- Soccer under the Swastika: Stories of Survival and Resistance during the Holocaust by Kevin E. Simpson
For Arnošt Lustig, a Czech footballer, author, and former inmate of the Terezín concentration camp, "Soccer is a bridge from the past" (236). Perhaps nothing better illustrates the ambivalence of this than the reaction of the German Football Association's president to the unexpected triumph of the West German national team over the Mighty Magyars of Hungary in the 1954 World Cup. Greeting the victorious team upon its return, the president attributed their success to the team's Führerprinzip (leadership principle). Dubbed the "Sieg Heil speech" and generally ill received, the clumsy logic served as an uneasy reminder that the bridge led to a recent history characterized by racism, persecution, and extermination, especially since some of the players from the championship team had served in the military during the war (261). Yet the persistence and perseverance of football (and footballers) in the ghettos, concentration camps, and death camps erected by the Nazis and their allies represent a central theme in Kevin E. Simpson's Soccer under the Swastika, an engaging account of the sport and its proponents during some of the darkest moments in modern history.
Soccer under the Swastika explores the uses of football by perpetrators and victims within the broader context of Nazi crimes. Simpson devotes the opening chapters primarily to German soccer in the prewar years, and the final chapter concentrates on the resurrection of football after the war, both in the displaced-person camps and in West Germany, culminating in the 1954 Miracle at Bern. Organized geographically, the intervening chapters take readers on journeys to Ukraine, Austria, Poland, the Netherlands, and the former Czechoslovakia. Throughout the study, Simpson repeatedly illustrates the myriad of functions soccer played for various parties. For ghetto and camp inmates struggling with the harsh conditions of their daily lives, soccer served as a rare source of pleasure, a means of temporarily forgetting reality, an opportunity to reclaim a sense of dignity, and an unexpected space for resistance. Such experiences came at a moral cost for many players, whom, Simpson notes, found themselves in a space akin to Primo Levi's "grey zones." For the Nazis, soccer's existence in such places was valuable for propaganda purposes.
Soccer under the Swastika is at its most illuminating when Simpson elaborates on the role of sport within the camps and ghettos. Far from being a series of isolated pick-up games here or there, inmates across the spectrum of Nazi installations managed to develop organized leagues, complete with regular schedules. Inmates at several sites even created tournaments and trophies, such as the wooden cup crafted by a carpenter in Dachau (94) or the SuperCup in Liga Terezín (234). Amazingly, the number of players and quality of competition in Liga Terezín enabled its organizers to relegate the weakest teams to a lower tier of competition at the end of the season (227).
Though a rich contribution to both the history of sport and the history of the Holocaust, Simpson's account suffers from some drawbacks. Occasionally, he notes the potential significance and murkiness of individual and group identities, such as the Polish-German Ernest Wilimowski, who played for both the Polish and German national teams in the [End Page 138] interwar era (xxvi). However, there is no substantive interrogation of how these identities were formed or were malleable in the context of shifting political borders and fortunes. Simpson also occasionally follows tangents well beyond their immediate relevance, such as when he expands on the strange history of the many disappearances of the Jules Rimet Trophy. Yet, while the final chapter features a detailed account of the 1954 triumph, it offers nary a word about the return of football in East Germany.
Ultimately and despite the sport's persistence, organized soccer lost out to Nazi racial policies. Players often enjoyed a privileged status and extra rations in the camps; but...