The Paperman vs. the Nazis: Matthias Sindelar, the Anschluss and the fall of Red Vienna

Featured image: Revolution in Vienna; Erika Giovanna Klien, 1930. (Courtesy: WeimarArt)

Blessed with strong legs, tremendous agility and an unmatched intelligence on the pitch, Austrian Matthias Sindelar was possibly the best footballer in the world in the inter-war period. Sindelar began his footballing career at ASV Hertha Vienna as a young teenager. Six years later, he moved to FK Austria Wien, the then-biggest club in Austria and one of the European heavyweights.

With his new club, Sindelar won the domestic league title once, the Austrian Cup five times and the Mitropa Cup (which was then considered to be among the toughest tournaments in the world) twice. Wien’s success would however be interrupted during the war years after the Nazis branded the club as “Judenklub” or Jewish club.

Besides other tactical ideas, Der Papierene or “the paper man”, as he was called due to his idiosyncratic movements on the pitch, was also possibly the first person to come up with the idea of the withdrawn striker. In the 1930s Sindelar was named captain of the star-studded Austrian national side under coach Hugo Meisl — the now legendary Wunderteam.

Matthias Sindelar. (This photo is now in public domain)

By 1932, the Wunderteam had won the Central European International Cup besides demolishing neighbours Germany twice 6-0 and 5-0 (with Sindelar scoring a hattrick in the second encounter), Hungary 8-2 and Switzerland 6-0. Austria was widely considered to have the best team in the world, challenged perhaps only by England, and Sindelar was the jewel in the crown.

By the end of the decade, Matthias Sindelar would transcend his status of football star and become a symbol of resistance against Nazi Germany.

Sindelar’s Vienna

In The Sociological Imagination, C.W. Mills writes:
“Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.”
Wright Mills effectively suggests that history and social structure become tangible through the life of a person. C.L.R James made a similar assertion in relation to Bradman:
“Who will write a biography of Sir Donald Bradman must be able to write a history of Australia in the same period.”

It is imperative, thus, that we understand the development of Viennese culture — its spheres of influence — and the sociology of Vienna itself, before and after the First World War, to be able to better understand the legend of Matthias Sindelar.

The sociology of Vienna — its culture, politics and history — is generally thought to have moved in cohesion with the coffee houses, which although partially correct, is a bourgeois idea, proposed by bourgeois historians. The real subversive elements of the city — the working class politics, Red Vienna — were all rooted in the proletariat’s struggle for power, much of which happened beyond the realm of the coffee house. While it is true that the coffee houses were instrumental in the subjugation of certain archaic social practices, they retained elements of Vienna’s bourgeois culture, most visibly in its socially and economically privileged clientele.

It would be a gross error to investigate the coffee house to explain Sindelar’s politics, given that his poor, suburban upbringing was in direct contrast to those who frequented the coffee houses. It would be foolish as well to assiduously map out his football career, much of which has no political implication. A more precise analysis would require an understanding of the covert and overt forces at work in Vienna’s suburbs, a culture more in keeping with Sindelar’s own upbringing and Vienna’s progressive politics.

The Sindelars moved from Moravia in Czechoslovakia to Vienna in 1902, settling in the district of Favoriten, a poor working class suburb, home to a large number of Czech migrants, most of whom had come in search of jobs in a rapidly industrialising Vienna. After the 1757 decree by Empress Maria Theresa, banning the manufacture of bricks from the inner city, the brickyards had relocated to the suburbs and post-Prussian annexation, were operated chiefly by the migrant labourers.

Much of the area’s early political activity was focused around the brickyards. In fact, the roots of the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SDAP), can be traced to the district itself. Viktor Adler, the party’s founder, and resident of Favoriten, wrote extensively about the terrible living and working conditions of the workers in the Weinerberger brick factory in a paper titled “Die Lage der Ziegel” (or, “The Position of the Brick Workers”), published in his journal Gleichheit (Equality).

Although the Sindelars were not reliant on the brickyards for their livelihood — his father was a blacksmith by profession — they would have identified with Adler’s progressive, pro-labour politics, as would the working class of the city, the majority of whom suffered terribly during the early periods of post-WWI industrialisation. It would still be a few decades before the workers were allowed to form unions, and without a representative voice, their demands remained irrelevant.

The Habsburg Empire, after the Prussian annexation in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, was absorbed into a reorganized Austro-Hungarian empire-state in 1867. The Austro-Hungarian empire was a great power, but a fractured one. A coalition of powerful minorities, i.e. the Germans and the Magyars, had seized political as well as economic power, while other nationalities and ethnic groups, mostly of Slavic origins were barred from all official positions.

The strictly enforced social hierarchies were still embedded in Austrian society when elections were introduced in the early 1900s. Participation in politics was contingent to tax contributions and education, thereby limiting its scope to the social elites. The skewed representation of ethnic groups was also a fallout of the organization of the electoral constituencies — Germans required 37000 votes for a seat while the Russians and Ukrainians (Ruthenians) required at least 95000 votes for the same in constituencies where they were majorly represented.

The discriminatory policies of the ruling class would ensure the subjugation of the workers, effectively relegating them to the margins of society, as well as the city limits. The inner city remained a baroque paradise with splendid architecture dripping with excess and far removed from the suburban squalor.

Red Vienna

Although little has been written about Sindelar’s childhood, reasonable approximations can be made by grasping the socio-political developments in that period. An immigrant child, settled in a poor suburb, it is quite likely that he suffered from the abysmal conditions associated with the working class, most of whom had non-German origins. One of their fundamental concerns was the acute shortage of homes for the urban poor. According to historian Renate Banik Schweitzer, “six to eight persons lived in one room and a kitchen. Children had no bed of their own, but had to share one with their brothers and sisters.”

The First World War only intensified Vienna’s housing problems. With spiralling inflation, new construction was made impossible putting further stress on the existing dwellings. Vienna’s many Bettgher (“bed lodgers”), who were unable to afford a flat for themselves and who had been sub-renting beds for a few hours a day, were now absolutely homeless.

It is amidst this tide of crisis, that a hitherto bubbling socio-political movement leapt to prominence.  After the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire in 1919, and declaration of The Austrian Republic, the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SDAP) gained an absolute majority in the Vienna Gemeinderat (“city parliament”). For the first time, since voting was introduced in 1907, all adult citizens, irrespective of gender, had voting rights. Jakob Reumann was elected as the first social democrat mayor of Vienna, to be succeeded in 1923 by Karl Seitz.

Jakob Reumann, Vienna’s first social democrat mayor. 2 August 1925. (This image is now in public domain)

The Social Democrats, aware of the shortage of food and housing for the urban poor, campaigned extensively on the dual issues. Red Vienna, as the socialist administration called it, was their grand design to establish working class hegemony in an otherwise bourgeois city. Between 1923 and 1934, the municipality constructed 400 apartment blocks — 64000 new apartments in all — that housed one-tenth of the city’s population.

These apartment blocks went far beyond the idea of mere residential complexes, they represented the socialist aspirations of not just the Gemeinderat, but also the proletariat’s ascent to power. The houses — built like citadels, with monumental facades, expansive courtyards, accessible only by a system of archways — were the bulwarks of Vienna’s transition towards a socialist future, the obvious face of shifting times.

Sindelar, it can be assumed, was in agreement with this transition. He must have felt it personally; his years in Favoriten had primed him to understand the everyday dynamics of bourgeois rule, and this upheaval, although not Bolshevik in nature, was geared towards benefiting those historically on the margins. The idea of class consciousness, rid of the divisive nature of ethno-centric identity politics, would appeal particularly to Sindelar, a product effectively of the dour, deprived suburban life, much of which was due to the old Germanic domination of power.

In spite of the pro-worker reforms initiated by the social democrats, the party leadership had never really adopted a revolutionary zeal and were quite wary of a worker’s revolution. The workers, on the other hand, were fully aware of the Bolshevik success in Russia, and pressed the leadership for a more radical, all-encompassing approach. The Communist Party, although a minor force in the Austrian left, had aligned itself with the Bolsheviks in Russia but their numbers were too small to organise a full-scale rebellion in Austria.

A significant failing of the social democrats was their unwavering focus on the urban poor which alienated the peasants and non-city dwellers, and without a cohesive organization outside the cities, much of these peasants, largely unemployed, were mobilised by the Christian Democrats and other reactionary forces into paramilitary wings drilled in the ethos of ethno-centric identity politics and a rejection of the class consciousness that had transformed Viennese society.

The Heimwehr, (Home Guards) as they were called, were funded by the owners of big industry, had a clear fascist programme and were supported by Mussolini. The Austrian bourgeoisie, weakened greatly by the machinations post-WWI, had already regained control of the federal government and sought ultimately to establish an Austro-fascist state. Alarmed by the militant shift among the conservatives, the socialists formed the Republican Defence Corps, primarily to protect meetings and demonstrations of the SDAP. The socialist leadership forbade their paramilitary wing from initiating violence against the reactionary forces — they were merely to be a retaliatory body, attacking only when provoked.

After one such clash between the two forces (early January, 1927), an old man and a child were killed by members of the Heimwehr. The murderers were brought to trial, but none of them were sentenced. When the workers read about the court proceedings in the newspapers, they went on strike and marched to the Palace of Justice to protest against the result of the trial. When a fire broke out inside the building, the police opened fire on the demonstrators, killing about 85 and injuring nearly 500 of them. Eye-witnesses suggest that fleeing workers cried and demanded weapons to protect themselves from this wave of reactionary excess. The social democrats sought only to calm the workers, disregarding the mood for a militant overhaul in their strategies.

The Austrian Civil War

The violent upswing in Viennese politics culminated in the Austrian Civil War in February 1934. Chancellor Dolfuss had effectively shut down the federal government a year before and ruled with emergency powers. 471 emergency laws were passed at the time, mostly targeting the working class and the progressive reforms which had been initiated by the socialists. The Republican Defence Corps was made illegal, strikes were forbidden and the Communist Party was banned in totality. Arms were seized from the Republican Corps in the months leading up to February but the party leadership urged the workers to not resist for fear of a civil war.

The workers, agitated and exasperated in equal measure, finally broke away from the diktats of the party leadership when the police tried to break into the Linz office of the SDAP. The workers inside the office refused to relent and began to fight back. News soon spread to Vienna and workers in some factories spontaneously called for strikes. Pitched battles erupted across the city, most notably in the socialist housing blocks.

The Karl-Marx Hof, the largest among the housing blocks, and built like a fortress, was shelled by the Austrian army. The workers were defeated on February 15 after four days of fighting. Over three hundred workers died and thousands were injured. The leaders of the insurrection were executed and organisations of the SDAP were banned.

The Karl Marx-Hof, the largest of the housing blocks built under the Red Vienna project — a project that Manfredo Tafuri would call “a declaration of war without any hope of victory.” Photo: Helene Huss-Trethan; 2007 (This image is now in public domain)


It would have been impossible for Sindelar to ignore the reversal in Austrian politics. During the subsequent annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, Sindelar, hitherto quiet about his politics, expressed his political will in the cheekiest of manners, goading the Nazi hierarchy into a state of total embarrassment.

Sindelar’s Final Act – the Anschluss match

The Anschluss pact of 1938 established Austria as part of Nazi Germany. This implied that Austria would be unable to participate in the summer’s football World Cup as an independent nation. Having been denied four years earlier by a rigid Italian defence and dodgy refereeing, the latter at the behest of Mussolini, Sindelar refused to play for a combined German team.

Sindelar’s objection to Nazi rule stemmed largely from the politics he was comfortable with. The particularly jarring idea of the racial superiority of the Germans must have made the slender man squirm — the notion of the dominant German was quite evocative of the Habsburg and Austro-fascist line, the sort of politics that had subjugated his people.

His actions were perhaps also directed by his proximity to the Jewish community. He was a centre-forward for Austria Vienna, a club with strong ties to the Jewish bourgeoisie and the Nazi invasion had forced many of his friends and teammates to leave the club and in some cases, even the city. Urban legend has it that he told the outgoing Jewish chairman of the club, “The new club president has forbidden us to talk to you, but I will always speak to you, Herr Doktor.”

Before the dissolution of the fabled Austrian Wunderteam the Germans agreed to play a friendly against an Austrian XI. It was a means of seeking legitimacy for their rule, a ‘propagandist display of brotherhood and unity’ as German sportswriter Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger notes. The Nazi leadership decreed that the match should end in a draw, and for over an hour Sindelar adhered to the script, passing up simple chances to score in a mock display of ineffectiveness.

In the 70th minute however, Sindelar, to the horror of the Nazi top-brass, scored from a rebound with a delicate, curving shot. When his friend, Schasti Sesta, lobbed the keeper with a 45-metre free kick, Sindelar danced wildly in front of the director’s box packed with Nazi dignitaries amidst frenzied chants of “Osterreich! Osterreich!” (“Austria! Austria!”) from the packed stands of the stadium. Even the newspapers, which had already been asked to toe the party line, turned in euphoric passages on the triumph of Viennese football.

Sindelar’s resistance, although largely silent and mired in symbolism, was not to end with the match. He turned down Germany manager, Sepp Herberger’s many requests to be a part of the national squad citing old age or poor fitness. Herberger later conceded that Sindelar’s stubbornness was based on off-field issues:
“As I tried again and again to change his mind, I gained the idea that he had some other reasons to decline.  I almost had the impression it was down to feelings of uneasiness and rejection to do with the political developments that weighed on his mind and caused his refusal.”

Sindelar retired from football soon after, and in August 1938, bought a mangy street-corner café in Favoriten from Leopold Drill, a Jew barred from ownership of property under new legislation. Sindelar continued to maintain close relations with his Jewish friends, much to the chagrin of the establishment.

A Gestapo report noted that he was a ‘Social Democrat, pro-Jewish and not sympathetic to the party’. Shortly after, he was mysteriously found dead in his flat on Annagasse, aged only 39, in bed with his unconscious girlfriend Camilla Castagnola. Official versions suggest that he was a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a faulty heater. Few believed it. His funeral was attended by over 15000 people — an occassion that writer Robin Stummer considers to be Vienna’s first, and last, resistance against the Nazi occupation.

“The good Sindelar followed the city, whose child and pride he was, to its death. He was so inextricably entwined with it that he had to die when it did…For to live and play football in the downtrodden, broken, tormented city meant deceiving Vienna with a repulsive spectre of itself…”
— Alfred Polgar

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