European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

21 June 2024

Miracles and Fairy Tales: some German Football Stories

It’s generally acknowledged that success in major sporting events can boost a nation’s morale, and that even those uninterested in the sport itself may on such occasions be carried along by the enthusiasm of their sport-loving fellow citizens. One such footballing event in 1950s West Germany was the final of the 1954 World Cup tournament, played in neighbouring Switzerland.
This match has gone down in German history as ‘das Wunder von Bern’ (‘the miracle of Bern’) because it saw underdogs West Germany defeat the favourites Hungary. As described in a previous post the Hungarians were at the top of their game in the early 1950s and the final was theirs to win; after all, their ‘Golden Team’ had thrashed Germany 8-3 in the group stage of the tournament. As anticipated, they took an early lead, but Germany were unexpectedly quick to equalise and at half time the score was level at 2-2. With six minutes of the second half to go, German forward Helmut Rahn scored a third goal. A late Hungarian equaliser was ruled offside, and when the whistle blew, West Germany were World Cup winners.
Book cover with four black and white photographs from the 1954 World Cup final
Cover of Peter Kasza, 1954, Fussball spielt Geschichte: das Wunder von Bern (Bonn, 2004)  SF.427 [Bd. 435]
For many in West Germany the win became symbolic not just of sporting success against the odds, but of a new sense of national identity and self-confidence. The Federal Republic was only five years old, and memories of the Nazi regime and the Second World War were still raw. The cup win offered something that Germans could be unconditionally and unproblematically proud of. Writers and historians have described it as a kind of rebirth for a country still grappling with its recent past. It was also the beginning of the West Germany’s rise to be a major footballing nation.,
The 2003 film Das Wunder von Bern, by life-long football fan Sönke Wortmann, dramatises these themes on a personal level through the fictional story of Richard, a former prisoner of war returning from a decade in Soviet captivity and trying to find his place again both in his family and in a very different Germany. A last-minute trip to the cup final with his 11-year old son Matthias, who idolises Helmut Rahn but has a difficult relationship with the long-absent and traumatised Richard, becomes a turning-point for Richard’s reconciliation with his family and his country. 
Film poster for Das Wunder von Bern with an image of a young boy and a smaller picture of him and his father playing football on a piece of waste ground
Poster for the 2003 film Das Wunder von Bern
It has been suggested that the significance of the ‘miracle of Bern’ as a turning-point for the nation as a whole has been overemphasised and mythologised, and no doubt films such as Wortmann’s help to feed that mythology. But it was definitely a fillip for the young Federal Republic, just as the ‘Sommermärchen’ (‘Summer Fairy Tale’) of the 2006 World Cup was would be for a reunified Germany 52 years later, when the country hosted the tournament.
Germany didn’t win in 2006, being knocked out in the semi-finals by eventual victors Italy (although they defeated Portugal in the runners-up game to finish third). But the success of the event once again gave Germans a sense of national pride, and helped to normalise the waving of the German flag and wearing of its colours to reflect this, something regarded with more wariness in previous decades. Sönke Wortmann also made a film about this World Cup, this time a documentary, Deutschland, ein Sommermärchen. Like Das Wunder von Bern three years before, this enjoyed huge success.
Cover of 'Deutschland, ein Sommermaerchen' with colour photographs of footballers celebrating and a footballer lying on the grass taking a photograph
Cover of Sönke Wortmann & Christoph Biermann, Deutschland, ein Sommermärchen: ein WM-Tagebuch (Cologne, 2006) YF.2008.a.38179
Germany’s triumph in another World Cup in Brazil in 2014, although not such a watershed moment as 1954 or 2006, was rapturously received at home. The final had the nation gripped, with impromptu ‘public viewings’ set up outside houses and shops.
A group of people sitting on a street and watching a football match on a television that has been set up outside a shop
A ‘public viewing’ of the 2014 World Cup final on a Munich street (photograph: Susan Reed) 
As Germany hosts this year’s European Championships, feelings are a bit more muted as political divisions and the rise of right-wing parties make flag-waving seem more problematic for some. But so far fans have been enjoying the atmosphere, and the fact that a Bhangra-inspired song by ‘Lovely & Monty’, two Sikh taxi drivers from Hamburg, who perform in their video draped in the national colours, has become a viral hit, suggests that Euro 2024 can showcase a diverse and modern Germany.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

Further reading:

Thomas Krömer, ‘Mehr als 90 Minuten: das Wunder von Bern (Regie : Sönke Wortmann, D 2003)’, in Wie der Vater, so der Sohn? Kulturpsychoanalytische Filmbetrachtungen, ed. Hannes König, Theo Piegler (Giessen 2017) YF.2018.a.15212 
Franz-Josef Brüggemeier, ‘Das Wunder von Bern: the 1954 football world cup, the German nation and popular histories’, in Popular historiographies in the 19th and 20th centuries : cultural meanings, social practices, ed. Sylvia Paletschek (Oxford, 2011) YK.2011.a.11297 
Die WM-Show : wie wir die beste Fussball-WM aller Zeiten am Bildschirm erlebten : WM 2006 YF.2009.a.10872 
Markus Voeth, Isabel Tobies, Christian Niederauer, Fussball-Weltmeisterschaft 2006 : was die Deutschen denken und dachten; Geschichten, Kuriositäten, Zitate, Bevölkerungsumfragen (Stuttgart, 2006)  YF.2010.a.17024 

Ulrich Kühne-Hellmessen & Gregor Derichs, Steht auf, wenn ihr Deutschland seid: die Geschichte eines weltmeisterlichen Sommertraums (Zürich, 2006) YF.2012.b.756