February 25, 2020

The Incredible Story of a Munich Soccer Team During the Holocaust Offers a Lesson

FC Bayern Munich - Michaela Rehle / Reuters

FC Bayern Munich soccer club is in Los Angeles to play London club Arsenal on July 17. As an avid Arsenal fan, I am delighted my team is in town! But meeting the members of the Bayern Munich leadership team who are committed to defeating anti-Semitism made my week. 

Bayern Munich is to German soccer what the New York Yankees are to Major League Baseball. With 29 titles under its belt, it is the most successful team in German history and among the top soccer clubs in the world. The team’s greatest legacy isn’t its many championship trophies but the principled stand it took for its Jewish membership during the Nazi period in Hitler’s heartland. 

Known as the “Jews Club” because some of its founders, its president, its coach and a disproportionate number of its members were Jewish, the team’s history is being featured in an exhibition that opened this week at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. It spotlights the enormous pressure the team was under to shed its association with its Jewish members. 

Consider the story of Otto Albert Beer, who served the youth club. Seven of his young recruits were on the team that beat Frankfurt for the German championship in June 1932. 

The Nazi Party was voted into power the very next month. A year later, Beer’s company was confiscated. He tried to flee Germany but nobody would take him — not New Zealand, not Kenya, not Rhodesia. The Nazis sent him to Lithuania, where he, his wife and two sons — one of them a former championship player for the team — were murdered. 

Twenty-six Jewish members of the club were murdered. Four committed suicide. 

And yet, through the horrors, in 1934, FC Bayern defiantly published the names of its Jewish advisory council members and refused to grant a leading role to any National Socialists.

In 1940, the club’s former president, Kurt Landauer, who had fled to Switzerland after a brief stint in Dachau, attended an FC Bayern game. The players all greeted him, infuriating the Nazi regime. Landauer returned to his beloved team in Germany after World War II. He did not have to go back; he chose to do so.

The incredible story of FC Bayern raises an obvious question: When should an athletic team or company make a stand? Is Nike correct to endorse Colin Kaepernick? Were the Chicago Cubs correct to ban a fan for flashing what may have been a white supremacist hand gesture on camera? Only history will tell.

“Bayern Munich and its fans do not have to put themselves on the front line of the fight against anti-Semitism, but they are choosing to do so.”

This week, we have seen heated debate about what it means to be a citizen of the United States. It’s worth remembering that Jews running Bayern Munich were German citizens, until the Third Reich’s citizenship law was enacted in 1935. Place yourself in the shoes of the Beer family, the Landauer family, who had contributed much to German society, won national trophies and were rightful citizens. Did they not have the right to live in peace as Jews, as citizens, as people, irrespective of their religious and political beliefs? German society failed on that, for which they still pay heavily to this day. We would do well to learn that lesson from this story. 

Anti-semitism is on the rise in Europe. “It was the fans that brought attention to our history,” said Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, soccer legend and executive board chairman of Bayern Munich, who was at the opening of the exhibition. He urged that the story of Landauer and the Jews of Bayern Munich serve both a warning and a lesson from the past. 

Vergangenheit warnt, Gegenwart erinnert, Zukunft gibt Hoffnung,” he said in German. “History warns us, the present reminds us, and the future gives us hope.”

Like Landauer, Rummenigge, his board, team and fans do not have to put themselves on the front line of the fight against anti-Semitism, but they are choosing to do so. 

California State Sen. Henry Stern observed that Bayern Munich was using its vast global platform to shift the conversation and shed light in darkness. So, as much I love Arsenal, for once I really don’t care whether Arsenal or Bayern Munich wins the preseason game. What would be a real win is the story of this great sporting club inspiring more of us to stand together in solidarity. 

Stephen D. Smith is the Finci-Viterbi executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.