Review of Soccer under the Swastika

Kevin E. Simpson, Soccer under the Swastika: Stories of Survival and Resistance During the Holocaust. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016. xxix + 368 pp. 27 photos and illustrations, notes, bibliography, index, $40.00 hardback.

Reviewed by Patrick Salkeld.

Soccer

Rowman & Littlefield, 2016

I am a trained US historian with an emphasis on soccer, but much of my research spans transnational topics. Due to the nature of soccer, it should come as no surprise since players cross national boundaries for new opportunities. The sport itself spread across these borders when British citizens traveled the world. Yet I have never researched nor taken a course about the Holocaust. I never had more than a cursory interest in the subject, but Kevin Simpson’s Soccer under the Swastika: Stories of Survival and Resistance During the Holocaust intrigued me. He brings a refreshing, but no less tragic, perspective to Holocaust studies with the work.

Kevin Simpson is a professor and the department head of psychology at John Brown University. He teaches various courses about the intersection of social psychology, sports, and the Holocaust among other subjects. His passion for this topic stems from his career as a collegiate soccer player and research fellowships he held at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Holocaust Education Foundation at Northwestern University (p. 315). Simpson’s playing years allow him to understand the emotions and opportunities the sport offered the Holocaust victims. His career as a psychologist gives him the ability to study the science behind soccer’s effect on their psyches. They provide insurmountable expertise and credibility to the work’s depth. Soccer under the Swastika, published in September 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield, is his first monograph.

Simpson’s publication adds to the historiography of Holocaust memory. He claims that even though the German and Italian fascists used soccer as a propaganda tool to advance their ideology of racial superiority, the sport “shined as a humanitarian response to brutality” for Holocaust victims across Europe (p. xxviii). To substantiate this argument, he “reviewed hundreds of pages of testimony, perpetrator reports, and original documents in the search for these hidden stories of soccer during the Holocaust” in addition to various memorials and artifacts, such as photographs, diaries, and memoirs, preserved in archives and museums (p. xvi). These sources, and his book, tell the story of the “ordinary people who were situated at the center of this catastrophe” (p. xxviii).

Simon Kuper’s famous book Ajax, The Dutch, The War: The Strange Tale of Soccer During Europe’s Darkest Hour, which regrettably I have yet to read in its entirety, primarily discusses the Netherlands and the role of soccer in the country before, during, and after World War II.[1] Simpson expands upon Kuper’s work and covers a broader span of material rather than a single country. The first two chapters “Soccer under the Swastika” (Chapter 1) and “War Minus the Shooting” (Chapter 2) detail how soccer evolved as a tool for “expansionist totalitarian power” under both the German and the Italian fascist regimes and how they manipulated it into, as Simpson cleverly put it, a “war minus the shooting” between them and other countries as a struggle for dominance (p. 11). The following chapters focus on various areas in which the Nazis persecuted Jews in concentration camps, ghettos, and the Polish killing fields: “The Match of Death” (Chapter 3), “Genius on the Danube: Requiem for Vienna’s ‘Decadent’ Football” (Chapter 5), “Football in the Polish Killing Fields: Eyewitnesses to Nazi Terror” (Chapter 6), “The Curious Story of Dutch Soccer during Nazi Occupation” (Chapter 7), and “Ghetto Soccer in Liga Terezín” (Chapter 8). Despite his self-proclaimed “one-time novice” experience with history, Simpson gracefully combines the political and military history of the Holocaust and World War II with the social and cultural influences of football on Europe.

The final chapter “After the Catastrophe” interested me the most because it detailed the lasting effects of the Holocaust on Europe and Israel (and to a small degree, the United States) into the modern day. One such legacy is the renewal of Jewish identity through soccer because it allowed them to reconnect and reform their community (p. 253). Yet, it appeared rushed since it concluded the book. Simpson separates it into five sections: liberation and displaced persons (DP) camps (p. 243-253), the rebirth of German football in the occupied zones (p. 254-265), reconciling the past (p. 265-268), remembrance of survival and resistance (p. 268-271), and the legacy of indifference (p. 271-274). He broadly covers soccer in the DP camps compared to the more detailed section about German football in the occupied zones despite the fact he notes “newspapers [which reported DP camp soccer] were widely avaible, serving as the primary sources of documentation” in the American zone (p. 248). Another discrepancy is the lack of discussion about Jewish players in German football since the Holocaust, if any indeed played on the Germany National Team or in the league system. To continue with the theme of survival and resistance through soccer, he needed to cover these topics more than Bayern Munich, Sepp Herberger, and the Germany National Team’s rise to prominence.

I finished writing my thesis as I delved into Soccer under the Swastika, and it actually offered me some insight into a name that appeared during my research. For my thesis, “Americanizing the Beautiful Game: The Rise of Mainstream American Soccer, 1960-2005,” I accessed Henry Kissinger’s papers at Yale University because it held a collection of documents from his time as the Chairman of the North American Soccer League. In it, there is a letter from Oleg Geschwendt, president of the “Sepp Herberger Committee,” to Henry Kissinger in 1978. He invited Kissinger to the “Sport, Radio and Press Ball” as a guest of honor to attend the 1978 Presentation of the Sepp Herberger Award to Chicago’s German-American Soccer Player and Team of the Year. Kissinger turned down the invitation “due to other commitments.”[2] Simpson discusses Joseph “Sepp” Herberger, a former German soccer player and the coach of the Germany National Team (1936-1942) and later the West Germany National Team (1950-1964), at length in the book because of Herberger’s influence on the sport in Germany during the Nazi regime and the post-1945 era. His membership in the Nazi Party made me question why the committee might invite Kissinger in the first place because of the statesman’s Jewish heritage and departure from Germany due to the Nazi persecution. The history of the Sepp Herberger award is still intriguing because of the man’s “lionization” and transformation into a “household name and a cultural icon” from a former Nazi (p. 264).

Just as I found information in Simpson’s work helpful to my own studies, scholars of an assortment of fields and disciplines will find Soccer under the Swastika relatable to their own studies. Its overarching and transnational coverage of numerous demographics offers background information to help Europeanists, Latin Americanists, and Americanists learn more about the evolution of soccer and its influence on post-1945 society, culture, and politics in their respective areas. Additionally, professors could use this book as an assigned reading in courses about twentieth century Europe in general, the Holocaust, World War II, and soccer history. The general public would also find it accessible due to Simpson’s writing style and the unique perspective of viewing the Holocaust through soccer.

Patrick Salkeld received his Master of Arts in History from the University of Central Oklahoma in 2017. His research focuses on the rise of mainstream soccer in the United States from the 1960s to the present in addition to the relationship between social movements and sports, the role of the LGBTQ+ community, race, and gender. His twitter is @patsalkeld and his website is patricksalkeldhistorian.wordpress.com.

 

[1] Simon Kuper wrote the foreword for Soccer Under the Swastika.

[2] “Oleg Geschwendt to Henry Kissinger, letter, November 22, 1978,” North American Soccer League [1 of 3], 1978–1980, Henry A. Kissinger Papers, Part II (MS 1981), Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library, http://hdl.handle.net/10079/digcoll/556981.

 

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