Austria and Germany will play each other on June 16 in a Euro 2008 group stage match in Vienna, seventy years after Nazi Germany occupied its smaller neighbor, putting an end to its soccer greatness.
The Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s had been legendary, scoring success after success. But after the 1938 Anschluss which turned Austria into a mere province of the Reich, players from both sides found themselves drafted into a unified team.
The Austrians would still manage to defeat their northern neighbors 2-0 on April 3, 1938, in what was tipped by Nazi propaganda as a “reconciliation match” between the two sides.
The victory, led by captain Matthias Sindelar, came three weeks after Hitler’s troops entered his homeland on March 12, and a week before Austrians voted overwhelmingly in an April 10 referendum to become part of the Reich.
Unifying the German and Austrian teams, which respectively finished 3rd and 4th in the 1934 World Cup, could have been an inspired move. But the World Cup in France in June 1938 proved a fiasco for the Nazi leaders, who had shown their willingness to use sports for propaganda purposes during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
With little time to prepare, German coach Sepp Herberger was unable to integrate the Austrians’ so-called Scheiberlspiel, consisting of short passes and dribbling, into the Germans’ game.
“And there wasn’t really any team spirit due to national rivalries,” adds Matthias Marschik, an expert on Austrian soccer during the Nazi period.
The joint German-Austrian team lost to Switzerland in the first round.
The Anschluss also spelt the end of the Austrian soccer league. Local teams were drafted into German tournaments where they scored several successes: Rapid Vienna and FC Vienna won the German Cup respectively in 1938 and 1943, while Rapid also took the German Championship in 1941.
Jews however were slowly shut out under the Nazis’ racial policies. Starting in June 1938, they were no longer allowed into stadia, whether as players or as spectators. Vienna’s Jewish soccer club Hakoah, which had won the Austrian championship in 1925, was dispossessed.
The Austrian soccer federation, which had been dissolved in 1941, reformed and the championship resumed in 1946. But not all clubs were able to pick up where they had left off: 65,000 Austrian Jews had been murdered since 1938, 130,000 were exiled and Hakoah’s soccer club was unable to survive.
Now Hakoah has a new sports center in the exact location where its former stadium stood before it was “aryanised” by the Nazis. It was inaugurated in March, a symbolic tribute 70 years after Germany’s annexation of Austria.