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The Slow Spread Of Football In Germany

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


Football only emerged as a major sport in Germany in the aftermath of World War I because a traditional form of gymnastics was the favoured pursuit at the turn of the 20th century. Ben Lyttleton explains why that changed after the war.
Germany had all the right social conditions for a powerful football culture at the start of the 20th century - these included connections between Britain and its own middle-class elites, extensive football-playing British expatriate communities, large cities and a big industrial working-class. But on the eve of the First World War in 1914, football was far from the nation's favourite pursuit. In contrast, Germany's neighbours, Denmark, Sweden and Holland had already taken to the game with great enthusiasm and organisational effort. The German FA was formed in 1900 - much later than those of their neighbours - and a national championship only began in 1902.
Football faced a sporting competitor in Germany. From the early 19th century, German sport had been dominated by the gymnastic tradition known as Turnen, which had become a central expression of German nationalism, preparing the nation's body and soul for its industrial and military destiny. Football's anarchic flow and British origins made it an ideologically dangerous challenge, which is why football was kept out of many schools and the army after until World War I.
One critic of football was Otto Heinrich Jaeger, who wrote an anti-football pamphlet in 1898 entitled 'The English disease' in which he compared kicking a ball to "the kicking of a vicious cur", the posture of a player as "pitiful" and the action of the game as "disgusting". Attacks on football also came from the political left, from where the powerful German Social Democrats disapproved: the ill-discipline and worryingly commercial potential of the game did not sit well with the socialist culture the party was attempting to create. Above all, football was seen as a diversion from the serious business of revolution.
Nonetheless, football continued to win players and spectators amongst the lower middle classes and the remaining Anglophile elites. In an attempt to win over its critics, the German FA tried to emphasise the militaristic and patriotic potential of football, describing the game thus: "Two parties of usually eleven fighters are in a state of war. The main task is to move a large leather ball into enemy territory… the majority of the army will follow behind."
However it was the temporary defeat and cultural weakness of German militarism and ultra-nationalism in the cataclysm of the First World War that opened the way for football's growth. In the more experimental and hedonistic cultures of the newly-formed Weimar Republic, the regimentation of Turnen seemed antiquated. As workers finally acquired weekend holidays, a post-war German football boom began.



Ben Lyttleton, May 2004

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