If the form guide holds true, then Bayern Munich will be crowned as European champion Saturday, a title that would inevitably see the giant German club unanimously recognized as the current best in the world.
Yet while victory over Borussia Dortmund at Wembley Stadium would cap a spectacular season, nothing it achieves in the Champions League final can overshadow Bayern’s greatest and most important triumph, one that took place more than seven decades ago.
That triumph was survival itself, attained against all odds and in the face of the most terrifying of opponents – Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party.
During the years leading up to the second World War, Bayern had developed a strong tradition of having senior administrators, sponsors, fans and coaches … who were Jewish. That status put the club and its leaders directly in the crosshairs of the Nazis, who were determined to stamp out any sign of Jewish success or positivity.
As the tentacles of Hitler’s racist and anti-Semitic doctrine spread and the seeds of hatred that would ultimately result in the Holocaust grew, Bayern, having won its first German title in 1932, became a readily available and high-profile target.
“There was no desire from those in power to see what was known as the Judenklub [Jewish club] be successful,” said historian Dietrich Schulze-Marmeling, author of the 2011 award-winning book "FC Bayern and Its Jews." “The club was isolated amid all this anti-Semitism that was taking over the country.”
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The Nazis certainly tried their best to erase Bayern from its position of prominence within the game and from German soccer history. The party ordered Bayern to be demoted to a lower division despite its success, and Jewish members and supporters were forced to leave the club.
Club chief Kurt Landauer, the energetic Jewish businessman whose vision had been crucial to its growth, continued to run operations behind the scenes despite being stripped of his official duties before being arrested in 1938 and taken to the fearsome concentration camp at Dachau. More than 30,000 prisoners died at Dachau, either by execution or by being worked to death, but Landauer managed to escape and flee to neutral Switzerland, where he would see out the war before later returning to his post as club president.
Banners proclaiming him as the “father” of Bayern are often seen at the club’s matches and may again be on display at Wembley on Saturday as Bayern seeks its first European crown since 2001.
Club members Albert Beer and Berthold Koppel were not as fortunate as Landauer. They were deported and killed, according to Schulze-Marmeling’s book.
Bayern continued to operate and continued to defy the Nazis. In 1934, several of the team’s players were involved in a fight with Nazi “Brownshirt” enforcers following a dispute.
A Bayern player, Willy Simetsreiter, deliberately antagonized the Nazis by asking to have his photograph taken with Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics, according to the Guardian.
When the war was fully underway in 1939, a Nazi decree ordered that all spare metal be handed over and used as a resource – including any sporting trophies. Several teams obliged, but Bayern refused. Magdalena Heidkamp, wife of club captain Konrad, took the trophies and buried them at a nearby farm.
As a further insult to the Nazis, Bayern players symbolically waved to Landauer as they lined up for an exhibition game in Switzerland in 1943.Yet even after the Allies moved in to Germany and the Nazi regime crumbled, the brave resistance of Bayern and its members went unrecognized, seemingly destined to be lost in time.
The German people wanted to try to forget their horrific memories, and even until recent times it was thought best not to embrace this period of history.
A shift in policy has emerged over the last few years, thanks to the more enlightened approach of Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, a former two-time European footballer of the year and a Bayern star of the 1970s and '80s.
“We should be proud of our history, and all its aspects,” Rummenigge said recently.
Having grown slowly and steadily as Germany rebuilt after the war, Bayern is now a global soccer power, the biggest force in the German Bundesliga, which may currently be the strongest league in the world.
While it was once thought by Bayern chiefs that focusing on the struggles of yesteryear was not conducive to a vibrant modern image, Rummenigge bucked the trend and there is now a section in the club museum dedicated to its Jewish history.
Bayern is an overwhelming favorite on Saturday, primarily thanks to its ferocious 7-0 destruction of Barcelona in the semifinal. It ran away with the German title this season by a massive 25 points and has the painful memories of losing last year’s final to Chelsea – in its own stadium, no less – to spur it on.
Yet Dortmund, relishing the role of underdog, has been swift to point out that nothing can be taken for granted in soccer. For Bayern, with its tortured but ultimately triumphant past, there should be no need for such a reminder.
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