The German city of Kaiserslautern sits only a short distance from the French border and close to the edge of the vast Palatinate forest. It’s a city whose history of settlement stretches back into prehistory but after the end of the Second World War the city lay in ruins with as much as 60% of its buildings having been reduced to rubble by aerial bombardment in late 1944. When American troops reached the city in 1945 they faced little resistance. The area around the city later became home to thousands of occupying American and French troops, a legacy that continues to this day in the US air force base at Ramstein. It would not be dismissive to say that for all the other qualities the city of 100,000 possesses it is probably best known for it’s football team 1. FC Kaiserslautern. A side that have been German champions on four occasions and provided the backbone of Germany’s most iconic national teams.
Plenty of notable players have turned out for the Red Devils in the past, among them Youri Djorkaeff, Michael Ballack, Andy Brehme, and a name familiar to English fans, Stefan Kuntz. But head and shoulders above all these players stands Fritz Walter, captain of the Kaiserslautern side that won two league titles in the 1950’s and who, along with four of his club teammates helped an emergent West Germany lift the 1954 World Cup after the famous “Miracle of Berne” victory over the Hungarians.
Miracle is an often overused word in sporting parlance, every mildly unexpected result tends to be recast as some sort of David and Goliath struggle but even competing at the World Cup was an achievement for the West German side.
Kaiserslautern being so badly damaged by the end of the war was not an uncommon fate for many German cities directly after the war. By 1954 the new state of Rhineland-Palatinate where Kaiserslautern were based had only existed for eight years having as part of French Occupied Germany. The neighbouring state of Saarland was still a separate entity under French direction and was on course to be established as an independent state. In the otherworldly post war landscape the West Germans had even played against Saarland (formerly one of their constituent parts) as opponents in their qualifying group. The pace of rebuilding was slow in Germany and subject to the caprices of the various occupying powers. Millions of displaced, ethnic Germans had fled into West Germany from what is today Poland and the Czech Republic seeking homes, jobs, even the bare minimum of food and warmth. Multiple families crowded into cellars, the last habitable remains of a decimated building stock in the ruins of German cities. The civilian death rate in the immediate post war period was several times what it had been in the late 30’s immediately before the war. Those prominent German footballers who had escaped the war relatively unscathed quickly went back to the game (when permitted by the various occupying allied forces) competing in numerous friendlies with local sides in exchange for foodstuffs, coal and even fabric for jerseys. Teams without proper kit often found themselves draped in red and white shirts as they tailored discarded Nazi flags and banners into football shirts.
By the end of the 1940’s there was something approaching a return to league football in Germany but not in the form of the Bundesliga that we would recognise today. Football in Germany was still regional with the best teams of the five West German regional top-level divisions qualifying to play off for the German championship. Full professionalism was still prohibited, players had to have a day job and be able to demonstrate that this was their primary labour, not football.
The ’54 World Cup was being held in Switzerland because it was one of the few countries that had escaped the horrors of war relatively unscathed, it was safe and prosperous enough to host a World Cup. Fritz Walter had been a soldier in that war, his coach Sepp Herberger had tried to protect him and his teammates as best he could, he thought that an Air Force regiment would offer the best protection for his star player. It was commanded by a Major Graf, a football lover who appreciated Herberger’s desire to protect a key player like Walter. For the most part Herberger was right, Fritz Walter played more than 20 wartime international games for Germany while with the armed forces, however as the war progressed and the Germans losses mounted Fritz and his colleagues were pressed into more active service.
It was while on active duty with the air force that he contracted malaria, then later towards the very end of the war he was captured and faced the very real possibility of being transported to a Soviet labour camp in Siberia. It was only the intercession of a football loving guard who recognised Fritz during an impromptu kick-about which saw his name removed from a list of those bound for the Soviet camp. His footballing prowess had saved his life.
Also on the pitch that day in Berne was Fritz’s brother Ottmar, or “Otte” as he was affectionately known. He had finished the Second World War with shrapnel throughout his body, but particularly in his right knee. He was lucky even to be alive, as a member of the Navy his ship was sunk near Cherbourg and only 11 of the more than 130 crew survived. The worsening condition of Otte’s ruined knee would end his career in 1956. Apart from the brothers Walter, three further Kaiserslautern players took to the field in the final. Though dominant in the early 50’s they had shocked the German football public when they were hammered 5-1 in the final of the German football championship by the unfancied Hannover 96.
Fritz’s malarial blood didn’t like the heat of the central European summer so the cooler, wetter weather of the final was a blessing, the type of weather when he could play his type of game, to try and dictate the flow of play much as the roving Nandor Hidegkuti did for the opposition. Some to this day call it Fritz Walter weather.
Apart from Toni Turek, his goalkeeper, Fritz was the oldest man on the pitch, it was nearly seventeen years since his debut for his hometown team, FC Kaiserslautern as a naive 17 year old. His sole focus was football, to the absence of all else, despite his natural talent he thought about football so much that he drove himself to a form of obsession; highly-sensitive he fixated on defeats, personal mistakes and guilt for opportunities missed.
The Kaiserslautern players that made up almost half the national team had to prove themselves again, prove their mettle, show that the wouldn’t bottle it on the big occasion as they’d done only weeks earlier against Hannover. They’d achieved respectability to an extent by even getting to the final against the Hungarians. They’d done so in some style, dispatching a good Yugoslavian side before comfortably beating the Austrians 6-1 in the semi-final, Fritz and Otto had split four of the goals in that game between them. In the Yugoslavia game Fritz Walter’s room-mate Helmut Rahn had returned to the starting XI and gotten on the score-sheet, he too would start the final. That Rahn was Fritz’s roommate was no accident, he was eight years junior to Fritz, as a laid-back, humorous and fun-loving character he was chosen to act as an antidote to the stoic, pensive and neurotic Walter. His brother Ottmar recalled that Fritz would emerge to the team breakfast each morning with tears in his eyes from the laughter caused by Rahn’s latest jokes.
Rahn like all his team-mates had to have a day job. He enjoyed driving and worked as a chauffeur for a time before later becoming a rep for a confectionery company. Otte Walter ran a petrol station. Fritz Walter ended up working as a sales representative for sports giant Adidas. The founder of the famous company, Adi Dassler (who’s name was the origin of the brand) was on the German bench at the World Cup alongside Herberger, his pioneering use of replaceable screw-in studs of differing lengths to suit changing conditions gave the Germans a slight advantage on the wet, heavy turf of the Wankdorf stadium in Berne.
Thousands of words have been written, dramas and documentaries have been made on the final itself. Suffice to say that no team is unbeatable. While the Hungarians had demolished the Germans 8-3 in a group game Herberger had learned from that defeat. Helmut Rahn had scored one of the Germans three goals and Herberger had noticed how much space Rahn had been afforded by the Hungarian defence. Despite being an outside right Rahn also had a strong left foot shot and often cut inside with devastating effect.
Many theories still swirl about why the game played out as it did. Hungarian complacency after going 2-0 up early on? That the great Ferenc Puskas lacked full fitness having been cynically targeted by Werner Liebrich in the previous meeting of the sides? Even that the Germans were given injections of amphetamines to make them play at a more intense level. The Germans always claimed that they were only given vitamin C injections and several players later developed jaundice due to a dirty needle being used.
Whatever the precise truth the Germans bounced back from an early 2-0 deficit to triumph 3-2 thanks to two goals from Helmut Rahn and one from Max Morlock. Perhaps of greater impact was what happened next. In footballing terms little changed for the next decade. Herberger had been pressing the German FA for a proper nationwide league but his very success in 1954 undermined that. If a regionalised league with semi-professional players could win the World Cup then why would the West German FA change something that wasn’t broken? Or so went the logic. The establishment of the Bundesliga wouldn’t arrive until 1963. In the meantime professional clubs in Spain, France and Italy offered lucrative contracts to the heroes of Berne but to a man they rejected them.
Moving away from Germany would have meant removal from the national team, generally players were “rewarded” with sinecures with sportswear concerns or car companies. A trend that continued for years after with the likes of Uwe Seeler turning down lucrative moves to Italy and Spain to stay with Hamburg.
Politically the ’54 victory has been recast as a foundational moment in modern German history. One German historian credited Sepp Herberger as being one of the three father’s of the emerging West German state along with Konrad Adenauer, the country’s Chancellor and Ludwig Erhard, the Government minister most credited with the German economic miracle of the 1950’s and 60’s. The credit attributed to that maiden World Cup victory’s role in the German economic recovery has tended towards the hyperbolic. While it’s clear that there were massive obstacles to German success to suggest that footballing success spurred economic growth is somewhat far-fetched.
Despite the levels of devastation documented above the German economy was already beginning a period of unlikely, yet stunning growth. The large, young displaced German populations of Poland and Czechoslovakia provided a willing workforce. The deepening of the Cold War prompted the Allied powers to relax restrictions of German industry. A strong West Germany was seen as a necessary bulwark against Soviet expansion eastward. All while the largesse of the Marshall plan provided economic capital to help rebuild German industry.
If anything the World Cup victory provided a rare moment of national pride for a nation that was shamed for their wartime murder and brutality. During the denazification processes instigated immediately after the war it was noted that only two in ten Germans were willing to bear any personal responsibility for the war and the crimes of the Nazis. They were viewed as terrible events that were due to the actions of others. The unexpected triumph in Berne however offered an opportunity to display national pride in the supposedly safe, non-bellicose arena of a sporting rather than a military victory.
Despite this some elements of German society offended the global sporting public with the singing of the infamous opening verse of Deutschland Uber Alles rather than the benign third verse. At a celebratory dinner the German football president, in the alcohol clouded fug of a beer-hall started talking about German superiority and the importance of the Fuhrer principle in German sport. These events were an embarrassment to the overall celebrations and were widely reported at the time but the majority of the celebrations seemed not to tend towards the violent nationalism of the previous decade.
While the ruling regimes of Brazil in 1970 and Argentina in 1978 had sought make political capital out of a World Cup triumph (and how Hitler had used the 1936 Olympics for his Ayrian propoganda) the heads of government in West Germany eschewed the celebrations. Those other fathers of the nation; Adenauer and Erhard avoided the official homecoming celebrations in Berlin. This after all was just football, there were issues of real importance to be dealt with. Neither Adenauer nor Erhard were football fans, the Chancellor preferring the game of bocce (an Italian variant of boules). Not until Helmut Kohl took over the office of Chancellor in 1982 could it be said that there was a true football fan in charge of West Germany.
Kohl had grown up in what is now the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, as a youngster he idolised Fritz Walter and became a lifelong Kaiserslautern fan. He was even Club President for a time. When he became regional governor Kohl awarded Fritz Walter with the Freedom of the State in front of a packed football stadium in 1970. By that stage a new golden age of German football was emerging.
The Bundesliga was by then established as a national league. Within the next five years the West German national team would win the European Championships in some style before shocking the world yet again with an underdog triumph in the World Cup final against the majesty of the Total Football era Dutch team. In that same year of 1974 the second division of the Bundesliga was established while Bayern Munich won the first of their three-in-a-row European Cups. It was an unparalleled time of success at club and international level but for all these triumphs the German nation would never again capture the euphoria of that debut victory.
This piece originally featured in the Football Pink issue 20 World Cup edition.