Inter-war Poland proved to be a difficult period in the nation’s history. Following the end of the First World War, where much of the fighting and human losses occurred in Poland due to the geographical proximity of the land between the main fighting powers, the country was in decline and facing a difficult re-birth. That re-birth came in 1918, following upwards of a century of partitions by Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Germans, and the Russian Empires. Independent powers were granted the following year thanks to the Treaty of Versailles, whilst a majority of territory was won back by 1921 thanks to various border wars.
The political landscape remained democratic until 1926, when Józef Piłsudski seized power. Society was fraught with difficulties; the country faced a deep recession, industrial productivity had dropped and the living wage was almost non-existent, sport provided a relief from the troubles for the people of Poland. Politics in interwar Poland was often difficult, confusing and conflictual, but it proved to be a landmark era in the country’s history. With a number of clubs representative of different political ideologies, there was often clashes.
The Jewish community was represented in Poland through a few clubs, with Hasmonea Lwów and Makkabi Kraków the first to be founded in 1909, while Jutrzenka Kraków followed in 1910. The former was undoubtedly the most successful Jewish club in Polish football, playing for two seasons in the top division (1927 and 1928). It wasn’t until 1915, though, that capital city Warsaw got its first Jewish football club; Makkabi Warszawa.
The interwar period, between World War I and World War II, provided a canvas for football to become a strong political and social player among Polish residents, particularly in Warsaw. The First World War broke out on the 28th of July 1914 and lasted for four years, claiming 16 million lives across Europe. The Great War undoubtedly had a negative effect on association football, with many leagues suspended and countless players serving in national armies.
In Britain, competitive football was suspended between 1915 and 1919, with many players signing up to fight for their country. In Switzerland, the league was not suspended but some 5,800 players signed up to the national army, many pitches were destroyed and the national side did not compete again until 1920.
Whilst competitive leagues were often suspended, football still played a big part in the War. In prisoner of war camps, football was played to keep the men fit, it was used as a form of propaganda and it was used by the services to recruit. Undoubtedly, the most famous story of football during the Great War is the Christmas Truce of 1914, where soldiers from both sides of the battle came together on the 25th of December to play a game of football. It was a show of solidarity, with the beautiful game at the centre.
In Poland, many players joined Józef Piłsudski’s Polish Legions to fight alongside the Austria-Hungary army.
After the end of World War 1 – and the regaining of independence – the Polish Football Association (known as the PZPN) was formed, uniting most of the existing Polish football clubs. Just a few years later, the PZPN published its rules of football and joined FIFA in 1923. There’s no doubt that football during the interwar years in Poland was diverse and often complicated. There were a number of teams with contrasting political beliefs and ideologies.
Looking back at the 19th century, nationalist factions were gaining in popularity and sought to specify the cultural and political landscapes of future communities. For many, the Jewish did not feature in those plans. The sporting world was largely similar and the Jewish communities faced a high level of discrimination and segregation from sports clubs across Europe.
Hasmonea Lwów (1909) and Makkabi Kraków (1910) were the first Jewish football clubs to be founded in Poland. The former were based in a city called Lwów (now Lviv in Ukraine) and was named after the Hasmonean royal dynasty. They are widely considered the most successful Jewish club in Polish football history.
Initially, the club was restricted to playing the occasional game against neighbouring sides, but after continually growing and recruiting new players, they were granted entry to the Austrian football system (Lwów was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire). Alongside Warsaw’s first Jewish club, Makkabi Warszaw, Hasmonea were crucial in promoting the sport to the Jewish community. They played a match at the Lag BaOmer feast in 1913 in front of a bumper crowd.
It would be one of many historic landmarks that the club would be involved in. In 1927 they contributed to the creation of the Polish League and on the 30th of September 1925, they helped alleviate relations between Poland and the Ukraine by playing in the first match between teams of the two nations after an eleven-year break. Zygmunt Steuermann was the club’s star man; he had returned to Poland post-War after fleeing to Vienna, Austria. With two caps for Poland, he made history by being one of only two players to score a hat-trick on their debut.
Despite their major role in Polish football history, Hasmonea Lwów were constantly targeted by the Polish FA and regularly punished. In 1929, the club was penalized for leaving the pitch after the first minute of a match in protest against the FA. In Warsaw, the main players on football’s political stage were SKRA Warsaw – who were a left-wing socialist club – and AZS Warsaw, who were the sporting club of Warsaw’s universities and associated with the nationalists.
For the Jewish community, it wasn’t until 1915 that they had a football team. Warsaw’s combination of anti-semitic views and culture differences meant that no clubs were ethnically mixed. They did, though, play a variety of other sports. The first all-Jewish football club in Warsaw was Makkabi Warszawa, who starting playing friendly matches against fellow Jewish sides during the Great War.
The origins of the club, however, were borderline bizarre and genius, as Rightbankwarsaw explains:
“The first Jewish sporting club in Warsaw actually arose due to a bizarre set of events. After their successful Eastern campaign in 1915, German forces took Warsaw and set about administering the city. German authorities decided only to permit the resurrection of pre-existing societies. Seeing an opportunity, Warsaw’s Jewish community came up with a plan. They would pay for adverts in local papers informing Jewish sportsmen and women to return to training. Luckily this ploy was enough to dupe the Germans and Makkabi Warsaw was born.”
In 1921, the club were one of five founding members of the WOZPN, but failed to reach the levels of success achieved by other Jewish clubs such as Hasmonea Lwów. The football scene in Warsaw was dominated by division, which was driven by culture and politics. Makkabi Warszawa were a Zionist club and often clashed with the socialist club Gwiazda.
The heated affair between the rival clubs produced arguably the greatest game in Makkabi’s history when in May 1932 they won the derby 2-1. The match was played in front of 6,000 spectators. The club took until 1929 to see any kind of success; they finished second in the A Klasa (2nd tier), but were relegated just four years later.
Football in Poland came to an end on the 1st of October 1939 as Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and their allies entered Warsaw as part of the Fall Weiss campaign. They sought about destroying the Jewish community, both in Warsaw and Poland. Interestingly, the Third Reich placed a great emphasis on the importance of sport. In football terms, all Jewish players, officials and owners were forced out of the game.
“The consensus was that German soccer helped stabilise the Hitler regime, failed to do anything for Jews and in some areas was overly eager to please the Nazis even if its overall level of support for the regime only mirrored that of the public.” – Sam Savage, Red Orbit
Football was the working man’s game across Europe, which enabled Adolf Hitler to spread his ideology to the masses. Despite his original indifference to the game, his rise to power came at a time when football was gaining in popularity.
Follow Scott Salter on Twitter @scottsltr
Thanks to the RightBankWarsawRightBankWarsaw website, which proved a valuable resource when writing this piece.