Matthias Sindelar: the striker who snubbed Hitler

As Austria co-hosts Euro 2008, Robin Stummer reports on the mystery of the great footballer Matthias Sindelar.

A few seconds of grainy newsreel, a handful of fragile press cuttings, a street name, a grave. Such is the meagre legacy of Matthias Sindelar - one of the world's greatest soccer players, the Pelé of the interwar years, a sporting genius who not only took the game into the modern era, but snubbed Hitler en route. Many believe that the Austrian centre-forward's contempt for the Nazis cost him his life. But has Austria snubbed Sindelar?

In a small country not overflowing with world-class sports heroes or, for that matter, high-profile anti-fascist martyrs, the absence of Sindelar from Austria's official past and present is strange. No statues, no stadium name, no posters. No football academy bears his name; there has been no big biopic, no exhibition, no plaques, no new investigation into his suspicious death. A recent poll in Austria confirmed Sindelar as the nation's all-time greatest sports star, yet soccer fans in the country for Euro 2008 will struggle to find any sign of him.

It's an omission that even some Austrians, long used to institutionalised strangeness, find baffling. "It is an amazing lack - a puzzle, but also a real shame," says the Austrian soccer historian Dr Erich Krenslehner. "For a great star like Sindelar, not to have a memorial of some sort is very unusual, a mystery." So why is a nation so adept at the chocolate-box glorification of Mozart, Strauss and Haydn reluctant to embrace the memory of its finest sportsman?

A bronze football tops the marble slab over Sindelar's grave at Vienna's Zentralfriedhof cemetery. His gentle face, cast in bronze - high forehead, hair receding, the metal bright green with verdigris - stares out from the headstone above the dates 1903-1939. He is in vintage kit - floppy collar, lace-up neck. On the green metal face, seven decades of rain have left dark streaks from the hairline down to the neck that look like ghostly post-match sweat. There are no flowers.

Austria, Euro 2008 co-hosts, start this year's competition ranked 88th in the world, yet for the best part of a decade - and just about within living memory - Austria was, with England, the most feared side in world soccer, and it could boast the world's leading player.

Matthias Sindelar was an almost freakishly talented footballer who waltzed around opponents with ease. Above all, he possessed what the pundits called "wit"; he was, said one, a man who played soccer "as a grandmaster played chess".

The sports writers christened Sindelar "der Papierne" - "the paper man" who fluttered around the pitch. To the ethnic Czech, Hungarian and Polish factory workers and the cafe-society dilettantes and bourgeoisie, many of them Jewish, who flocked to see him play for his club, FK Austria Wien, however, he was their "Sindi". And Sindi, quite simply, was playing soccer like no one else in the world.

Sindelar was "new" Viennese. His parents were Catholics from Moravia, now in the Czech Republic. He spoke in the slurred Viennese dialect, and grew up in the drab, poor suburb of Favoriten, a bastion of the left. "In his speech, in his manner, he was an ordinary Viennese person," recalls Franz Schwarz, son of the 1920s and 1930s Austrian team president and now, in his nineties, one of the few people alive to have met Sindelar. "But he was something very special in his talent, really exceptional."

Starting in spring 1931 with a 5-0 demolition of Scotland, at the time one of Europe's most revered teams, the red-and-whites would be unbeaten for the next 19 internationals, pushing 11 goals past Germany's goalkeeper in just two matches, with none conceded. All of Europe's top teams were toppled. In December 1932 the side, now dubbed the Wunderteam, was ready to take on the world's most potent force: England.

A crowd of 60,000 packed Stamford Bridge to see the Austrians play England, while an even bigger throng crammed into Vienna's Heldenplatz for a radio commentary. The Wunderteam nearly pulled it off, running circles around England - but lost, just, 4-3. The British press hailed the newcomers: "English team lucky to win", was the Manchester Guardian's verdict. "There could not be the slightest doubt that as a team [Austria] were the superiors." "It was victory and no more," said the Times. "And it was by no means easily earned."

 

The Führer's plan

By the summer of 1934 Austria had won or drawn 28 out of 31 games and Sindelar's fame had spread even to the soccer-phobic United States. Sindi had begun to earn big money, endorsing sharp suits and luxury cars, gambling and womanising much of the cash away. The Wunderteam seemed unstoppable - but this was 1930s Mitteleuropa.

The Nazi ideologues liked international soccer. It was mass-propaganda-friendly, and there was the prospect of inevitable victory upon victory: a collective triumph of the national athletic will. Nazi Germany's soccer team found victory far from inevitable: they were, at best, middle-rankers. But the Führer's pudgy sports advisers had a plan.

One of the first actions of the new National Socialist government in Austria, set up after the March 1938 Anschluss, was to disband the country's professional football association, one of the oldest in the world. Jewish sports clubs and soccer teams were outlawed and their grounds seized, Jewish players barred, Jewish club officials sacked. Many fled abroad. Others, fatally, stayed put. Austria was to become Ostmark, a province of the Reich. Its soccer team would itself be annexed, players "invited" to join the German side; the team name "Austria" would go.

Many players and officials acquiesced to the takeover and some were even enthusiastic, active supporters. Sindelar, it seems, was not.

FK Austria Wien shed many of its directors, players and officials, sacked for being, or suspected of being, Jewish. Among them was the veteran club president Dr Michl Schwarz. Those who survived the purges were instructed not to speak to sacked colleagues. Sindelar refused. "The new club president has forbidden us to talk to you," he told the highly respected Schwarz shortly before the deposed president fled abroad, "but I will always speak to you, Herr Doktor." A clash with the New Order was on the cards.

On 3 April 1938, just weeks after the Nazis annexed Austria, the Wunderteam took to the field for the last time - against Germany. The Nazi sports authorities billed the match, at Vienna's Prater Stadium, as a "reunification" derby, a 90-minute celebration of Germanic brotherhood. It proved to be one of the most extraordinary soccer matches ever played.

Nazi propagandists ordained that the showpiece clash was to end as a low-scoring draw. For his part, Sindelar, it is said, demanded that his team be allowed to wear their traditional strip, not a new "non-national" kit, and that they be known for this, their last match, as "Austria". The Nazis agreed.

 

Shadows and secrets

The Wunderteam spent the first half of the match sullenly trying not to score. Up front, Sindelar and his team-mate Karl Sesta acted dumb, allowing the Germans to dictate play. The play-acting continued into the second half. But then, at around 70 minutes, something snapped. Sindi flicked a rebound from the German goalkeeper into the bottom right-hand corner of the net. The crowd erupted.

Nazi functionaries looked on in disbelief as, minutes later, Sesta slammed the ball into the German goal from 45 yards. 2-0. At full-time, the Prater Stadium crowd went wild, shouting: "Österreich, Österreich!" while, one account goes, Sindi ran up to the box containing Nazi dignitaries and club officials and waltzed around, alone, grinning.

Ten months later he was dead.

Sindelar's last year was bizarre. Even as Vienna lurched towards open thuggery and the "legal" seizure of property from Jewish citizens began, Sindelar apparently maintained close - and public - friendships with Jews.

Several times he was "requested", reportedly at the very highest level, to join the German (and thoroughly Nazi) national sports training organisation. Again he refused.

Was he suicidally principled, or just taking yet another losing punt - this time on the New Order fading fast? It would have been easy for Sindelar to take a job abroad, and he had influential friends in English soccer, but his next move was an unpredictable twist.

In summer 1938 Sindi, the "chess grandmaster of soccer", even in his mid-thirties one of the most bankable players in the world, bought a scruffy street-corner cafe in lowly Favoriten and turned his back on soccer.

The cafe's previous owner, a Jewish acquaintance of Sindelar's called Leopold Drill, was being turfed out by the Nazis - one of the many "legalised" thefts taking place throughout the city. The star, it is said, stepped in with a cash offer for the business that was far more generous than the pittance offered by local party bureaucrats. The deal done, Sindi slicked back his hair and quietly served beer and coffee to his old mates. The Gestapo kept the cafe under surveillance, noting that its new owner was friendly with all customers, Jews included. About half the clientele had been Jewish, the Gestapo estimated. Sindelar was known to be "not sympathetic" to the party, it was reported.

And then, on 23 January 1939, a friend, worried that he had not seen Sindelar for some time, forced his way into his flat on Annagasse in the city centre. He found the star in bed, dead. Lying beside him was his latest lover. Unconscious, she lived a few hours longer. Sindelar was 35. The police investigation concluded that the couple had died from carbon monoxide poisoning. A chimney flue was found to be blocked, and poor maintenance blamed. Few believed the official version.

More than 20,000 people turned out for Sindi's funeral. In some ways it was Vienna's first, and last, rally against the Nazis. In other respects, however, it was no more than a fare well to a local hero.

That ambiguity, a Viennese trait then and now, is at the heart of the Sindelar story. The British film classic The Third Man, filmed in part amid the bomb sites of the Austrian capital nearly a decade after the player's death, captured the mood and manners of the city: shadows, secrets and whispers. The whispering endures.

The few facts surrounding Sindelar are entwined with rumours still circulating in Vienna. Take the police report on his death: lost in the war, says the Austrian national archive. No, there for the reading but hard to find, maintain some historians. Or Sindelar's cafe: bought by the star at a fair price to help out its fleeing Jewish owner, say some. No, "stolen" by an opportunist Sindelar for a fraction of its true value, say others. Or the player's death: clearly murder, many believe. No, it was suicide, a few argue, an act of despair at the fate of Austria - a theory popular among the left-leaning coffee-house literati who idolised him. Or a gangland hit, linked to the star's supposedly huge gambling debts. Or murder at the hands of his lover, who then poisoned herself. Or a Gestapo killing to prevent Sindelar embarrassing the Reich by fleeing abroad. Or, yes, just an accident.

About Sindelar himself, Vienna's rumour mills have been working overtime. "He was really Jewish, not Catholic, you know, but kept it secret," went one whisper this past week. "Actually he was a Nazi, but maybe only 1 per cent of him. He could see the way things were going," was another.

The building that was once Sindelar's cafe was quietly demolished a couple of years ago. "They did not want it there as a reminder of him," said one fan, declining to elaborate on who "they" might be. "It was old, it had to go, development," shrugged another.

The few seconds of newsreel footage of Matthias Sindelar the football player are all that remains beyond doubt - a glimpse of a delicate, intuitive player with a kind face. And a face, for whatever reason, is just about all that survives of the Paper Man.

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A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Are we too complacent in thinking that the toxic brew of paranoia and populism that brought Hitler to power will never be repeated?

The conventional wisdom holds that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, in Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important. What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke’s axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to “us”, and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit. If this is not to be the silly we-are-all-guilty response that has rightly been so much mocked, nor an absolution for the direct agents of great horrors, it needs a careful and unsparing scrutiny of the processes by which cultures become corruptible, vulnerable to the agendas of damaged and obsessional individuals.

This can be uncomfortable. It raises the awkward issue of what philosophers have learned to call “moral luck” – the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz. Or, to take a sharply contemporary example, that one Muslim youth from a disturbed or challenging background becomes a suicide bomber but another from exactly the same background doesn’t. It is as though there were a sort of diabolical mirror image for the biblical Parable of the Sower: some seeds grow and some don’t, depending on the ground they fall on, or what chance external stimulus touches them at critical moments.

If what interests us is simply how to assign individuals rapidly and definitively to the categories of sheep and goats, saved and damned, this is offensively frustrating. But if we recognise that evil is in important respects a shared enterprise, we may be prompted to look harder at those patterns of behaviour and interaction that – in the worst cases – give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness, and to examine our personal, political and social life in the light of this.

***

It would be possible to argue that the anti-Semitism of a lot of German culture – as of European Christian culture overall – was never (at least in the modern period) genocidal and obsessed with absolute racial purity; limited but real possibilities of integration were taken for granted, converts to Christianity were not disadvantaged merely because of their race, and so on. Yet the truth is that this cultural hinterland offered a foothold to the mania of Adolf Hitler; that it gave him just enough of the permission he needed to identify his society’s problems with this clearly definable “alien” presence. In his new book, Hitler: the Ascent, Volker Ullrich compellingly tells us once again that no one could have been under any illusion about Hitler’s general intentions towards the Jews from his very first appearance as a political figure, even if the detailed planning of genocide (lucidly traced in the late David Cesarani’s recent, encyclopaedic Final Solution) took some time to solidify. Yet so much of the German public heard Hitler’s language as the slightly exaggerated version of a familiar trope and felt able to treat it as at worst an embarrassing overstatement of a common, even a common-sense, view. One of the most disturbing things about this story is the failure of so many (inside and outside Germany) to grasp that Hitler meant what he said; and this failure in turn reinforced the delusion of those who thought they could use and then sideline Hitler.

To say that Hitler “meant what he said”, however, can be misleading. It is one of the repeated and focal themes in Ullrich’s book that Hitler was a brazen, almost compulsive liar – or, perhaps better, a compulsive and inventive actor, devising a huge range of dramatic roles for himself: frustrated artist, creative patron, philosopher-king (there is a fine chapter on the intellectual and artistic circle he assembled frequently at his Berchtesgaden residence), workers’ friend, martyr for his people (he constantly insinuated that he believed himself doomed to a tragic and premature death), military or economic messiah and a good deal else besides. His notorious outbursts of hysterical rage seem to have been skilfully orchestrated as instruments of intimidation (though this did not exactly indicate that he was otherwise predictable). Ullrich devotes a fair measure of attention to the literal staging of National Socialism, the architectural gigantism of Albert Speer which gave the Führer the sophisticated theatre he craved. In all sorts of ways, Hitler’s regime was a profoundly theatrical exercise, from the great public displays at Nuremberg and the replanning of Berlin to the various private fantasies enacted by him and his close associates (Göring above all), and from the emotional roller coaster he created for his circle to the dangerously accelerated rate of military-industrial expansion with which he concealed the void at the centre of the German economy.

Theatre both presupposes and creates a public. In the anxiety and despair of post-Versailles Germany, there was a ready audience for the high drama of Nazism, including its scapegoating of demonic enemies within and without. And in turn, the shrill pitch of Hitler’s quasi-liturgies normalised a whole set of bizarre and fantastic constructions of reality. A N Wilson’s challenging novel Winnie and Wolf, a fantasia on Hitler’s relations with Winifred Wagner, culminates in a scene at the end of the war where refugees and destitute citizens in Bayreuth raid the wardrobe of the opera house and wander the streets dressed in moth-eaten costumes; it is an unforgettable metaphor for one of the effects of Hitlerian theatre. Ullrich leaves his readers contemplating the picture of a vast collective drama centred on a personality that was not – as some biographers have suggested – something of a cipher, but that of a fantasist on a grand scale, endowed with a huge literal and metaphorical budget for staging his work.

All of this prompts questions about how it is that apparently sophisticated political systems succumb to corporate nervous breakdowns. It is anything but an academic question in a contemporary world where theatrical politics, tribal scapegoating and variegated confusions about the rule of law are increasingly in evidence. On this last point, it is still shocking to realise how rapidly post-Versailles Germany came to regard violent public conflict between heavily armed militias as almost routine, and this is an important background to the embittered negotiations later on around the relation between Hitler’s Sturmabteilung and the official organs of state coercion. Ullrich’s insightful account of a de facto civil war in Bavaria in the early 1920s makes it mercilessly plain that any pretensions to a state monopoly of coercion in Germany in this period were empty.

Yet the idea of such a state monopoly is in fact essential to anything that could be called a legitimate democracy. In effect, the polity of the Third Reich “privatised” coer­cion: again and again in Ullrich’s book, in the struggles for power before 1933, we see Nazi politicians successfully bidding for control of the mechanisms of public order in the German regions, and more or less franchising public order to their own agencies. A classical democratic political philosophy would argue that the state alone has the right to use force because the state is the guarantor of every community’s and every individual’s access to redress for injury or injustice. If state coercion becomes a tool for any one element in the social complex, it loses legitimacy. It is bound up with the rule of law, which is about something more than mere majority consent. One way of reading the rise of Hitler and National Socialism is as the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society. It is the deliberate dissolution of the idea of a Rechtsstaat, a law-governed state order that can be recognised by citizens as organised for their common and individual good. Rule by decree, the common pattern of Nazi governmental practice, worked in harness with law enforcement by a force that was essentially a toxic hybrid, combining what was left of an independent police operation with a highly organised party militia system.

So, one of the general imperatives with which Hitler’s story might leave us is the need to keep a clear sense of what the proper work of the state involves. Arguments about the ideal “size” of the state are often spectacularly indifferent to the basic question of what the irreducible functions of state authority are – and so to the question of what cannot be franchised or delegated to non-state actors (it is extraordinary that we have in the UK apparently accepted without much debate the idea that prison security can be sold off to private interests). This is not the same as saying that privatisation in general leads to fascism; the issues around the limits to state direction of an economy are complex. However, a refusal to ask some fundamental questions about the limits of “franchising” corrodes the idea of real democratic legitimacy – the legitimacy that arises from an assurance to every citizen that, whatever their convictions or their purchasing power, the state is there to secure their access to justice. And, connected with this, there are issues about how we legislate: what are the proper processes of scrutiny for legislation, and how is populist and short-view legislation avoided? The Third Reich offers a masterclass in executive tyranny, and we need not only robust and intelligent counter-models, but a clear political theory to make sense of and defend those models.

***

Theatre has always been an aspect of the political. But there are different kinds of theatre. In ancient Athens, the annual Dionysia festival included the performance of tragedies that forced members of the audience to acknowledge the fragility of the political order and encouraged them to meditate on the divine interventions that set a boundary to vendetta and strife. Classical tragedy is, as political theatre, the exact opposite of Hitlerian drama, which repeatedly asserted the solid power of the Reich, the overcoming of weakness and division by the sheer, innate force of popular will as expressed through the Führer.

Contemporary political theatre is not – outside the more nakedly totalitarian states – a matter of Albert Speer-like spectacle and affirmation of a quasi-divine leader; but it is increasingly the product of a populist-oriented market, the parading of celebrities for popular approval, with limited possibilities for deep public discussion of policies advanced, and an assumption that politicians will be, above all, performers. It is not – to warn once again against cliché and exaggeration – that celebrity culture in politics is a short route to fascism. But a political theatre that never deals with the fragility of the context in which law and civility operate, that never admits the internal flaws and conflicts of a society, and never allows some corporate opening-up to the possibilities of reconciliation and reparation, is one that exploits, rather than resolves our anxieties. And, as such, it makes us politically weaker, more confused and fragmented.

The extraordinary mixture of farce and menace in Donald Trump’s campaign is a potent distillation of all this: a political theatre, divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity, bringing to the surface the buried poisons of a whole system and threatening its entire viability and rationality. But it is an extreme version of the way in which modern technology-and-image-driven communication intensifies the risks that beset the ideals of legitimate democracy.

And – think of Trump once again – one of the most seductively available tricks of such a theatre is the rhetoric of what could be called triumphant victimhood: we are menaced by such and such a group (Jews, mig­rants, Muslims, Freemasons, international business, Zionism, Marxism . . .), which has exerted its vast but covert influence to destroy us; but our native strength has brought us through and, given clear leadership, will soon, once and for all, guarantee our safety from these nightmare aliens.

***

This is a rhetoric that depends on ideas of collective guilt or collective malignity: plots ascribed to the agency of some dangerous minority are brandished in order to tarnish the name of entire communities. The dark legacy of much popular Christian language about collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus could be translated without much difficulty into talk about the responsibility of Jews for the violence and poverty afflicting Germans in the 1920s. (Shadows of the same myths still affect the way in which – as recent reports suggest – sinister, vague talk about Zionism and assumptions of a collective Jewish guilt for the actions of various Israeli politicians can become part of a climate that condones anti-Semitic bullying, or text messages saying “Hitler had a point”, on university campuses.)

Granted that there is no shortage of other candidates for demonic otherness in Europe and the United States (witness Trump’s language about Muslims and Mexicans), the specific and abiding lesson of Nazi anti-Semitism is the twofold recognition of the ease with which actually disadvantaged communities can be cast in the role of all-powerful subverters, and the way in which the path to violent exclusion of one kind or another can be prepared by cultures of casual bigotry and collective anxiety or self-pity, dramatised by high-temperature styles of media communication.

Marie Luise Knott’s recent short book Unlearning With Hannah Arendt (2014) revisits the controversy over Arendt’s notorious characterisation of the mindset of Nazism as “the banality of evil”, and brilliantly shows how her point is to do with the erosion in Hitlerian Germany of the capacity to think, to understand one’s agency as answerable to more than public pressure and fashion, to hold to notions of honour and dignity independent of status, convention or influence – but also, ultimately, the erosion of a sense of the ridiculous. The victory of public cliché and stereotype is, in Arendt’s terms, a protection against reality, “against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence”, as she memorably wrote in The Life of the Mind. Hitler was committed to the destruction of anything that challenged the simple self-identity and self-justification of the race and the nation; hence, as Ullrich shows in an acutely argued chapter of Hitler: a Biography, the Führer’s venom against the churches, despite their (generally) embarrassingly lukewarm resistance to the horrors of the Reich. The problem was that the churches’ rationale entailed just that accountability to more than power and political self-identity that Nazi philosophy treated as absolute. They had grounds for thinking Nazism not only evil, but absurd. Perhaps, then, one of the more unexpected questions we are left with by a study of political nightmare such as Ullrich’s excellent book is how we find the resources for identifying the absurd as well as for clarifying the grounds of law and honour.

The threats now faced by “developed” democracy are not those of the 1920s and 1930s; whatever rough beasts are on their way are unlikely to have the exact features of Hitler’s distinctive blend of criminality and melodrama. But this does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking as hard as we can at the lessons to be learned from the collapse of political legality, the collective panics and myths, the acceptance of delusional and violent public theatre that characterised Hitler’s Germany. For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.

Hitler: a Biography – Volume I: Ascent by Volker Ullrich is published by the Bodley Head

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism