How English can a German become?

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There are not many Germans who made it into the hall of fame of English football. There are not many Germans either who were made OBE (‘Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’), especially if they started their stay as POW (prisoner of war) in 1945.

In fact, there’s only one who achieved both, and the name probably does not ring a bell with people under fifty. Bert Trautmann, ever heard of him?

A picture taken at the National Football Museum, Manchester

Like my father, Bert Trautmann, born in 1923, had fought a war he didn’t want. Like my father he came to England as prisoner of war once it was over. Like my father he only had good things to say about the way he was treated by the Brits.Unlike my father he did not return in 1948 but staid on, joining Manchester City as goalkeeper and playing 545 matches between 1949 and 1964. Unlike my father he became a football legend rather than a schoolmaster. And unlike my father he actually became an English ‘through and through’, as he said himself.

Trautmann was the first German to play an English FA cup final in 1955. But it is one year later that he became a legend when he played the last 17 minutes of the victorious 1956 final with a broken neck. (The original match report by the Guardian speaks of ‘suicidal dives’ and ‘concussion’, but an X-ray three days later revealed the true nature of the injury).

In an interview in 2011, he admitted that the 1955 emotions were even stronger: ‘We lost 3-1 to Newcastle United on the day and, yes, you feel a little sorry for yourself that you lose such a huge game, but it was an amazing day and I just looked around the stadium and thought: you lucky man!’ One year later he was even luckier, not only by surviving despite his serious  injury, but als by becoming the first foreigner to be named English footballer of the year.

Bert Trautmann in full flight for Manchester City

And that was only seven years after his recruitment by City had raised the fury of the fans. According to the BBC, ‘season ticket holders threatened a boycott and 40,000 people were said to have marched on the streets of Manchester to protest at the signing of a former enemy so soon after the war’.

Can a football actively contribute to reconciliation between former war enemies? In Trautmann’s case, one is tempted to say yes. It is true that when he was called ‘Britain’s best-loved German” in 1950 this ‘was not a hotly contested title in those years’, as the New York Times recalls. But over fifteen seasons with City he managed to make the Mancunians forget his nationality.

I am writing this blogpost from Manchester, quite an appropriate place from where to pay homage to this gentleman. What’s more, I am writing it from the National Football Museum, which hosts the aforementioned hall of fame. Very appropriate indeed.

Bert Trautmann died on 19 July 2013. In one his last interviews he claimed to support England, ‘even if they play Germany’. If that’s not a proof of Englishness, what is?  The Sun managed to write an obituary without using the words ‘Hun’ or ‘Kraut’.  If that’s not a proof he had been adopted by the English, what is? He had spent his last years with his wife in La Llosa, in the Spanish sunshine, near Valencia. If that’s not the ultimate English retirement dream, what is?

Albrecht Sonntag, Centre for European Integration, ESSCA School of Management, Angers.

This post was simultaneously published on the FREE Blog