Conor Heffernan takes us on a journey through one of the most incredible football stories in history; the story of Hakoah Wien FC.
Is there a Jewish style of football? Once upon a time this question would have been answered with a definitive yes. From 1909 until 1938 Hakoah Vienna or Hakoah Wien were an Austrian football club famed for producing several Jewish athletes and for maintaining a staunchly Jewish ethos.
Sadly for the club its rise was mirrored by the rise of the Nazis in Western Europe. What began as a beautiful experiment by two prominent businessmen ended in the terrors of the Final Solution. Today we examine the story Hakoah Wien, a pioneering football club whose impact on the game in the inter-war years was immense.
Like all stories, we’ll start at the beginning. In 1909, two successful entrepreneurs, Fritz Löhner-Beda and his friend Ignaz Herman Körner came together with a dream. The two men had been imbued with a mutual pride in their Jewish heritage. They had spent countless evenings listening to the speeches of Max Nordau, the famed Zionist speaker.
Nordau was a firm advocate of the need for the Jewish people to embrace a life of health and fitness in order to challenge the negative connotations many people held of Jews. As a philosophical movement it became known as Muscular Judaism and it was a highly attractive ideology amongst early 20th century Jewish society. England and the US among others had experienced a Muscular Christianity movement in the late 1800s so it was perhaps no surprise that Zionists took up a similar call.
Fritz and Ignaz were attracted by this idea of Muscular Judaism and in 1909 they formed a new athletics club, Hakoah Wien. Its very name symbolised Nordau’s ideology. Hakoah means strength or power in Hebrew. Hakoah was a place where Jewish athletes could take part in a range of different sporting activities from fencing to wrestling. Football was practiced there but it didn’t confine itself to one pursuit.
The timing of Fritz and Ignaz couldn’t have been better. Early 20th century Austria was in the midst of a cultural revival thanks in part to mass migration into Austria from Eastern Europe. Many of the new ex-pats were Jewish and it is important to note that Vienna’s Jewish population at this time was around 10% of the total city population.
As more and more migrants came to Vienna, the city became swept up in sports fervour. Various new clubs and athletics meets sprang up but amongst all of this one club stood head and shoulders amongst the rest. That club was of course, Hakoah Wien.
Hakoah quickly became a powerhouse in Austrian football. In just eleven years, the club climbed from the bottom of the Austrian divisions to its Premier Division. Not content with just participating, Hakoah were determined to win. Only four years after promotion to the 1st division the club claimed its first title in the 1924/25 season. By this time Hakoah had gained its place in the hearts of Jews around Austria. Franz Kafka was reportedly a fan.
It was how they won that attracted so many fans. In the 1924/25 season Hakoah clinched the title in a remarkable way. Deep into the match Hakoah’s goalkeeper Alexander Fabian had been injured when an opposing player had bundled him over, breaking his arm. As substitutes weren’t allowed back then, Fabian had his arm put into a sling and switched places with the team’s striker. Fabian wouldn’t allow his team be disadvantaged. Just seven minutes after breaking his arm, Fabian notched the winning goal for Hakoah to clinch them their first title. It was a victory that symbolised the Muscular Judaism ideals promoted by Nordau.
Hakoah soon become a stomping ground for some of the finest Jewish footballers at this time. In the 1925/26 season, which Hakoah also won, Max Gold, Max Grünwald and József Eisenhoffer all played for the club. Domestic success soon saw foreign teams wanting to take on this plucky Austrian team and the 1920s were notable for Hakoah’s global footballing odyssey.
For a decade the club played everywhere from the US to the UK. The team needed the money generated from such trips to remain in the Austrian League but a desire to spread the message of Muscular Judaism also drove the players around far flung places of the globe.
The team notched up a number of impressive victories. For example, Hakoah became the first foreign team to defeat an English team on home soil when they defeated West Ham 5-1 at Upton Park in 1923. Admittedly it was a reserve side for the Hammers but it was an impressive victory nonetheless.
1924 saw Hakoah come out on top over the mighty Slavia Prague team who up until that point had been undefeated on home soil for over a decade. In 1926 the team travelled to the United States in a tour that would be the high point for the Vienna team and also the beginning of its demise.
Over the course of ten matches an incredible 224,000 fans came out to watch the team from Vienna. Their last match in New York’s Polo Grounds saw a record-breaking 46,000 spectators show up. To put this into context, this record would stand for another half-century and was only broken when Pelé was signed by the New York Cosmos.
Hakoah were a novelty in the US for a number of reasons. They were foreign, field only Jewish players and played the game in a fast and eloquent many. The Americans were no match for them on the field and the public became enamoured with Hakoah. The New York Times noted at this time that:
“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’s record was impressive; six victories, two draws and two defeats. The players became icons in the US with nine of the first team players transferring to US League sides following the tour including the iconic duo of Béla Guttmann and Sándor Nemes. Such players were heralded as saviours of US soccer as they helped rejuvenate the game in the US. They were treated as stars and held in high esteem. The same could not be said for those players who remained with Hakoah.
It is a sad fact of history that Hakoah’s rise came at a time of great Anti-Semitism in Europe. Despised by many on account of their religion, the Hakoah footballers had become accustomed to travelling to matches with bodyguards for protection.
Following the USA tour, Hakoah became severely weakened as a football team. Key players had moved to the US and the club could no longer compete for the Austrian First Division title. Matters worsened with the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1930s. The hatred spouted by men like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels spread to Vienna where persecution of the players off the field became a daily reality.
In 1938, Germany annexed Austria and soon exported its brand of Anti-Semitism. A club such as Hakoah promoting Jewish ideals simply couldn’t last.
In 1938, the Nazis suspended Hakoah from all professional football before shutting them down outright. The club’s grounds and assets were taken over by the Nazis. The fortunes of the individual players varied following the German invasion of Austria. Some, such as Friedrich Donnenfeld managed to escape to France where they joined the French resistance.
Others were less fortunate.
Max Scheuer, Hakoah’s legendary captain was executed by the Nazis when he tried to flee to Switzerland. Oskar Grasgrün, Ernst Horowitz, Josef Kolisch, Erwin, Oskar Pollak, and Ali Schönfeld were all victims of the Nazi War Machine. Hakoah’s co-founder Fritz Löhner-Beda died in Auschwitz in 1942 after being beaten to death by a camp guard for not working hard enough.
After World War Two Vienna’s Jewish population was virtually non-existent and Hakoah was a shell of its former self. They tried gallanty to contine but in 1949 the club closed it doors, seemingly forever. It wasn’t until 2000 that Hakoah re-emerged when a group of Jewish activists in Vienna bought the lease for the ground from the Austrian government.
Symbolically, just one day shy of the 70th anniversary of the Nazi annexation of Austria, Hakoah re-opened its doors under the name Maccabi Wien. Maccabi Wien still wear the traditional blue and white strip of Hakoah Wien and bear the Star of David on their jerseys with pride. While they haven’t reached the heights of Hakoah, it’s a start.
After a tour around Germany in the 1920s, one German newspaper remarked of Hakoah:
“Hakoah had helped to do away with the fairy tale about the physical inferiority of Jews.”
Hakoah were at the forefront of confronting hateful Jewish stereotypes and their legacy lives on in Maccabi Wien.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.