Hammering a Hitler myth
An Irishman’s Diary about football and the Fuehrer
‘I was pleased to see Schalke score the goal of the night on Wednesday against Real Madrid, even though Klaas Jan Huntelaar’s 25-yard volley was as meaningless as it was spectacular, since they were 6-0 down at the time.’ Photograph: Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images
For historical reasons (we’ll come back to them shortly), I have a soft spot for the German football team Schalke 04. So I was pleased to see them score the goal of the night on Wednesday against Real Madrid, even though Klaas Jan Huntelaar’s 25-yard volley was as meaningless as it was spectacular, since they were 6-0 down at the time.
And I was even more pleased to read a 2008 letter that resurfaced on Twitter during the week from the Schalke’s PR man, in which he masterfully rebuffed a British newspaper’s claim that Adolf Hitler had once been among the club’s supporters.
That smear has persisted for decades, largely because Schalke’s heyday coincided with Nazism. In fact, during 12 seasons from 1933 to 1945, the club lost only six league games out of 189, winning a cabinetful of trophies in the process. By comparison, the decades since have been a failure.
The Hitler taint was sufficiently irksome that in 2004, the club’s centenary, Schalke commissioned a study into whether Nazism contributed to its period of greatness. The report concluded otherwise, arguing that – at most – the Nazis had basked in a winning team’s glory. But crucially, it found no evidence that Hitler had ever attended a game.
So when the Times of London made the mistake of repeating the claim in a 2008 feature, Schalke’s head of PR, Gerd Voss, was forearmed. It wasn’t quite the Pigott Forgeries (Irishman’s Diary, Wednesday) on the Times ’s part. In this case, the paper had merely assembled a humorous list of the “Fifty Worst Famous Football Fans”, with Hitler at No 1.
But as such, his alleged fandom was allocated to Schalke, a libel reinforced by a quotation from Goebbels on football’s propaganda value, ie: “Winning a match is of more importance to the people than the capture of a town in the east.”
I’m fairly sure I made a similar mistake to the Times back in 1988, during my only visit to Gelsenkirchen, the town Schalke 04 club calls home. I’m equally sure I was corrected then by locals, although my memory of those events is rather hazy now, due both to the passage of time and the excellence of German beer.
The occasion was of course Euro 88. And our visit to Gelsenkirchen was the dizzying height of that glorious week. After the famous win in Stuttgart, and a 1-1 trouncing of the mighty Soviet Union, Jack Charlton’s team topped the table, needing only another draw, against Holland, to reach the semi-finals.
The Irish fans were sitting pretty too: already enjoying our self-appointed status as the world’s greatest supporters. In fact, I recall feeling somewhat outraged when a Schalke man told us that, while the Irish had brought great atmosphere to the town, the Danes (who’d just left) were better. It was probably around then that I raised the Hitler issue.
Anyway, aside from the actual football match, the thing I best remember about Gelsenkirchen was a game played in local pubs, involving a hammer, a log, and six-inch nails.
It was called Hammerschlagen and the object was to drive the nails into the log, using the hammer-head’s thin end. Each player had his own nail and got one hit at a time. Any number could play, but you learned to keep groups small, because the last one to sink his nail had to buy the next round.
As in football, there were tactics. Players started conservatively, going for small neat taps, and steady progress. If you fell behind, however, you had to resort to Route One. By the end, often, you were attempting the nail-hammering equivalent of Huntelaar’s volley.
In general, inevitably, the natives were better than us. But there was one man whose aim was especially deadly. It took him about three blows to sink the nail, or four if he was drunk. After buying him several rounds, we found out he was a butcher.
I was reminded of Hammerschlagen when reading Mr Voss’s letter to the Times . He began in gently humorous vein, like a man tapping the top of his nail into the log, prior to a game’s start. Then he got down to business, mentioning the club’s 2004 investigation and its zero results.
After that, he cited evidence that football in general was not to Hitler’s liking. This was because the physiognomy of players, “with their bow legs and knock-knees”, didn’t conform to his image of a master race, and because in one match he is known to have attended, at the 1936 Olympics, Germany lost 2-0 to Norway.
Finally, Voss applied the British newspaper’s logic to the game in England. “To conclude Hitler was a Schalke fan because they won most of the titles during his regime must make Margaret Thatcher a Liverpool fan,” he wrote. With that, the head of the nail disappeared into the log. I hope the Times remembered to buy the next round.