country's most important soccer publication – emigrated to Montreux, Switzerland where he soon passed away poor and alone.

Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop thought it vital that the world see the potent German national team perform. As a result, the squad played more than 30 games between 1939 and 1942 in allied and neutral countries including Italy, Sweden and Switzerland. Even the English came to Berlin as late as May 14, 1938, saluting an absent Hitler, then poking a finger in the eye of their hosts by defeating the national team the Führer refused to watch 6-3. During the war, national team coach Sepp Herberger, who replaced Otto Nerz in the years following the loss at the 1936 Olympics, occasionally invented military decorations and citations for his most skilled players when requesting they return from the front lines for a match. When writing to a commanding officer, Herberger would casually mention that the player had won an iron cross or some other honor, even though the player had not, for the manager knew that a man who had already proved himself in battle had a better chance of earning leave. It was a dangerous practice, but Herberger, who would ultimately lead his country to its shocking victory in the 1954 World Cup, thought only of soccer.

Uli Hesse, a German soccer historian and an American baseball fan, likens the role the game played in Germany during the war to that of the national pastime in the United States. "[Baseball] helped keep up morale, and it was fairly easy [to continue play] because the war was not fought on American soil. It was not dissimilar in Germany for a number of years. Germans would get reports from strange faraway places hearing that they had won another battle or taken over another country. People thought the war would be over very quickly," he says.

The existence of soccer, even in a neutered state, was vital for keeping up appearances.

The game went on, and soccer served as propaganda, giving the government another way to show the German people that they were winning World War II. Specifically, after England declared war on Germany on Sept. 3, 1939 following the Nazi invasion of Poland, German military officials took every opportunity to compare the robust state of German soccer league to that of England's. There, play in the national Football League was suspended, replaced by a regional Wartime League, and some stadiums were taken over for use by the military. The official program of the 1940 German Cup Final included the note: "At the same hour, the men and women of the British Isles fearfully await the Germany general attack, where the pitches of English football clubs have been plowed and torn up, in the hope that this panic measure might be of some use at the decisive hours." While fear of attacks led the English to cap attendance at soccer matches at 8,000 spectators, more than 96,000 watched Dresden defeat FV Saarbrücken 3-0 in Olympic Stadium, which Der Kicker Fußball called a "powerful demonstration of [Germany's] inner strength and closeness to its people." Before kickoff, the army took part in a ceremonial display of strength on the field. The huge crowd provided the perfect opportunity for reinforcing the notion that victory was certain.

Yet, as the tide of World War II turned against the Nazis in 1943 and Goebbels made his plea for "total war," the government suspended international sporting events, but local competitions and the national championship tournament continued. The existence of soccer, even in a neutered state, was vital for keeping up appearances. "I think that the longer the war carried on, the more important it became to keep playing," says Hesse, the author of "Tor," the only English-language history of German soccer. "You can't keep organized football going, saying this will all be over soon and we're going to win the war, and then suddenly stop the games. That would be like admitting that things were not going according to plan. That's the main reason why the powers that be had everyone play for as long as possible."

And so, amid destroyed cities, burning towns, and the ever-present threat of Allied invasion, the games continued in 1944. Dresden and Hamburg steamed toward the final.

National Team Members Lead on Every Front

"In our lists of national players we have found 26 wounded, a few many times over. Andres Kupfer wears the Silver Cross for wounded soldiers. Pohl lost his arm, but continued to play for the eleven German Masters…77 names make up the list of youth players, of which 33 died a hero’s death – from the goalies Abromeit and Ittel to the wing stormers Erich Meng and Reinhardt. Thirty percent of the Empire’s chosen have fallen to the enemy."

- Der Kicker Fußball, September 1944

The First Half

With Hitler plotting war strategy at his summer home in the Bavarian Alps, arguing with and then overruling Field Marshal Erwin Rommel over the deployment of troops in the losing battle for Cherbourg, Schön and his teammates prepared to take the field to a roar from the crowd of military men in dress uniforms and citizens eager for a game. The stadium decorations consisted almost entirely of flags from the Third Reich and the government's National League for Physical Education. A 247-foot tall tower stood just outside the walls of the stadium, its Olympic bell adorned with a German eagle holding the five Olympic rings with two swastikas cast into its rim. From the top of the structure, one could gaze over the entire capital city; turning around, one could watch the storm troopers marching around the track, then see 22 men lining up to do battle on the pitch.

Women and children, dressed in the finest clothes they could manage during the strained time, sat among men sporting formal jackets and ties despite the summer heat. Tickets, which cost one reichsmark for the semifinal between Dresden and Nuremberg and three for the 1943 final, were affordable to most German fans, likely the rough equivalent of what it cost to attend the American World Series at the time. The troops sat in their own dedicated sections. Spectators filled the lower bowl and spilled over into the upper ring of seating as well. Hundreds of thousands more listened on the radio. Even as ashes fell in cities around Germany and German-occupied Europe, a shrill whistle signaled kickoff and doubled as proof that the country had hope.

1943 semifinal ticket

The match began with some fans keeping one eye warily on the sky, but the atmosphere remained relatively festive given the circumstances. Spectators and players alike had little trouble focusing on the game, tooting horns and ringing bells. Schön, in particular, was not worried about attacks. Years later he wrote that he believed the English loved soccer too much to bomb the field during a match.

As the players took their first tentative steps and made their first attacking forays, the impact of the war showed itself on the playing surface. Maintaining the field was no longer a priority given the war, and the grounds were in less than perfect condition, acceptable, but pockmarked and bumpier than usual.

He believed the English loved soccer too much to bomb the field during a match.

Hamburg entered as the favorite since Dresden's backline had performed poorly in the semifinal against FC Nurnberg, but it soon became clear the Air Force team could not beat the acrobatic, active Kreß, the "first golden boy of German football." Schön respected his friend's bold playing style. "[Willibald] wasn't the type to stick to the goal line, but was in the truest sense of the word the ruler of the goal area. He had an unmistakable flair for influencing the development of the play so that he could always have a sure and safe way of breaking up the attack. Willibald understood that the practical role of the goalie was to be the 11th field player," the forward said of his teammate.

The teams battled back and forth in the opening stanza until Rudi Voigtmann broke the deadlock in the 20th minute. The 23-year-old Dresden forward from Zwickau in Saxony collected a pass from a teammate and streaked toward the net. Believing he was offside, the opposition abruptly stopped playing. However, no whistle came. Willy Jürissen, the well-coiffed netminder with the white goalie gloves and the comb he kept in his back pocket even when he was playing, had no chance. 1-0 DSC. That was still the score when the ref blew his whistle to close out the first 45 minutes.

Big Bomber Strike Destroys Nazi Oil 1,300 'Forts' and Liberators Attack Refineries, Tanks in the Hamburg Area

By David Anderson
By Cable to The New York Times

LONDON, Monday June 19–The largest strategic bombing mission ever mounted was carried out yesterday by the United States Eighth Air Force when it sent out 1,300 heavy bombers in an attack on oil refineries and storage depots in northwestern Germany.

The Flying Fortresses and Liberators bombed by instrument in thick cloud without enemy fighter interference.

Besides the refineries and the oil storage tanks in the Hamburg area, our heavier bombers, escorted by about 500 fighters, blasted three Nazi airdromes in western Germany.

The Second Half

In less than an hour, the fans and players would have to return to the reality of Germany at war. But now, the game was on, and it remained close. Soccer was the main event. Dresden attacked as the second period started, but Hamburg captain Reinhold Münzenberg, a defender who played more for the national team between 1930 and 1939 than anyone else did, marshaled his troops in response. The Luftwaffe Eagle sat prominently on the chest of his LSV uniform as he urged his men to maintain their formation. It was, briefly, a valiant defensive effort by a team being overrun.

Soon, however, Hamburg conceded again. Fritz Machate, a center forward in his third stint with Dresden, created the chance in the 50th minute. His relentless pace and attacking play wore out midfielder Heinrich Gärtner, who could only concede a corner. Machate took the ensuing kick and placed it into the perfect spot for Heinrich Schaffer. The 26-year-old from Teplitz easily beat Jürissen.

A postcard written and signed by members of Dresden after the victory in the 1944 national championship.

The rout was on as Hamburg’s defense crumbled into panicked disarray. It took just 10 minutes until Schön, who scored 17 times in 16 matches for the national team between 1937 and 1941, got his goal. He dribbled alone through the Hamburg defense, then past the opposition's goalkeeper before tapping the ball into the net. Onlookers were thrilled. The patience and vision he displayed were classic examples of his brilliance. Dettmar Cramer, who coached under Schön in 1964 and had a stint as the head of the United States National Team in 1974, remembers the talents of his former boss and friend: "He was not an aggressive fighter, but a very skillful ball player with the gift to read the game. He was a playmaker and an effective goal-scorer."

Schön's strike put the match out of reach. Mercifully for LSV, Dresden only managed one more goal as Schaffer netted his second of the afternoon. The match ended 4-0, although only a miraculous save from Jürissen – under siege all afternoon – prevented the nearly unstoppable Machate from scoring one of his own. "They ruled the ball, the field, the opponent," Der Kicker Fußball's reporters wrote of Dresden in a recap that ran in the publication. The final whistle blew. Schön, Kreß, and the rest of the black and red squad gathered together on the field, raised the country's final championship trophy toward the sky and even took time to write a postcard telling of their victory to a comrade in an American POW camp. Luftwaffen-SV Hamburg tasted a defeat it had not anticipated.


June 19, 1944–The Nazi people may be cock-a-hoop over the launching of the pilotless planes which, as the London "Daily Mail" pointed out this morning, are really flying bombs, but their triumph will be short-lived. The device, devilish as it is, will not do a single thing towards ending the war, let alone bringing triumph to the Nazis. All it will do is to kill civilians in their homes, places of employment, in hospitals, or at devotions in church. That is a terrible trial, but it will merely harden the will of the people to see the whole foul business through.

- Hull Daily Mail

* * *

The End and the Beginning Again

The squads disbanded as the participants returned to their roles in the war effort.

Players from both teams attended a banquet after the match and then the squads disbanded as the participants returned to their roles in the war effort. Kreß went back to maintaining rockets in nearby Pila. Other players resumed their assigned tasks. Even Schön, who had a reoccurring knee injury that had helped keep him from the battlefield, was finally pulled into service and became a grenadier. "I learned useful things such as driving a car and giving the Nazi salute to superiors. I didn't have what it took to be a hero, what was needed for the hero's death, which is how dying was then described," he wrote in his autobiography. When Dresden burned the following February, he returned to his beloved city to search for his wife, Annelies, and his father. Miraculously, both survived the attack during which more than 1,200 British Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Force bombers dropped nearly 4,000 tons of bombs, starting a massive firestorm the leveled the previously untouched city. Tens of thousands of citizens died.

The next soccer season started as scheduled almost immediately following the 1944 national championship, but it was terminated after only a few games. By late summer – as Allied forces closed in on Paris and the Russians were overrunning the Ukraine – Nazi officials suspended play for good. Apart from the occasional one-off game, soccer succumbed to the war. On April 29, 1945, Hamburg defeated Altona, another club from the city, 4-2 in the last official German soccer match of World War II. A day later, Hitler shot himself in a Berlin bunker. On May 7, General Alfred Jodl signed unconditional surrender documents. Germany was defeated.

After the surrender, the Allies banned sporting clubs in an effort to limit group gatherings, but in many places the edict was short-lived. By 1947 some soccer clubs reformed in regions of American-controlled southern Germany. Clubs in British- and French-controlled territory followed. In 1948 1. FC Nuremberg defeated Kaiserslautern 2-1 in the first post-war national championship. The team was not awarded the Victoria Cup, however; it disappeared soon after the end of the war. The trophy would turn up again in 1990 when a Berlin man revealed he had been hiding it in a safety deposit box to prevent it from falling into East German hands.

After the war, German soccer found success on the world stage faster than anticipated. Credit for that goes to one man: national team coach Sepp Herberger. "Herberger was planning the future all through the war," says Hesse. "He was preparing for Moment X when we would have peace again and football again, never really knowing whether or not that moment would come." When it did, Herberger, the man who thought only of soccer and only wanted to coach, was ready. Despite the absence of a professional league, he led West Germany to victory in the 1954 World Cup over Hungary. Helmut Rahn tallied two goals including the game-winner in the 84th minute as the side German rooters simply refer to as Die Mannschaft (The Team) prevailed in Switzerland in what is often referred to as Das Wunder von Bern (The Miracle of Bern). After the demoralized decade that followed World War II, the victory helped restore German pride, an important accomplishment for a nation desperate to regain peaceful respect on an international level.

After the war, German soccer found success on the world stage faster than anticipated.

Although none of the heroes of the 1944 national championship are alive today, at war's end they continued playing and, later, working in soccer. They coached clubs, nurtured talent, and aided the rebuilding effort. Most Germans tried to forget the war years, but the players of Hamburg and Dresden remembered the last final. In his autobiography, Schön recalled the final important match. "What did it mean during those days?" he wrote. "The Allied forces had landed in France, in Belarus the Russians began their largest offensive. Didn't we feel fear? This question, people tend to forget, didn't present itself to Germans. The map of Europe still led us to believe in strength. Norway and Denmark, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary – they were all 'firmly in German hands.' No one realized how quickly it could all tumble down."

Nearly 70 years after the war tumbled down on Nazi Germany, the Olympic Stadium still stands on the same ground. While the structure got a facelift prior to the 1974 Olympics and another before the 2006 World Cup, architects took pains to preserve its limestone facade. From the outside, it still resembles the structure that hosted the last championship of the Third Reich when Dresden defeated Hamburg.

A fan watching from inside the stands, however, sees a different view today. A modern new roof comprised of transparent panels sits more than 200 feet above the playing surface, protecting viewers from the elements. One hundred and fifty-five double metal halide lamps boasting 2,000 watts of power each light up the field during night matches. It was under these lights that Zinedine Zidane's delivered the head butt heard round the world to Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final. The stadium hosts the final of the DFB-Pokal – the renamed Tschammer Cup – every year, and Hertha BSC calls Olympic Stadium home. The team has not been champion of Germany since the 1931 season.

On occasion, the German national team plays in the venue as well. Most recently, on Oct. 16, 2012, it raced out to a 4-0 lead over Sweden in a qualifying match for the 2014 World Cup. The visitors, unfazed by the deficit and the more than 72,000 fans supporting Germany, shocked the soccer world by storming back to score four goals in the final 28 minutes and earn a 4-4 tie. If the demoralized spectators looked west, they could see the bell tower – destroyed by the British in 1947 but rebuilt in 1962 using the original plans – rising just beyond the field where their national team was struggling to escape with a good result, a memento of the past.

About the Author

Noah Davis is a freelance writer and deputy editor of American Soccer Now. He frequently writes for The Wall Street Journal, Grantland, Outside, The Classical, and other publications.