In the 1920s and 30s, Germany threatened to be an important footballing nation, finishing third in the 1934 World Cup. In those days, they had a larger country from which to pick their talent – a far eastern province with a forgotten footballing history.
In Germany there is a well-known sketch in which the comedian Peter Frankenfeld, acting as weatherman, takes viewers on a tour of the country’s accents. It is little more than a curiosity to the non-German, but there is short segment that is of interest to the historian: Frankenfeld, though performing in 1973, includes accents from Königsberg and Breslau, two cities that had not been part of Germany for nearly three decades. Today, these cities are Kaliningrad and Wrocław, and the language of Schiller and Kant has not been heard in their parks and beer halls for 70 years. Those dialects, and the cities’ German heritage, have been consigned to the history books.
When historians consider the events in the immediate aftermath of World War II, they will focus on the mass-expulsions of ethnic Germans, the political impact of Europoe’s changing borders, and the rise of communism in Eastern Europe. Given that enormous upheaval, it is no surprise that little attention is paid to football. After 1945, hundreds of football clubs in lands today part of Poland and Russia were disestablished, and as German refugees fled westward, they took their footballing tradition with them.
Today, Wrocław is one of Poland’s largest cities, and in 2012, hosted three matches of that year’s European Championship. The local football club, Śląsk Wrocław, has played in the city since 1947, shortly after the region – Silesia – was ceded to Poland. Although the German population had been expelled, Śląsk could reasonably claim to have been built on top of the footballing heritage of the formerly German city of Breslau.
The Breslau-Elf confirmed to Germans that their national team could compete with any in Europe.
In 1937, Breslau witnessed one of the most important formative moments for German football. The so-called Breslau-Elf (Breslau Eleven) thrashed a respectable Danish side 8-0 in what was then the Hermann-Göring-Sportfeld. The team, managed by the venerable Sepp Herberger, confirmed to Germans that their national team could compete with any in Europe; a 2-0 loss to Scotland – then considered an excellent result against Europe’s top team – the previous year gave the country confidence for the 1938 World Cup in France. The Breslau-Elf, however, was short-lived, and failed to meet expectations after Herberger was forced to integrate Austrian players following the Anschluss. It was a political move designed to stress the unity of the new Nazi state; this squad could not muster the same team spirit of its predecessor, and was defeated in the first round. This remains Germany’s worst ever World Cup performance.
Breslau’s most successful club was Vereinigte Breslauer Sportfreunde. Although they never managed to win the national championship, during the 1920s they were dominant in the South-eastern German Football Championship (at the time, there was no national league in Germany; the champions of regional leagues competed in playoffs for the title). In 1933, Sportfreunde – literally ‘sport friends’ – merged with city rivals Breslau SC 08. The new club could never repeat the success of the old, and it disappeared, with the city, in 1945.
Perhaps Udo Lattek took some of his East Prussian heritage with him when he led Bayern Munich to European Cup triumph in the 1970s.
In German, Wrocław is still often known as Breslau. Königsberg, meanwhile, is a name – and a city – completely lost to history. The old German buildings are post-war reconstructions, the castle was demolished to make way for a grey Soviet office block, and the Prussian culture, dialect, and people are gone forever. Once the home of the monarchy that led the unification of Germany, Kaliningrad is today a Russified outpost of Soviet imperialism. The city had and has no illustrious footballing history. Today, Baltika Kaliningrad is its top team; they are not a storied club, having spent only three seasons in the first division of Russian football. Likewise, VfB Königsberg, Baltika’s German ancestor, never met with much success outside the Baltic Championship, perhaps the weakest of Germany’s regional leagues. They won every title between 1921 and 1930, and then again between 1940 and ‘44. They never counted among their numbers any of the country’s great footballers, but the legendary manager Udo Lattek played in their youth team in the 1940s. Perhaps he took some of his East Prussian heritage with him when he led Bayern Munich to European Cup triumph in the 1970s.
There is one place where the footballing heritage of old east Germany can still be found. In Katowice in 2007, a group called the Silesian Autonomy Movement revived a sixty-year-old label – 1. FC Kattowitz – as a means to highlight an independent Silesian identity and its historical links to Germany. Kattowitz had, in the 1920s and 30s, been a standard-bearer for German identity in Silesia – the city and its environs had been transferred to the nascent Polish Republic following World War I, before reentering the German league system in 1940. Today, the men’s team lingers in the doldrums of the Polish league system, while the women’s side plays in the country’s top division. It stands a reminder of a bygone era, but its support for the Nazis in the 1930s and its use as a propaganda showpiece by Hitler’s regime dampens the nostalgia.
What would the Bundesliga look like today, with teams from Silesia and East Prussia? Possibly no different, given that German football seems to weaken the further east you go. Indeed, a team from Germany’s far east never won the national championship, something even an Austrian team – Rapid Wien – managed to achieve. Nonetheless, Breslau, Königsberg, and others were once integral parts of the German football system, and in some ways it a shame that they have forever disappeared. In a small way, however, the legacy of these lost lands can be found even today: of Germany’s World Cup winning team of 2014, two – Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski – are ethnic Germans whose parents and grandparents chose to remain in Silesia even after millions of others were expelled.