Morlock scores West Germany's first goal.

Centre forward Max Morlock scores West Germany's first goal.

The 1954 World Cup: Triumph of a New Germany

When West Germany won the competition for the first time in 1954 they were the unfancied representatives of a divided nation emerging from defeat and humiliation.

July 2014 saw a sporting triumph which is credited with playing an important role in the rehabilitation of Germany after the Second World War. Few observers gave the West German football team any real chance when they met the highly regarded Hungarian side, ‘the Mighty Magyars’, led by the great Ferenc Puskás in pouring rain in the World Cup final in Berne’s Wankdorf Stadium on July 4th, 1954. The Germans, contrary to received wisdom today, had little pedigree in international football up until this point. The Hungarians, on the other hand, were the ‘Golden Team’ of the postwar period, unbeaten for four years and having outclassed England twice in the build up to the tournament in Switzerland.

In the event, West Germany’s remarkable 3-2 victory (despite being 2-0 down after ten minutes) was indisputably the biggest sporting sensation since 1945. Not only that, but for the first time since the end of the war the Germans felt able to raise their heads above the parapet and display national pride in an achievement that was both a legitimate cause of celebration and appeared to have no connection with the recent Nazi past. In this context, the words of the West German radio commentator, Herbert Zimmermann, ‘It’s over! Over! Over! Germany are the World Champions’ – as famous in Germany as Kenneth Wolstenholme’s ‘They think it’s all over’ is in England – appear not just to refer to the outcome of the match but also to the promise of an end to the hardship and humiliation Germans had experienced since 1945, the so-called ‘Zero Hour’.

The victory in Berne sparked off largely spontaneous displays of jubilation not only in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), which had been created in 1949 from the three occupation zones of the western allies, but also in Communist-run East Germany. German exultation came to be summed up in the phrase Wir sind wieder wer (We are somebody again). This new-found self-confidence chimed exactly with a growing mood of optimism in West Germany, fuelled by the Marshall Plan, which Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was keen to exploit in order to establish the new state as a key partner in the western alliance and a major player in a reconstituted Europe. 

But the West German victory was hardly something that was welcome elsewhere in Europe, particularly to the authorities in East Berlin. Less than ten years after the end of a world war for which the Germans were held responsible, there was understandably little public enthusiasm in Britain and France at the outcome of the competition. Nonetheless the extent of the dismay and even vitriol at the time expressed in the media of both countries requires further explanation and points to deep-seated concerns in Britain and France about the speed of German economic recovery and re-armament in the mid-1950s.

For the East German regime, West Germany’s victory at the World Cup was the worst possible outcome. Communist leaders had been praying for a Hungarian win in order to prove the much-claimed ‘superiority of socialist sport’ and, by implication, the Communist form of government. Hungary’s defeat appeared to prove that the opposite was true, just at a time when East German leaders were trying to promote their state as the ‘progressive option’ for all Germans, as opposed to what they called the ‘Nazi successor state’ of the Federal Republic.  

West Germany’s footballers, captained by Fritz Walter, had given foreign critics little cause for complaint by their conduct on the pitch in Switzerland. In recent years it has been suggested that the team’s exceptional work-rate and fitness in the final may have had something to do with receiving injections of a performance-enhancing substance (methamphetamine) before the match, although surviving players dispute this. At the time there was only praise for the Germans’ spirit, technique and sportsmanship during a tournament in which they had overcome another of the favourites, Yugoslavia, and neighbouring Austria to reach the final. 

It was two events off the pitch – one immediately after the final and the other a few days later – that were to give ammunition to those keen to link the West German victory to allegations of resurgent German nationalism. First, as a rain-soaked Fritz Walter led his team up to collect the Jules Rimet trophy from the man whose name it bore and a Swiss band played the German national anthem, a boozy section of the German fans began singing the banned first verse of the national anthem – ‘Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles’ rather than the Federal Republic’s officially sanctioned third verse – ‘Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit’ (unity, justice and freedom). Foreign journalists present immediately took note. 

A few days later the damage was compounded by a speech given at the official victory celebration in a Munich beer cellar by the President of the German Football Association (Deutscher Fussball-Bund), ‘Peco’ Bauwens. In an atmosphere heavy with alcohol and emotion, Bauwens – who had joined the Nazi Party as early as 1933 – told the reportedly bemused players not only that they had been inspired by the spirit of the Nordic God, Wotan, but that victory had been made possible by their adherence to Der Führerprinzip. By this he appears to have meant unflinching obedience to a strategy worked out by the coach, Josef (Sepp) Herberger. The speech, which was being broadcast live by Bavarian Radio, was mysteriously cut short at this point and the tapes subsequently lost, but foreign reporters monitoring the coverage had already heard enough. 

Captain Fritz Walter (with the Jules Rimet trophy) and midfielder Horst Eckel are carried aloft by supporters. Corbis/DPA

Bauwens and the drunken German fans were, in fact, completely out of step with West German leaders and the country’s media, who were desperate to contain the excitement over the World Cup triumph and avoid antagonising both allies and enemies. At a public celebration in West Berlin in front of 95,000 people, the President of the Republic, Theodor Heuss, took the opportunity to reprimand ‘the good Bauwens’, telling him ‘good kicking does not make good politics’. Heuss then led the crowd in singing the third, internationally acceptable verse of the national anthem in an apparent attempt to make amends for what had happened at the Wankdorf Stadium. Similarly, the West German newspapers, far from crowing about the World Cup victory, mostly reported it only briefly, if at all, on their front pages. The Süddeutsche Zeitung epitomised the attempt to take the politics out of the issue with its headline that read: ‘Great victory. Great day. But only a game’. The article that followed told citizens they had the right to celebrate but now was the time to sober up: ‘It was only a game. Life goes on.’ 

Much of the British and the French press, however, were unwilling to pass up the opportunity to make mischief and play up to the undoubted public antipathy towards and distrust of the Germans in general. The Manchester Guardian was almost alone in appealing for understanding of the euphoric response in West Germany to becoming world football champions. Its Berlin correspondent wrote:

One must remember both the giant load of bewilderment beneath which this nation has been staggering since one type of German pride came to its catastrophic fall nine years ago and also the zeal for an emotional release to lift minds out of the ever-present spectacle of surrounding ruin.

Such empathy was in short supply elsewhere. Under a front page headline reading ‘Deutschland über alles’, a Daily Express article noted with alarm that, on the same day as West Germany had won the World Cup, the German car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz had finished first and second at the French Grand Prix. Provocatively, the paper drew a link between such sporting achievement and Chancellor Adenauer’s alleged growing assertiveness over the questions of German re-armament and the right to full independence (which came in May, 1955 with the end of the Allied occupation).

Another British newspaper, the News Chronicle, reported the twin West German sporting successes under the headline: ‘Oh! What a lovely day for the Germans.’ The clear implication was that it was anything but for everyone else.

But it was left to the mass circulation Daily Mirror to stir up the greatest anxiety among its largely working-class readership. It ran a headline saying ‘Germany smash their way back to lead in sport’. The word ‘smash’, with its connotations of violence, carried the implicit reminder of how the German army had sped its way across Europe barely a decade earlier. To reinforce the alleged link between sporting success and a supposedly resurgent German nationalism, the Mirror’s leading columnist, ‘Cassandra’ (William Connor), complained:

Here comes swaggering Germany. Adenauer now speaks with a plainness about whether she [the FRG] should rearm … German businessmen swarm all over Europe … even in football, not a noticeably German sport, they wipe out the Hungarians … Nothing can stop these unlovable people.

Unfortunately at this point no opinion polls were taken in Britain to gauge public attitude to West Germany’s victory at the World Cup and towards the Germans in general. But the British media coverage clearly points to an unmistakable strain of popular envy and resentment, which it is not difficult to understand. In Britain – unlike the Federal Republic – food rationing imposed in wartime had still not been lifted entirely by the summer of 1954. Ironically, restrictions on the sale of meat, including bacon, were finally abolished in Britain on the same day, July 4th, as the West Germans were savouring their victory in Berne. While the British economy was still in the doldrums, West Germany’s industrial output was to grow by 11 per cent that year and its exports by a massive 20 per cent. The popular British sentiment could be summed up as: ‘We won the war and we prevented the Germans starving at the end of it and yet they are now better off than us.’ That the Germans were then declared world champions at a game the British had invented, achieving something that none of the home nations had even come close to emulating, was guaranteed to resurrect anti-German feeling.   

Italian and Danish newspapers were just as quick to raise the alarm about West Germany’s success on the football pitch and the concomitant indiscretions by some of the team’s fans and officials. The Danish journal Information noted that ‘all that was lacking at the final whistle was the Sieg Heil!’ But nowhere was the reaction more extravagant and furious than in France, encapsulated by the reporting of Le Monde. The paper seems to have been on a mission to misrepresent the West German team from the outset. Two weeks before the final, when Hungary had thrashed the West Germans in a group-stage match, the paper likened a bad German tackle on the Hungarian talisman, Puskás, as ‘the return of the goosestep’. After the final itself, Le Monde’s star columnist, Pierre Fabert, reached even greater heights of hysteria.

In an article, headlined ‘Achtung’, which must have had the propagandists in East Berlin purring with satisfaction, Fabert, who had been present at the final, wrote of his nightmare journey back to Paris with the strains of ‘Deutschland über alles’ ringing in his ears. He continued: 

The memory of those thousands of German fanatics who went to support their team is lasting … Sport? Certainly, but not only sport. Fanaticism, revenge, ‘über alles’, Herberger, Weimar, Adenauer, the European Defence Community, that’s how it all begins again! 

Le Monde was making a clear link between what had happened in Berne and in the Munich beer cellar (i.e., fanaticism and ultra-nationalism) and the re-armament policies of the Federal Republic’s founding chancellor, which Fabert warned could end up in ‘the new Wehrmacht, new German militarism’.  

Fabert’s article, albeit alarmist, had a direct relevance to the intense debate that had been taking place for months in France about whether to support West German participation in the proposed European Defence Community (EDC), a pan-European defence force. The French had themselves proposed the EDC as far back as 1950, in response to US calls for German re-armament and as an alternative to West German membership of the newly formed NATO alliance. The advantage for the French of the EDC, whose other members would be Italy and the Benelux countries, was that it would enable West German military potential to be harnessed in case of conflict with the Soviet bloc but also ensure that the German military was accountable to the new organisation and not controlled by the FRG.  

West Germany’s victory in the World Cup came just weeks before the French parliament was due to ratify the treaty setting up the EDC. Its passage, supported by the prime minister Pierre Mendes-France, was already uncertain due to opposition from the French Communists, anxious not to antagonise Moscow, and Gaullists, who feared a dilution of French sovereignty. Le Monde’s direct linking of the nationalistic excesses that accompanied the German victory in Berne with the proposed EDC played on public and political fears in France that the Germans would use the new defence force to re-establish themselves as a military power in Europe and as a first step towards a new attempt at domination of the Continent.

In the event, when the vote was held on August 30th, 1954, the French parliament failed to ratify the plan and the proposed European Defence Community collapsed. While it would be going too far to suggest that the furore over West Germany’s World Cup triumph was a significant factor in its defeat, the controversy certainly reinforced the deep-seated French public fear and distrust of the Germans that informed the debate. Ironically, the failure of the EDC paved the way for negotiations on West Germany’s accession to NATO, which duly bore fruit nine months later at the same time as the allied occupation regime ended. 

For the East German government and media the totally unanticipated West German victory at the World Cup was unwelcome and viewed as potentially destabilising. It had been only a year since the crushing of the East German workers’ revolt, which had been officially deemed an attempt at counter-revolution guided by hands, albeit invisible, from the West. The East German propaganda machine was already having great difficulties explaining away the dramatic rise in economic prosperity in West Germany and the corresponding stagnation in its own territory. With both countries presenting themselves as the legitimate successors of the German nation state, the last thing the East German authorities wanted was the huge success of a West German football team that insisted on calling itself ‘Germany’. 

The final had proved particularly awkward for the East German media, which was unable to show strong support for the ‘socialist brothers’ from Hungary because of the popularity of many of the West German players among the East German public. Men like the captain Fritz Walter and centre forward Max Morlock were as much sporting heroes in eastern as in western Germany. But such was the conviction in East Berlin that the Hungarians would win that the Communists failed to give detailed instructions to their journalists about what to do in the event of the unthinkable West German victory. As a result, when Helmut Rahn scored the winning goal near the end of the game, the East German radio commentator, Wolfgang Hempel, felt it wisest to stay silent for the best part of a minute. Bereft of instructions at the end of the match, East German television hastily put on a record of a ‘Peoples’ Democratic Melody’ to drown out the West German national anthem.  In doing so it also drowned out those drunken German fans singing the outlawed first verse.    

As soon as the match was over, Germans living in the East also took to the streets in their thousands to celebrate the ‘German victory’. They danced and some of them sang ‘Deutschland über alles’, just like their counterparts in the West. The Communist authorities were sensible enough to let this go, in the knowledge that any attempt to repress such demonstrations could get them into difficulties. The following day the East German newspapers demonstrated an excruciatingly forced politeness about the performances of the West German players but explained to their readers that the result had only been possible because of the injury problems and cruel luck suffered by the Mighty Magyars.

If the tone of the East German media was restrained and circumspect in the immediate aftermath of the final, this changed with a vengeance once the reports emerged about the rowdy West German fans and Bauwens’ Munich beer-hall speech. The Communist party’s paper for young people, Junge Welt, set the tone. Under a headline ‘Goebbels School at work’, the paper said Bauwens had ‘let the cat out of the bag and proved himself a worthy successor to the Nazi sports chief von Tschammer und Osten’. Junge Welt went on: ‘When fascists start singing “Deutschland über alles” and the Horst Wessel song, that has nothing to do with sport but to do with death.’ Another East Berlin paper, Vorwärts, denounced the West Germans who had sung the first verse of the national anthem and sneeringly informed them: 

You are probably too blinkered and arrogant to see that this football game will neither bring down a world ideology [i.e. Communism] nor will it improve the situation of West German imperialism.

Neues Deutschland, the main organ of the Communist Party, launched into savage and sustained invective and, like Le Monde, made a direct link with the debate about the moves to integrate West Germany within a western military alliance. Chancellor Adenauer, the paper said, was already exploiting the football victory for ‘his dirty American objectives’. Even before the final, said Neues Deutschland, Adenauer was threatening the French nation with his ‘fascistic cheek’; he was now using the football victory ‘to create a new militaristic mood’. The paper went on to urge its readers not to forget how what it called ‘Adenauer’s predecessors’ had tried to make similar use of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Such a policy had led to war and death, even for footballers. ‘Fritz Walter,’ the Communist daily intoned:

 once wore a Wehrmacht uniform … he could say that luckily for him the war ended with Soviet imprisonment … other players were not so lucky and were killed ….Why do we need to remember them now? Because the policies of Adenauer are clearly steering the same course.

If anything the extraordinary and disproportionate response to West Germany’s victory at the World Cup was surpassed by the reaction in Hungary to its team’s shock defeat. The Hungarian public had been encouraged to believe that Puskás and his team were invincible, so it followed that their defeat could only be explained by the fact that they either had not tried or had been bribed to lose. According to one story doing the rounds in Budapest, the Germans had offered each of the Hungarian players a Mercedes car to forfeit the match. 

Rioting soon broke out in the Hungarian capital, during which the windows of the apartment of team coach, Gusztav Sebes, were smashed and chants of ‘Death to Sebes’ were heard. The players were virtually smuggled back into the country under armed escort. More disturbing for the authorities, public anger was soon directed at the state – no surprise given the way that the Communist Party had feted the team as a triumph of ‘socialist sport’. The offices of the state-run football lottery were attacked and angry fans tried to storm Radio Hungary, whose chief football commentator, Gyorgy Szepesi, was accused of having had some unseemly role in the defeat. Demonstrations, which also blurred the distinction between the team and the regime, took place in other Hungarian cities and towns. Some historians have even seen in the disturbances a forerunner of the unrest which would lead to the Hungarian uprising against Soviet-imposed rule two years later. 

The 1954 World Cup marked the emergence of the Germans (initially West Germans) as a global force in the game and the end of Hungary’s supremacy. Its aftermath provides a fascinating insight into both the lingering hostility towards Germans and fear of a resurgent Germany in the rest of Europe and the extent to which relations between capitalist West and Communist East Germany were rent by the ideological tensions of the Cold War.

Paul Legg is a former BBC World Service Europe Editor who researched the role of sport in postwar Germany during a sabbatical year at the Free University in Berlin. He is currently a history tutor in adult education.

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