Is there a Jewish style of football?
Once upon a time this question would have been answered definitively. Yes. In the early 1900s, Hakoah Vienna or Hakoah Wien were a dominant force in Austrian football who were staunchly proud of their Jewish roots. From 1909 to 1938, Wien rose up the ranks in Austrian football before being shut down by the Nazi Regime. It’s a story few know, but one worth examining.
In 1909, two successful entrepreneurs, Fritz Löhner-Beda and Ignaz Herman Körner came together to establish an athletic club solely for Austrian Jews. Both men were fiercly proud of their Jewish heritage and wished to give back to their community. Beda and Körner had been inspired by Max Nordau, the famed Zionist speaker who amongst other rallying calls, had challenged the Jewish people to embrace a life of health and fitness. Nordau’s concern with health seems to have been motivated by the negative connotations many people held about the physical prowess of Jewish men and also a belief in an ideology similar to the Muscular Christianity movement that had emerged in Victorian England in the previous century. Nordau wanted a strong race for a strong religion and hence Muscular Judaism was born.
Nordau: One of the main proponents of Muscular Judaism
This idea of Muscular Judaism proved very attractive for Fritz and and in 1909 Hakoah Wien, an athletics club created to realise the aims of Muscular Judaism was established. The name itself echoed Nordau’s ideology. Hakoah can be translated as strength in Hebrew. Under the Hakoah Wien banner, several activities were held, ranging from running to fencing. Soon however it became clear that soccer was the major practice.
Hakoah’s birth couldn’t have come at a better time. In the early 1900s, a Jewish revival was taking place in Austria in part thanks to swathes of Jewish immigrants coming in from Eastern Europe. By the mid 1920s, around 10% of the total population of Vienna was Jewish. The numbers interested in Hakoah Wien quickly increased. Franz Kafka reportedly began to support Hakoah in this period. Other clubs began to emerge inspired by the idea of Muscular Judaism and at the top of the pile stood Hakoah Wien.
Hakoah had quickly gained a solid reputation in Austrian sport, in part thanks to the success of the Hakoah football team. In a little over a decade, Hakoah rose from the bottom of the Austrian Professional Leagues to its Premier Division. After four years in the top flight, Hakoah managed to claim her first ever title during the 1924/25 season in a rather dramatic fashion.
Going into her final game of the season knowing that a victory would secure them the title, hopes were high in the Hakoah dressing room. What ensued during the match became the stuff of legend for Hakoah supporters. Deep into the second half with the game tied at 0-0, Alexander Fabian, the Hakoah goalkeeper was bundled over by the opposition. The clash resulted in Fabian breaking his arm. Rather than leave the field of play, Fabian had the injured arm put in a sling and moved outfield to continue the match. Within seven minutes of breaking his arm Fabian had scored the winning goal for Hakoah to secure them their first top flight title. The victory was held as proof that Nordau’s Muscular Judaism philosophy could be put to great use.
Hakoah in Action
Unsurprisingly success on the field soon saw Hakoah’s ranks swell with Jewish footballers. 1925/26 saw Hakoah retain her title and soon Hakoah could boast that she had the finest Jewish footballers of the decade. Men such as Max Gold, Max Grünwald and József Eisenhoffer all lined out for Hakoah in the 1920s. Success domestically in the 1920s was matched by victories against foreign teams. Without a regulated international club competition, Hakoah began to travel to far flung regions in Europe and the United States in Challenge Matches against foreign opponents. Such trips provided Hakoah with much needed funding and helped to spread the message of Muscular Judaism.
1923 saw Hakoah become the first foreign team to beat an English side at home when they defeated West Ham 5-1 in London. The following year saw Hakoah notch another impressive victory abroad. This time over Slavia Prague, a team who had been undefeated at home for over a decade. Such victories helped spread the Hakoah message and generally became an exercise in public relations. The most successful of all these campaigns came in 1926 when the Austrian side travelled to the United States for a series of exhibition games.
Across ten matches, Hakoah managed to attract over 224,000 fans. Their final game of the tour saw 46,000 spectators cram into the New York’s Polo Grounds to watch the team play. This record stood for nearly half a century and was only broken when the legendary Pelé was signed by the New York Cosmos in the 1970s. There are many interpretations for why Hakoah attracted so many spectators. Some believe they were a novelty. A foreign side packed with Jewish athletes. Others believed it was their reputation for playing attractive football, which brought the crowds out. The latter intrepretation finds credence from a New York Times Match report which noted
“The manner in which the Hakoah players used their heads to bounce the ball to each other made it plain that soccer is no game for a bald man or one wearing a derby hat.”
Out of ten matches, Hakoah won six, drew two and lost two. By all accounts, it was a success and many Hakoah players began to be poached by American football teams. The legendary Béla Guttmann and Sándor Nemes being two such examples. Interestingly many credit such players with helping to rejuvenate the American soccer scene. In the United States, Hakoah had been treated with respect and admiration. Muscular Judaism had been treated with respect. This was in stark contrast to the situation in Europe.
Hakoah’s rise in the 1920s and 1930s coincided with the intensification of anti-Semiticism in Europe. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a team that advocated ideas such as Muscular Judaism were treated poorly. Such was the animosity that Hakoah players faced away from Vienna, that local wreslters had to be employed as bodyguards to protect the players, coaches and staff. The anti-semitic speeches of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party soon began to travel across the border from Germany into Austria. Despite home support, Hakoah became a target. Matters worsened in 1938 when Germany annexed Austria.
Upon taking control of Austria, the Nazi Regime began to target all things Jewish. As the touch bearer for Muscular Judaism, Hakoah were victimised almost instantly. 1938 saw the club suspended from all professional football. Soon after the club was shut down altoheter with the club’s assets being taken over by the Nazis. The fate of the club became swept up in the horrors of the Second World War. Players like Max Scheuer, Oskar Grasgrün and Ali Schönfeld all fell foul of the Nazi Regime had were executed in the early 1940s. Fritz Löhner-Beda, one of the co-founders of Hakoah, was beaten to death by a camp guard in Auschwitz in 1942.
By the time World War Two ended, Hakoah was only a faint memory. Efforts were made in the late 1940s to revive the club but by 1949 Hakoah had closed its doors for the foreseeable future. It took until 2000 for Hakoah to re-emerge when a group of Jewish activits successfully bought the lease for the grounds from the Austrian government. Just one day shy of the 70th anniversary of the Nazi annexation of Austria, Maccabi Wien was formed as a successor for Hakoah Wien. Maccabi still wear the traditional colours of Hakoah Wien and their jerseys contain the Star of David. It’s a fitting tribute to a club that did so much for the Jewish cause.
Hakoah’s story is one riddled both with success and sadness. Their impact in challenging European anti-semitism was impressive. Following a tour of Germany in the 1920s, one German periodical remarked
“Hakoah had helped to do away with the fairy tale about the physical inferiority of Jews.”
Sadly less than a decade later, the Hakoah experiment with Muscular Judaism ended in the horrors of the Final Solution.
Further Reading List
Bowman, William D., ‘Hakoah Vienna and the International Nature of Interwar Austrian Sports,’ Central European History, 44 (2011), pp. 642-668.
Brenner, M., & Reuveni, G. (Eds.), Emancipation through muscles: Jews and sports in Europe (Nebraska, 2006).
Bunzl, Matti, ‘Resistive Play Sports and the Emergence of Jewish Visibility in Contemporary Vienna,’ Journal of Sport & Social Issues 24, (2000), pp. 232-250.