Power from profit – profit from power? How Schalke football idol Fritz Szepan profited from Nazi sports policies and “Aryanizations”
Autor: Maximilian Kreter
„Außer der Reihe“ bildet neben den Projektbeiträgen eine weitere feste Reihe des „Denken ohne Geländer“-Blogs. Diese bietet Forscher/-innen am HAIT sowie Gastautor/-innen Raum für Beiträge zu aktuellen Themen, die eng mit den Forschungsschwerpunkten am Institut verbunden sind. Die Bandbreite möglicher Perspektiven und Schwerpunkte ist groß. Sie reicht von der Einordnung aktueller politischer und gesellschaftlicher Ereignisse in bestimmte historische, geographische oder kulturelle Kontexte über unkonventionelle, episodische Einblicke in den Forschungsalltag bis hin zur kritischen Auseinandersetzung mit theoretischen oder methodischen Entwicklungen in den Geistes-, Kultur- und Sozialwissenschaften. Im folgenden Beitrag setzt sich Maximilian Kreter mit dem Schalker Spieler Fritz Szepan und seinem Verhalten in der NS-Zeit auseinander.
“Professional football is always at the same time a substitute playing field for politics. Those in power […] stage themselves, norms such as competitive thinking are practiced, national teams are an indicator of which groups are considered to belong to the nation”.1
Fritz Szepan was one of the most successful footballers in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, playing exclusively for FC Schalke 04 at club level and later also for the German national team, of which he was captain from 1934 until 1939. Thanks to his sporting success, he became a public figure who attracted the interest of politicians. As a result, he acquired power as a resource, fed by social, cultural, economic and symbolic capital. He was also able to acquire this power by supporting – conditionally voluntarily and with varying intensity – the Nazi rule. He profited in different ways from his courtship of those in power, yet it can be superficially characterized as a barter deal at first. He utilized his prominence and charisma to obtain personal, economic and social advantages. But first things first, who was Fritz Szepan and how did he profit from Nazi rule?
Fritz Szepan was born in Gelsenkirchen on 2 September 1907, the sixth of seven children of Masurian immigrants August and Karoline Szepan. His father had moved from East Prussia to the Ruhr area to find better paid work in the growing mining region, like many Masurians at that time, whose migration destination was the Ruhr area. Local centres of Masurian emigrants thus formed, especially in the core of the Ruhr area, alike in Gelsenkirchen. Due to this local concentration of Masurian immigrants, interaction with the local Westphalians in everyday life was initially severely inhibited. The acculturation process, which had hardly taken place until 1914, accelerated after WWI. For Szepan, his origin was not a salient issue during his childhood. He attended primary school from 1914 to 1921, leaving without graduation. He then completed vocational training as a plumber in the district of Schalke in the city of Gelsenkirchen, where he was employed until 1925. His place of training and work was the interface to his career as a professional football player.
The beginning of Fritz Szepan’s professional football career
Against the opposition of his Protestant, strictly conservative parents, he started playing football in leisure teams, later in organized amateur teams and in the youth section of FC Schalke 04. With the intercession and through the mediation of his close friend and future brother-in-law, Ernst Kuzorra, who was two years older, he finally made it into the first team of FC Schalke 04, aged 17.2 The connection between Szepan and Kuzorra on and off the pitch was to become even stronger in the years to come. In 1927, he set up his own tobacco shop in the Schalke district together with Kuzorra. Szepan’s football career, meanwhile, was increasingly successful: after making the leap into the first team in 1925, from then on he was part of a team that won the Ruhr District Championship six times from 1927 to 1933 and the West German Championship four times from 1929 to 1933. Only in 1931 did the club fail to win a championship: a total of 14 players from the Schalke team, including Szepan and Kuzorra, had been banned from the league for violating the amateur statute of the German Football Association (DFB) in 1930. They had been paid more money and expenses than allowed and received other material benefits. At the time these measures were taken by the club to keep the top performers and offer them as much time as possible for regular training sessions.3
In 1931, he married Elise Kuzorra, the sister of his team-mate Ernst Kuzorra – also descendants of Masurian immigrants of the Protestant faith – which now sealed the business and footballing ties in family terms as well. Shortly afterwards, in 1932, he took over a restaurant right next to the stadium of FC Schalke 04 to earn his living. However, he gave up the business after only six months, most likely due to the ongoing world economic crisis. In 1933 he was temporarily registered as unemployed. In the same year, Szepan and FC Schalke 04 reached the final of the German championship for the first time as West German champions, but lost 3-0 to West German runners-up Fortuna Düsseldorf.
The Nazi seizure of power and the success of Schalke 04
In the course of the “Gleichschaltung” (forcible coordination) of the German sporting organizations, the league system was changed, the amateur principle was retained but no longer enforced as comprehensively: “The Nazi system of rule was based on patronage and clientele structures that were not subject to democratic control and could be used extremely effectively for the benefit of the professional security of football players.”4 Szepan benefited from this policy because, he was employed by the city youth welfare office on 1 February 1934, where he was entrusted with the control and supervision of the gymnasiums and sports grounds in the city. When he was taken on by the city of Gelsenkirchen as a paid employee, his affiliation and services to FC Schalke 04 and the German national team were explicitly mentioned in the justification. As it can be deduced from this, in parallel to his professional career, his football career accelerated quickly: After three matches for the German national team between 1929 and 1931, he a took over the captain’s armband in 1934. In that year he also won his first national title with his club, FC Schalke 04. At this point, Szepan’s (and many other Schalke players with Masurian roots) origins and private life prompted public attention, as the Polish newspaper “Przegląd Sportowy” published the headline: “Mistrzostwo Niemiec w rękach Polaków” (German championship in Polish hands) on 30 June 1934 – six days after winning the title. The Polish press had already tried to reclaim the success of the Masurian emigrants for Poland, but in these times under Nazi rule the club felt compelled to publish a statement in the back then leading sports magazine, “Kicker”, referring to the players’ origin in East Prussia and their birth in the Ruhr area: “For the FC Schalke 04 […] the proof of the Aryan descent of the players […] had been provided.”5 Despite the relatively clearly identifiable ethnic-national and socio-economic origins, which already at this point mostly only applied to the parents’ generation, the designation as a “polack and prole club” persisted (and still persists). However, this campaign could not stop the triumph of FC Schalke 04 and Fritz Szepan. Between 1934 and 1942 the club won six German championships and in 1937 also the Tschammer-cup – thus the first double in German football history. Szepan made a total of 15 appearances for Schalke in German finals and 34 appearances for the German national team.
Power from profit – profit from power: Szepans life and career in Nazi Germany
But the period between 1 May 1937 and 5 November 1938 is marked in Szepan’s biography by several key events that were to have a lasting influence on his career until the end of his life: On 1 May 1937, he joined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) together with his brother-in-law Kuzorra and twelve other club members.6 After winning the German championship on 20 June 1937, Szepan resigned from his job with the city of Gelsenkirchen on 18 August 1937, effective 1 September 1937, to take over a petrol station as an independent contractor. His position at the City Youth Welfare Office was not filled again after his resignation. In the justification of the head of the City Youth Welfare Office, Dr. Heinrich Schmidtkamp, to the Personnel Office, he states: “In the light of the fact that Szepan was only able to do a minor amount of work because of his frequent long-term leaves of absence, the transfer of a replacement for Szepan to the City Youth Welfare Office is not necessary in the interest of the service. His work can be distributed among the other case managers.”7 After he had secured the Cup victory with FC Schalke 04 on 9 January 1938, and with it the double of 1937, the celebrations followed with the usual participation of local, regional and often national Nazi officials since 1933, who liked to present themselves in the light of success, especially of a workers’ club. On 10 April, two election appeals by Szepan were published in favor of the NSDAP, Adolf Hitler and the annexation of Austria to the German Reich: locally, the election appeal is published together with Kuzorra in the “Gelsenkirchener Zeitung”, while Reich-wide appeal with the captain of the (former) Austrian national team, Matthias Sindelar, was published in the “Völkischer Beobachter”.8
Finally, on 31 October 1938, Szepan ‘acquired’ the “Textilwarengeschäft Julius Rode & Co.” from the two Jewish owners Sally Meyer and Julie Lichtmann, for 7,000 Reichsmark, as part of the “Dejewification” of the German economy, also called the “Aryanizations”. However, this amount only corresponded to the value of the stock of goods, but not to the value of the inventory and the built-up business. On 5 November the shop was reopened as “Kaufhaus Szepan am Schalker Markt” and the income of the Szepan family tripled from 1938 to 1939. In the process of this “Aryanization” Szepan had benefited from the fact that it was made almost impossible for the Jewish owners Meyer and Lichtmann to continue the business – both by the state and by pressure from the landlord, the operator of the Schalker clubhouse, Henriette Tiemeyer. After another professional failure as the operator of a petrol station, both parties wanted to organize a safe and permanent income for the Schalke star and captain of the national team so that he could fully concentrate on his work as a football player. The textile shop was the economic livelihood of the Szepan family until 1972 – shortly before Fritz Szepan’s death on 14 December 1974. The descendants of the former owners who were deported to the Kaiserwald concentration camp near Riga and the Jewish Trust Cooperation filed a compensation case which ended with a settlement that was quite favorable for Szepan.9 So, in sum the Szepan family has profited massively from Fritz Szepans decisions to act in favor of the Nazi authorities.
Zitiervorschlag: Maximilian Kreter, Power from profit – profit from power? How Schalke football idol Fritz Szepan profited from Nazi sports policies and “Aryanizations” In: Denken ohne Geländer. Der Blog des Hannah-Arendt-Institut für Totalitarismusforschung e.V. vom 02.09.2022: https://haitblog.hypotheses.org/2631
Bild 1: Fotografie von Maximilian Kreter.
- Timm Beichelt, Ersatzspielfelder. Zum Verhältnis von Fußball und Macht. Berlin 2018, blurb.
- Cf. Stefan Goch/Norbert Silberbach, Zwischen Blau und Weiß liegt Grau. Der FC Schalke 04 in der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus. Essen 2005, p. 166.
- Cf. Goch/Silberbach, Zwischen Blau und Weiß liegt Grau, p. 48–61; Nils Havemann, Fußball unterm Hakenkreuz. Bonn 2005, p. 84 f.
- Frank Bajohr, Fritz Szepan. Fußball-Idol und Nutznießer des NS-Regimes. In: Diethelm Blecking/Lorenz Peiffer (Ed.), Sportler im „Jahrhundert der Lager“. Profiteure, Widerständler und Opfer. Göttingen 2012, p. 110–115, here p. 112.
- Britta Lenz: „Polen deutsche Fußballmeister“? Polnischsprachige Einwanderer im Ruhrgebietsfußball der Zwischenkriegszeit. In: Dittmar Dahlmann/Albers S. Kotowski/Zbigniew Karpus (Ed.), Schimanski, Kuzorra und andere. Polnischsprachige Einwanderer im Ruhrgebiet zwischen der Reichsgründung und den Zweiten Weltkrieg. Essen 2006, p. 293–311, here p. 309.
- Cf. Stefan Goch.: Fußball im Ruhrgebiet. Der Mythos vom Arbeitersport. In: Jürgen Mittag/ Jörg-Uwe Nieland (Ed.), Das Spiel mit dem Fußball: Interessen, Projektionen und Vereinnahmungen. Essen 2007, p. 117–142, here p. 121.
- Schmidtkamp quoted in Goch/Silberbach, Zwischen Blau und Weiß liegt Grau, p. 167 f.
- Cf. Goch/Silberbach, Zwischen Blau und Weiß liegt Grau, p. 133-136.
- Cf. Stefan Goch, Die „Arisierung“ eines Kleinkaufhauses in Schalke – Der „Fall Szepan“. In: Heinz-Jürgen PRIAMUS (Ed.), Was die Nationalsozialisten „Arisierung“ nannten. Wirtschaftsverbrechen in Gelsenkirchen während des „Dritten Reiches“. Essen 2007, p. 57–90, here p. 61–77.