Berne, July 4, 1954 - Notes on a perceived Miracle ⋆ An Old International

Berne, July 4, 1954 – Notes on a perceived Miracle

‘Rahn should shoot from the background. Rahn shoots! Goal! Goal! Goal!’

These words spoken by radio commentator Herbert Zimmermann in the heat of the moment when Helmut Rahn had scored Germany’s third goal during the World Cup final 1954 in Berne are familiar to many Germans and have become cultural icons like Kenneth Wolstenholme’s words at the end of the 1966 World Cup.

Football to gauge the state of the nation?

Martin Polley has once argued that any footballing results for the English national team during the 1950s were taken as a kind of litmus test for the nation. While for many English commentators, the defeats signified the decline of England, Germany’s triumph in Berne 1954 was subsequently taken as a gauge to state the positive development Germany has taken since 1945. Both interpretations should be seen with scepticism as football cannot be taken as a measure of the state of the nation.

Alemania v Hungría, Estadio, 1954-07-24 (584) 03
unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Over the following decades much has been said and written about this match; its significance for Germany and thus including its legacy. However, the latter has somewhat been exaggerated by commentators. Many have argued that this game was the real founding moment of the Federal Republic of Germany, five years after its original establishment. Further, recent arguments have been trying to portray the match as a way of reparation on behalf of Germany for the Second World War. Both these claims are unfounded and should be refuted. A game of football can never serve as reparation, neither financially nor symbolically.

For the founding myth of West Germany, some parallels make it easy to portray the match as the founding moment of this new state. The result of the match, even Germany being in the final, came as a huge surprise. The victory against the highly favoured Hungarians topped even wildest speculations. The players stated that they wanted to progress as far as possible in the tournament, a thought that is understandable; the odds of winning the final were long, however.

An imagined community

After five years of existence, the concept of democracy had not yet caught on in the minds of society. However, the signs of progress were visible as the streets were largely freed of the rubble and the shops had their windows replenished with goods, that the Germans had not seen in a long time. Though, these commodities were still expensive and thus out of reach, their sheer presence indicated better times to come. And they were. And the much fêted “economic miracle” and the “miracle of Berne” almost happened simultaneously. The years following the 1954 final were marked by growth – the German GDP grew on average by 9% per year.

This growth combined with the positive experience of the match gave rise to the narrative that the final of 1954 was indeed the real founding moment of the Federal Republic. That is not true. The game has been charged posteriorly with this meaning. This has changed since the turn of the millennium and has become consensus.

What this match signified was a positive collective experience, something the Germans had not had since the end of the war and maybe even before that. This outpour of joy is only understandable with this mind. Moreover, this joy proved to be short-lived and rather futile: a few months later the euphoria had vanished.

The majority experienced the game via radio, which was the most spread medium at the time. Its popularity originated in the period between 1933 and 1945 when the Nazi regime used the “Volksempfänger” to broadcast their propaganda. Television sets were rare, though their sales figures increased during and following the tournament, yet were nowhere near in terms of availability for the 1954 World Cup. As such, the World Cup Final of 1954 was a mediated event. As such the game created an imagined community for which the eleven men embodied the nascent nation of West Germany.

The final of Berne, dubbed “miracle” by many, was one unexpected moment in sports history, one that marked the return of Germany onto the big sporting stage. It may have been a miracle, but it certainly was a surprise.

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