Spartacus Blog

Bert Trautmann, a committed Nazi who became a British hero

Wednesday, 13th January, 2016

John Simkin

Frank Swift, who played in goal for England and Manchester City, retired from the game at the end of the 1948-49 season. The manager of the club, Jock Thomson, decided to sign Bert Trautmann, who had been playing for St Helens Town, to replace Swift. (1)

This was a controversial decision as Trautmann had only recently been released from the prisoner-of-war camp in Ashton-in-Makerfield. He had been a paratrooper in the German Army before he was captured by allied troops in May 1944. Trautmann, like other German prisoners were sent to Britain.

The Geneva Convention stated that prisoners of war should be repatriated once hostilities ceased. Clement Attlee, prime minister of the post-war Labour Party government rejected this idea. He insisted that German POWs should stay and repair the damage that the Luftwaffe had caused. Attlee also thought that as these soldiers had been brainwashed in Nazi Germany they would need a period of re-education. Trautmann later complained that these were often long and boring subjects such as the "Constitution of the British Empire". (2)

By early 1946 there were over 400,000 German POWs in Britain. "There was hardly a town or village which didn't have a POW camp nearby, and the British civilians got used to seeing them marching out of the camp, two by two, in their brown uniforms with the yellow diamond patches, to work on building sites, clearing bomb damage or mending roads and railway tracks, or, more often, sitting in the back of a lorry, off to one of the local farms." (3)

Manchester had a large Jewish community and they began a campaign to stop him playing for the club. In October 1949, 25,000 fans demonstrated outside the Maine Road Stadium, shouting and waving placards emblazoned with swastikas, "Nazi" and "War Criminal" threatening to boycott the club unless they got rid of the German.

The journalist, Ivan Ponting, has pointed out: "The big, muscular German was embroiled in harrowing controversy. A large and vociferous faction of Manchester’s extensive Jewish community objected vigorously to the employment of a former paratrooper so soon after the war. Others joined what became an hysterical campaign, with Trautmann subjected to a flood of hate mail and more reasoned, if equally heated, letters appearing in the press. Some ex-servicemen threatened to boycott City if the new goalkeeper remained." (4)

Bert Trautmann
Bernhard Trautmann, aged seventeen (1941)

One fan wrote to the local newspaper: "When I think of all those millions of Jews who were tortured and murdered, I can only marvel at Manchester City's crass stupidity". Another wrote, "I have been a City supporter for forty-five years but if this German plays, I will ask members of the British Legion and the Jewish ex-Servicemen's Club to boycott the City Club." The newspapers also published several letters from supporters who had fought against Nazi Germany in the Second World War and complained that the signing was an insult to their comrades who had been killed in the conflict.

The Manchester Evening News published a series of letters on the signing of Trautmann. One wrote: As a disabled serviceman from the last war I am writing with bitterness in my heart. To think that after all we in this country went through and still are going through due to the war, Manchester City sign a German. I have followed City up and down the country and will cease to follow my club if they sign this man."

However, others supported the decision: "Racial antagonism ought not to be perpetuated like this. Sport should be one of the means of reconciliation not of wider division - the protests of some ignore the reality of what active service experience the two world wars proclaimed - that between front-line soldiers there is no real personal hatred. The German soldier and the British tommy were only obeying orders. Moreover what have racialism and past national antagonisms to do with this game of football - one would think that the player was the Belsen Camp commandant - when born a German he had to do his duty as a German." (5)

Trautmann was also helped by the fact that Manchester City's captain, Eric Westwood, had taken part in the D-Day landings and had been mentioned in dispatches. He was considered to be a war hero and it was claimed that when he was introduced to Trautmann he had said: "There's no war in this dressing-room, we welcome you as any other member of the staff. Just make yourself at home, and good luck." (6)

Bert Trautmann made his debut in the First Division against Bolton Wanderers on 19th November, 1949. The catcalls started as soon as Bert Trautmann emerged from the tunnel. Chants by the Bolton supporters such as "Nazi" and "Heil Hitler" continued right through the game. Bolton won the game 3-0 and Trautmann was considered to be at fault for the first goal.

Before his first home game, Alexander Altmann, the communal rabbi of Manchester, urged the fans to treat Trautmann with respect: "Each member of the Jewish Community is entitled to his own opinion, but there is no concerted action inside the community in favour of this proposal (to force him out of the club). Despite the terrible cruelties we suffered at the hands of the Germans, we would not try to punish an individual German, who is unconnected with these crimes, out of hatred. If this footballer is a decent fellow, I would say there is no harm in it. Each case must be judged on its own merits." (7)

According to Bert Trautmann this was an important intervention: "Thanks to Altmann, after a month it was all forgotten... Later, I went into the Jewish community and tried to explain things. I tried to give them an understanding of the situation for people in Germany in the 1930s and their bad circumstances. I asked if they had been in the same position, under a dictatorship, how they would have reacted? By talking like that, people began to understand." (8)

The expected large-scale boycott of his first home game against Birmingham City did not take place. "In the event, the threatened action by the supporters was limited, but a few supporters did stay away, a small group made a protest outside the stadium, while some season tickets were returned. The City supporters in general were concerned for their team and now this new player was a crucial element of that team, their fanatical allegiance and loyalty transcended any prejudice."Trautmann was also helped by the 4-0 victory. (9)

Over the next few years Bert Trautmann became a hero at the club. In 1956 the Football Writers' Association voted Trautmann the Footballer of the Year. He was the first goalkeeper and the first foreigner to be given this award. At the age of 32 he had received England's greatest accolade." On 3rd May 1956, Bert Trautmann collected the award at the Criterion Restaurant. (10)

The 1956 Cup Final took place two days later. Manchester City took an early lead. As Frank Swift reported in the News of the World. "Only three minutes had ticked by when Revie, in his old deep centre forward role... He laid the foundations... when he swept out a lovely pass to left winger Roy Clarke, raced in to collect the return and cutely backheeled a gilt edged chance for Joe Hayes. And Joey put the ball in the proper place - Birmingham's net!" (11)

Noel Kinsey scored for Birmingham City but in the second-half Jack Dyson and Bobby Johnstone put Manchester City 3-1 in front. As Brian Glanville pointed out: "City were comfortably in command when, with around a quarter of an hour left, Peter Murphy chased a Birmingham pass into the penalty box. Trautmann rushed out, recklessly brave as ever, and dived head first for the ball. Murphy found his knee connecting with Trautmann's neck. After treatment on the field, Trautmann was not accompanied off it: substitutes were not allowed, so City would have had to continue with 10 men. Astoundingly, Trautmann somehow managed to play on in great pain; only afterwards, when he was X-rayed, was it discovered that his neck had been broken." (12)

Bert Trautmann
Bert Trautmann diving at the feet of Peter Murphy and sustaining a broken neck (5th May, 1956)

The trainer, Laurie Barnett, rushed onto the pitch, and asked Trautmann if he could carry on. He added that there was "only fourteen minutes left". Trautmann said later: "That was the last thing I remember." (13) Journalist Eric Thornton, wrote in the Manchester Evening News: "I will never forget helping trainer Barnett with a dressing room massage to ease the pain in Trautmann's neck at the end of the Wembley triumph. He put both his great hands on my shoulders, and said, The pain stabs right through me. Came a second's pause. Then he added, But it's worth it. I don't care if the pain's like a red-hot poker. I know I got the Cup medal in my wallet." (14)

Trautmann was taken to hospital and it was discovered that he had a broken neck. His second vertebra was broken in two and lodged against a third, which held the fragments in place and so saved his life. (15) The examining doctor told Trautmann that just one jolt of the bus back from Wembley could have killed him. (16) "They drilled holes in my head and put calipers in, like U-shaped hooks. I had to lie on a bed of boards, no mattress, no nothing, just a sheet and a blanket... They put me in plaster from my head to my waist, only keeping my arms free, and the calipers were still in, so I looked like something from outer space... I was completely immobilised... The doctors warned me I'd never play top football again." (17)

Bert Trautmann later admitted that he would never have had the chance to become a national hero if those journalists in 1949 had really investigated his past. In the press he was condemned for being a member of the German Army. Alexander Altmann, the communal rabbi of Manchester, had successfully persuaded the Jewish community to accept Trautmann: "Despite the terrible cruelties we suffered at the hands of the Germans, we would not try to punish an individual German, who is unconnected with these crimes, out of hatred." (18)

The truth is that Trautmann had participated in these crimes. He had joined the junior branch of the Hitler Youth on his tenth birthday. (19) "Bert Trautmann couldn't wait to join the Hitler Youth. His mother, better educated than his father, had her misgivings. Her bright boy, her special one, hardly bothered with school books these days. But begged by Bert and bombarded with Nazi propaganda, his parents scraped together the money it took to buy the uniform: short black trousers, khaki shirt, black necktie and leather toggle, plus a badge bearing the Hitler Youth insignia, a flash of lightning on a black background. Bert wore it with intense pride as he stood erect giving the Nazi salute before the swastika banner, hair shorn short back and sides." (20)

Trautmann later admitted that he was completely taken in by this Nazi ideology and was a committed supporter of Adolf Hitler. As he explained to Catrine Clay, the author of Trautmann's Journey: From Hitler Youth to FA Cup Legend (2010), that many times he came out of his flat to find the street covered in blood as a result of the beatings that socialists and trade unionists had received at the hands of the Sturmabteilung (SA): "What could he do? What, for that matter, could he do about the Jewish children, who disappeared from his school following the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which barred all Jews from state schools... The answer in Bert's case, as with most other people in the Reich, was nothing; just get on with his life, which for Bert meant sport." (21)

Trautmann remembers watching The Eternal Jew in Bremen. "He thought it would be one of those short propaganda films you had to endure for a while before the main feature, but this one went on and on. Apparently the Jews had spread like rats through Europe, and then the entire world; now they were responsible for most of international crime and 98 per cent of prostitution. At the same time they bagged all the best jobs and earned all the money. Really, thought Bernhard, they deserved what was coming to them. He knew that one of his father's drinking companions had got into serious debt because of a Jew. The poor fellow had lost his job at the ammunitions factory for some reason, and he had four children to feed. Herr Trautmann was always buying him beers. On the other hand Bernhard had also seen a couple of incidents in shop queues, where Jews were dragged out and beaten up, which wasn't pleasant. But if you made a fat profit out of other people's bad luck, you were bound to be resented, weren't you?" (22)

While serving in the Soviet Union he participated in the killing of captured soldiers. According to Alan Rowlands, the author of Trautmann: The Biography (2011), Trautmann did not have too much problem killing Russians: "The mixture of fear, self-preservation and fatigue whittled down normal sensibilities to a detached pragmatism." (23) While fighting in Ukraine, he watched the massacre of Jews by SS officers in a forest. "After being herded into trenches, they were systematically shot". (24)

There is no way that journalists would have been able to discover this information in 1949. This information only emerged from interviews he gave to biographers when he was in his eighties. However, they could have discovered about what happened when he arrived in England. Members of the German armed forces were interrogated before being classified into three categories: White for anti-Nazis, Grey for unsure and Black for convinced Nazis. Around 10 per cent, including Trautmann, were judged to be a convinced Nazi.

Trautmann worked as a driver for Jewish officers on the camp. "They wanted to know what you thought about Nazis and the Jewish community," says Trautmann, who admits that "deep down" he then still viewed "Jews as moneylenders and profiteers". (25) In March 1946, Trautmann had to drive one of these Jewish officers to a POW camp. The man had been a university professor and according to Trautmann it was his superior manner that triggered feelings of inferiority about his own inadequate schooling. They had an argument and the officer called him a "German pig". Trautmann hit the officer and drove off leaving him lying by the side of the road. He was found guilty of assault and sentenced to fourteen days detention. (26)

Bert Trautmann was obviously a victim of being educated in Nazi Germany. However, to be a real hero, one needs to resist the dominant ideology. Hans Scholl was like Trautmann, a local leader in the Hitler Youth. He joined the German Army and also witnessed the killing of Jews in the Soviet Union. On his return to Germany he joined forces with a group of students at University of Munich to form the White Rose group and published and distributed leaflets condemning these atrocities.

One leaflet stated: "Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be governed without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes - crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure - reach the light of day? If the German people are already so corrupted and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand, frivolously trusting in a questionable faith in lawful order in history; if they surrender man's highest principle, that which raises him above all other God's creatures, his free will; if they abandon the will to take decisive action and turn the wheel of history and thus subject it to their own rational decision; if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass - then, yes, they deserve their downfall.... Do not forget that every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure." (27)

Hans Scholl and his friends were arrested and executed on 22nd February, 1943. It is probably true that most people would have been like Bert Trautmann and had gone along with the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany. However, it is worth remembering that the Gestapo files that have survived show that thousands of German citizens were executed for protesting against the regime.

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(1) Brian Glanville, The Guardian (19th July, 2013)

(2) Alan Rowlands, Trautmann: The Biography (2011) page 61

(3) Catrine Clay, Trautmann's Journey: From Hitler Youth to FA Cup Legend (2010) pages 198-199

(4) Ivan Ponting, The Independent (19th July, 2013)

(5) Alan Rowlands, Trautmann: The Biography (2011) pages 88-89

(6) Alan Rowlands, Trautmann: The Biography (2011) page 91

(7) Catrine Clay, Trautmann's Journey: From Hitler Youth to FA Cup Legend (2010) pages 274-276

(8) Louise Taylor, The Guardian (11th April 2010)

(9) Alan Rowlands, Trautmann: The Biography (2011) page 93

(10) Alan Rowlands, Trautmann: The Biography (2011) page 148

(11) Frank Swift, News of the World (6th May, 1956)

(12) Brian Glanville, The Guardian (19th July, 2013)

(13) The Daily Mirror (7th May, 1956)

(14) Eric Thornton, Manchester Evening News (7th May, 1956)

(15) Ivan Ponting, The Independent (19th July, 2013)

(16) The Daily Telegraph (19th July, 2013)

(17) Catrine Clay, Trautmann's Journey: From Hitler Youth to FA Cup Legend (2010) page 303

(18) Catrine Clay, Trautmann's Journey: From Hitler Youth to FA Cup Legend (2010) pages 274-276

(19) The Daily Telegraph (19th July, 2013)

(20) Catrine Clay, Trautmann's Journey: From Hitler Youth to FA Cup Legend (2010) pages 25-26

(21) Catrine Clay, Trautmann's Journey: From Hitler Youth to FA Cup Legend (2010) page 50

(22) Catrine Clay, Trautmann's Journey: From Hitler Youth to FA Cup Legend (2010) page 78

(23) Alan Rowlands, Trautmann: The Biography (2011) page 41

(24) Louise Taylor, The Guardian (11th April 2010)

(25) Louise Taylor, The Guardian (11th April 2010)

(26) Catrine Clay, Trautmann's Journey: From Hitler Youth to FA Cup Legend (2010) pages 206-208

(27) White Rose leaflet (June, 1942)