Review of Soccer Under the Swastika

Simpson, Kevin E. Soccer Under the Swastika: Stories of Survival and Resistance During the Holocaust, Revised Edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020. Pp. 368. $26.00 paperback. $24.50 ebook.

Reviewed by Daniel Hart

Sports idioms are such a part of the American lexicon that their respective meanings have become obscured by their quotidian use: sudden-death overtime, a do-or-die situation, a suicide squeeze, a Hail Mary pass, or the classic coach speak, “play every play as if it were your last.” But what if “every play,” in fact, had the potential of being “your last”? What if playing was not just the only way to maintain your sanity but also the literal means of your survival?  

Rowman & Littlefield, 2020.

In Soccer Under the Swastika: Stories of Survival and Resistance During the Holocaust, Kevin E. Simpson uncovers how the game of soccer played a powerful role in the resistance to the genocidal Nazi regime, as well as a source of inspiration to the millions terrorized in concentration camps. Simpson, a professor of psychology at John Brown University, utilizes survivor testimonies and the diaries of both perpetrators and victims to reveal the important role soccer played in most every camp. The 315-page, yet accessible, tome is divided into nine chapters, excluding of a foreword and introduction. The book is largely chronological, though the middle chapters focus on a specific camp or region.

Belying the subtitle “stories of survival and resistance,” Simpson’s first two and final chapters detail the rise of soccer as a global phenomenon and address the game in the Third Reich and postwar West Germany (postwar East Germany is inexplicably omitted). Organized in the Third Reich under the Deutscher Futball-Bund (DFB), the game was deemed an integral aspect of the regime’s promotion of Aryan superiority. When Germany and Austria were united during the Anschluss of 1938, the DFB believed the union of the national teams would produce the world’s greatest club. Readers will experience a bit of schadenfreude in learning that soccer proved resistant to Nazi theories on race, as evinced by the team’s inability to advance past the first round in the 1938 World Cup. Hitler and Goebels would not be able to use the meritocratic team game of soccer as a symbol of racial superiority.

With the onset of the war, Simpson switches from a chronological account to a geographical one, first analyzing the “Match of Death” that pitted imprisoned Ukrainian footballers against their Nazi captors. Without diminishing the heroism displayed by the Ukrainians, Simpson concentrates not solely on the history, but on demystifying the myth that the victorious Ukrainians were murdered for defeating the Nazis. The Ukrainians were not summarily executed, but their fate was akin to other Nazi victims: some managed to survive, some were befallen by starvation or illness, some were murdered. In the ensuing chapters, Simpson explores the role of soccer throughout the territory of Nazi Germany, in occupied Poland, Austria (Mauthausen), the Netherlands (Westerbork), and Czechoslovakia (Terezin).

The book’s strength is in Simpson’s ability to contextualize the fate of individual soccer players with larger historic events. Simpson’s psychological training is evident in the poignant descriptions of dozens of personal histories. This effort alone makes the book worthwhile. Though soccer was an important form of resistance, survival, and escapism for the imprisoned, Simpson, harkening Holocaust survivor Primo Levi’s “Grey Zone,” manifests the equivocal nature of the game in the camps. Levi described the “Grey Zone” as the morally ambiguous world inside the camps, where the supposed Manichean world of perpetrator and victim broke down. The imprisoned players profited from improved living conditions, more food, and better work assignments. The Germans set the rules, and the prisoners, in effect, provided them with entertainment. Prisoners were left with an unsolvable Catch-22: play soccer and abet the Nazi’s crimes, or don’t and starve to death (p. 219).

Simpson’s narrative relies heavily on the descriptive elements of individual accounts. Unfortunately, this is to the detriment of analysis, as he could have done more to tie together these disparate stories. The first two chapters on pre-war German soccer feel detached to the powerful chronicles that follow in the ensuing chapters. Throughout the book, Simpson effectively uses subheadings that focus and enhance the readability, but their use in the conclusion is detrimental to a sustained narrative. The conclusion also veers into unnecessary, maudlin moralizations. For an historical account that takes both a chronological and geographical perspective, the citations are scant, and Simpson relies too heavily on the familiar Holocaust history by invoking figures that are well-known — Anne Frank, Oskar Schindler — but largely irrelevant to his narrative. He also makes larger mistakes on the history: the Wannsee conference did not set in motion the camps in Poland (p. 28) and Auschwitz I was not originally established as prisoner of war camp (p. 137). These quibbles aside, Kevin Simpson builds upon the work of Simon Kuper, author of Ajax, the Dutch, the War, who wrote the foreword to Simpson’s book, by adding an invaluable resource to the historiography of the Holocaust and the role of sport in society.

An artifact that remains from the terror of Dachau is a wooden cup crafted by a prisoner and awarded to the winner of the camp’s soccer tournament. It is an enduring symbol of both the power of the human spirit and of “the beautiful game.” Kevin Simpson has produced a thoughtful, poignant, and inspiring tome. His fascinating insights into the people and the game they played amidst the horror and terror of the Nazi genocide will endure.

Daniel R. Hart was an all-conference football player at Bowdoin College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in history and government. He holds a master’s degree from Harvard University, and his book on the relationship between John F. Kennedy and Henry Cabot Lodge during the Vietnam War is scheduled to be published in 2023.

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