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Germany tries to purge Nazi past

By Erik Kirschbaum
April 11, 2006 15:26 IST
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Hoping to cleanse themselves of their Nazi past before the World Cup starts, German football leaders have broadened their examination of their shameful history in the Third Reich and embraced their critics.

The German football federation (DFB), now eager to come to terms with its enthusiastic support of the Nazis during the Hitler era after covering it up for six decades, has thrown open its soul, and archives, to try to purge that nightmare past.

"In a few weeks we'll be welcoming the world to Germany and we want to face up to our history," said DFB co-president Theo Zwanziger at a symposium held at a church retreat entitled "Fussball unterm Hakenkreuz" (Football under the Swastika).

"We opened our archives and are open for critical discussions. We want to learn from our past," added Zwanziger, 60.

"We want to get closer to our history in that dark era. But this is just the start of a process that must continue."

At the symposium held in a small town near Stuttgart, football leaders and historians spent two days debating issues such as whether the DFB collaborated with the Nazis more than the public at large. Another issue concerns the depth of DFB crimes against the Jews.

The consensus was that German football helped stabilise the Hitler regime, failed to do anything for Jews and in some areas was overly eager to please the Nazis even if its overall level of support for the regime only mirrored that of the public.

CAST LIGHT

The self-critical examination in Bad Boll followed last year's publication of a book by the same title that cast light on how the DFB climbed into bed with the Nazis at an early date.

The book, which the DFB commissioned, detailed how Jewish players, club owners, sponsors and journalists were all excluded from 1933 when Hitler came to power.

Many German Jews, including former leading national team hero Julius Hirsch, later perished in Nazi death camps.

Although few in the DFB were Nazi party members or especially vocal advocates of the regime's racist doctrines, the book found most were willing tools or opportunists who let themselves be used out of ignorance or professional ambition.

Many historians and critics praised the book as an important first step but others complained it is not sufficiently critical of the organisation -- which commissioned the book. The Bad Boll symposium was an eagerly awaited follow-up to the book.

"The DFB policy of turning a blind eye to their Nazi past and cover up has now ended," said Erik Eggers, 35, a sport historian after the two days of subdued soul-searching.

After the war, the DFB spent nearly six decades concealing that unseemly collaboration that contributed to the Holocaust, fending off researchers by saying archives were destroyed.

But pressure on the DFB to open up increased as Germans began looking critically at the Nazi past after a landmark speech by former President Richard von Weizsaecker in 1985. He called Hitler's defeat a "day of liberation" for Germans.

Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, responsible for sport told said the DFB's behaviour in the Third Reich was no worse than that of big German companies. He and other speakers said DFB treatment of Jews reflected the broader society.

GENERAL TREND

"The truth is that the DFB's behaviour was no worse than major German companies -- they were all part of the same general trend," said Moshe Zimmermann, a historian professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem who delivered a guest lecture.

"The DFB tried to cover it up after the war but they should not have bothered. It was well known that they collaborated. The only new thing that's come out now is a lot of details."

Zimmermann said German football players and leaders all claimed afterwards they had privately harboured shame when their Jewish team mates were forced to leave but that, like the public at large, they accepted that as a fact of life in the tyranny.

There were some 40,000 Jews in German sport clubs -- or about one-tenth of pre-war Jewish population of 400,000. By 1945, there were only a few thousand Jews alive in Germany.

"The Germans just accepted it," he said. "They felt there wasn't a lot they could do. Afterwards, they all claimed they were ashamed. But at the time there was a lot of enthusiasm for the Nazis. Most thought "So what"? when Jews disappeared."

Not everyone at the symposium accepted the criticism from the post-war historians and football officials aimed at the generation that lived through the Nazi era.

"You're all assuming here that the DFB was a major supporter of the Hitler dictatorship and I firmly reject that view," said Rudi Michel, 84, a long-time broadcast journalist and close ally of Sepp Herberger, who coached the German national side from 1936-64, winning the World Cup in 1954.

"There was nothing we could do and we were just following orders," said Michel. "We were all forced to live by the laws under the swastika. Everything is controlled in a dictatorship.

"We couldn't play youth league matches unless we had a stamp verifying we were Hitler youth members. If we didn't give the Hitler salute we weren't allowed to play. Every organisation had to follow the Nazi's orders. That's the way it was."

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