The Book Of Names – Erno Berger: A Resurrection At Auschwitz

It was in Block 27 at Auschwitz that I came upon one of the most arresting physical representations of the Holocaust ever conceived. In one room of the block can be found The Book of Names. The title of the exhibit is perfectly descriptive, but trying to explain the effect of this voluminous compendium of death is not easy. Try to imagine the number and size of the pages it would take to print the names of 4.2 million people. Now imagine that after each name, the year and place where that person was born is given. Finally, try to visualize that at the end of each entry, the place where the person was murdered during the Holocaust is listed, if it is known. If you can imagine all this, then you can imagine The Book of Names. The entire exhibit stretches out over several meters with the large pages bound together in a multi rowed, thick compendium of tragedy. It is the thickest book I have ever seen before and I hope to never see another one like it again.

What makes this huge tome particularly unfathomable is its subject matter and what that endless list of names says about humanity. Everyone listed in the book was murdered due to a choice by one group of human beings to single out and destroy another group. This litany of depressing data gives the sparse details of the individual lives and deaths of millions. Open The Book of Names to any page and one is confronted with hundreds of lines that cause the senses to reel. Soon the eyes glaze over as one name looks like another name. After a couple of pages all those lines run together. The sheer immensity of this catalog documenting the humanity lost in the Holocaust can scarcely be conceptualized by the mind. The only way for me to make any sense of it was to seek out an individual name. I had one to focus on, a personal connection, that suddenly made my eyes stop and closely search all those lines for traces of an existence.

The Book of Names in Block 27 at Auschwitz

The Book of Names in Block 27 at Auschwitz

The Outlines Of A Life – The Power Of Presence

The name I searched for was that of Erno Berger. It took me several minutes just to find the specific page. There was not one Erno Berger, but many lines listing men with that same name from a multitude of places in Eastern Europe. There were thirty-one Erno Bergers in all. Just the fact that the name was repeated so many times was a chilling reminder to me the depth and penetration of the Nazi’s genocidal thoroughness. I began to study each Erno Berger entry more closely until I found the specific one I was searching for. Finally, I came upon the following entry: Berger, Erno, 2/3/1982 Belgrad, Yugoslavia, Place of death unknown.

It was a surreal feeling to find this Erno Berger. Suddenly, I felt a pulse of energy and interest. A tangible connection had been made. For a moment, at least for me, Erno Berger rose from beyond all those pages, he came back to life, if just for a moment. He was no longer anonymous or just another name among millions, but a person whose existence had been documented. He lived on in this handful of details, straddling a couple of lines his life and death came down to these inches. It is an extraordinarily powerful feeling to never have met someone, to have been born a quarter century after they died and yet feel like they are very close to you. I could not touch this man’s presence, but he was touching mine. I, a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant with no Jewish blood suddenly had a connection, a thread that I could unspool and use to trace the outlines of a life lost among millions of others lost.

There are 31 entries for Erno Berger in The Book Of Names

There are 31 entries for Erno Berger in The Book Of Names

From Father To Son  – Making A Name For Themselves
Who was Erno Berger and why was I searching for him in The Book Of Names?  He was born in Belgrad during the late winter of 1892. His father was J Kohn. Eventually he migrated to Debrecen in eastern Hungary where he worked as an electrician. In June 1944, he along with nearly the entire community of Jews in Debrecen – 7,411 to be precise – was rounded up and deported. The deportees were sent either to Auschwitz or Austria where many more would die in forced labor battalions. Which one Erno Berger went to is still a mystery. Somehow he ended up in Bergen-Belsen where he died. One thing is for certain, he never came back to Debrecen. The only existing remnant of his existence is his name on a memorial wall. It can be found in the courtyard of one of only two active synagogues left in Debrecen. He never saw his ethnic Hungarian wife again or the lone child that was born to the couple not long after Erno’s deportation.

This son would be given the name of the father he never knew. His surname eventually changed, as so many Hungarians Jews did during the communist period to avoid persecution and any lingering anti-Semitism. Assimilation was no longer necessary to survive, but it was to thrive. The son would grow up to become a noted physician in the city that had rejected his father. He would eventually marry a Hungarian as well, just as his father did. This was in the late 1960’s rather than the mid-1940’s. Hungary was a very different place by then. The kind of place where a man with brilliant intellect and smarts could achieve great things, despite or perhaps because of communism. And this son did just that. He healed, he taught, he loved and he lived. If not for him, I would never have been standing at Auschwitz searching for the name of Erno Berger.

A Lot To Learn – Ancestral Feelings
The son and by extension his father really must have been something, to have such power and influence continue beyond life. I never met either of them and never will. The day the son died I was still in high school. I did not know anything about Hungary and the Holocaust meant little to me other than what we learned of it in history class. I had a lot to learn then, I still do now. Erno Berger and his son meant a whole new world to me because they were my wife’s grandfather and father respectively. It has been through her that I came to know them. And it has been through her that I can see them.

A Question Of Character – Artur Gorgei : The Misunderstood Patriot As A Symbol Of Betrayal

I do not remember exactly when, but it was sometime during my first few years in grade school that the word traitor and the name of Benedict Arnold became synonymous in my mind. Arnold was the turncoat who betrayed the Continental Army to the British. His actions dealt a grievous blow to America’s revolutionary effort. Arnold’s reputation has not changed much in my lifetime. I have always felt the assessment of him has been quite fair. The same cannot be said of another supposed arch traitor from the pages of history, the Hungarian general from the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, Artur Gorgei. His turncoat status has been debated by generations of Hungarians. Some of these see Gorgei as a convenient fall guy for Lajos Kossuth. Others see him as the man who surrendered the Hungarian Army in an effort to save his own skin, while still others see him as a symbol of nation that could never accept its surrender. The most interesting thing about Gorgei’s reputation is that it is still in doubt and probably always will be.

Artúr Gorgei - misunderstood patriot

Artúr Gorgei – misunderstood patriot (Credit: Miklós Barabás)

Beyond Hope – Surrendering To The Situation
On August 11, 1849 with the tide of military affairs turning decisively against Hungary, its Regent-President Lajos Kossuth fled the nation. Kossuth turned over all authority to General Artur Gorgei who was leading the outmatched Hungarian Army. In effect, Kossuth had absolved himself from responsibility in an untenable situation while at the same time making sure he was safe abroad. By this time, the Russian Army had come in on the side of the Austrian Habsburgs making the Hungarian Army’s position hopeless. Gorgei was a realist, he knew that holding out would only cost more lives in a futile fight for a lost cause. It would not be long before he surrendered, hoping that the Austrians would have mercy on the revolutionaries. They would not, but the Russians saw to it that Gorgei escaped their wrath. Meanwhile, Kossuth who was safely ensconced in Bulgaria, called out Gorgei as “Hungary’s Judas”. This was the same Kossuth who had said to the nation at the time of his abdication that “all hope was at an end”.

If all hope had indeed been lost, then why was Gorgei to blame? Or was Kossuth trying to draw attention away from the fact that he had abandoned the nation at the time of its greatest peril? For their part, the Austrians showed little remorse. Most famously they executed 13 Hungarian military leaders at Arad in what is today Romania. Gorgei’s life was not only spared due to the intervention of Tsar Nicholas I, but he was also paid 1,100 gold coins by the Russian military commander in a show of respect. Though Gorgei used these funds to help his fellow soldiers, most Hungarians were swayed by the myth that Kossuth propagated. In the public’s mind, Gorgei was to become Hungary’s Benedict Arnold, while Kossuth was faithfully still fighting the Revolution in perpetual exile. The fact that Gorgei lived while other fellow officers were executed made it look like he had surrendered in order to avoid the ultimate penalty. Looking at just his decision to surrender in isolation, it is easy to understand how Gorgei’s actions were misconstrued as traitorous behavior.

Artúr Görgei - later in life

Artúr Görgei – later in life

A Revolt Within A Revolution – Reputation Mismanagement
A more balanced perspective comes from examining Gorgei’s conduct in regard to military affairs in 1848-1849. A case can be made that the Hungarian Revolution would not have met with near the success that it did if not for Gorgei’s military ability. He defeated Croatian and Austrian forces in multiple battles, but also made a strategic blunder by failing to go on the offensive along the Austrian frontier in the first half of 1849. The resulting inaction, coupled with time wasted besieging enemy forces in Buda, allowed the Austrians to regroup.  To make matters worse, Gorgei and Kossuth had clashed several times over the conduct of the war. At one point Gorgei had issued a statement calling out the political leaders for trying to micro-manage his military decisions. He fought independent of their authority for a while in the mountains. A revolt within a revolution has never been a good idea.

Gorgei’s military acumen was too valuable for Hungary’s political leaders to ignore his martial talents. Despite the infighting he was placed back in charge of the army and campaigned all the way to the bitter surrender. Thus, Gorgei’s record during the revolution is one of both accomplishment and failure. His reputation, even without the surrender, would have been ambiguous. Gorgei shared a commonality with the controversy that surrounded him, longevity. He and the debate over his actions at the end of the war would not go away. Gorgei lived to be almost a hundred years old, dying at the age of 98 in 1916. He had moved back to Hungary almost half a century earlier, in 1867 following the compromise that created the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Gorgei was still a lightning rod for criticism with public opinion set firmly against him. On several occasions he was met with jeers and derision in public. He was appointed to several important positions, but could not take up these jobs due to protests. A group of his supporters were able to lobby so that Gorgey could finally receive his pension, but other attempts to rehabilitate his reputation were rebuffed. Only after his death did emotions begin to subside. Relations and historians took turns trying to answer the question of whether Gorgei had betrayed his homeland. His own brother produced a three volume defense on his behalf. The historian Domokos Kosary spent almost fifty years examining the controversy, producing a two volume study almost 800 pages in length. Both of these, as well as other works exonerated Gorgey. Yet he continued to be a polarizing figure, either seen as a symbol of betrayal or misunderstood patriot.

Artur Gorgei monument in Budapest

Artur Gorgei monument in Budapest (Credit: Skelanard)

Standing Stoic – The Attacks To Come
In 1998 an equestrian statue of Gorgei was placed on Castle Hill in Buda. This was not the first statue of Gorgei in Buda. There had been an earlier one installed prior to World War II. It had been damaged in the Battle of Budapest and the post -war communist government later melted it down. It was rumored to have become part of the material that was used to create the enormous Stalin statue that was subsequently destroyed in yet another Hungarian Revolution, that of 1956. The statue of Gorgei that stands on Castle Hill today shows him on horseback, looking rather stiff and rigid. Perhaps he is bracing himself with stoicism for the attacks on his character that will surely come.

A Measure For Their Dreams – Budapest By The Danube: Heart Of Optimism (Travels In Eastern Europe #27)

There is only one thing to do after arriving in Budapest for the very first time. It is to make your way over to see the Hungarian Parliament Building. I know this from experience as it was late in the afternoon on a sunny day in mid-March when I rushed over to see the structure. As such there was no time to try and take a tour of the interior. That was fine with me because truth be told all I really wanted to do was feast on the ultimate piece of architectural eye candy, a building that brings to mind a confection of the most fantastical kind. No amount of superlatives can aptly describe the Hungarian Parliament building. It is much larger than photos of it are able to capture. Just to walk around the building at a rather brisk pace takes a good twenty minutes. The sheer glamour of this neo-Gothic masterpiece is overwhelming. The beauty and grandeur of the building is one thing, but consider that the Parliament serves a country of only ten million people. It looks like something one would expect to find as the seat of government for a world power. Hungary is only a mid-sized country in east-central Europe, but it obviously has much greater designs.

Hungarian Parliament Building

Hungarian Parliament Building (Credit: Ivanhoe)

Historic Convergence – Pulling A City Together
The Parliament is a reflection of how the Hungarians see themselves and their place in Europe. These are people of outsize ambition, who take creativity to its ultimate extreme. This is how they ended up with such a fantastical confection astride the Danube. It is also how they ended up creating a city along both sides of the river front of unsurpassed majesty. The area where Budapest is strung along the Danube brings to mind an old phrase, “the hits just keep coming.” From where I stood in the shadow of the Parliament on the river’s embankment I took in a scene of architectural enchantment that was as much the product of a fairy tale, as it was the work of man. Gazing upriver, across the placid, slate gray surface of the Danube I spotted the unique three-part Margaret Bridge connecting both sides of the city with an island of the same name. Then I looked downriver where the Chain Bridge, that inaugural link between the two sides of what became the same city, stretched across the watery expanse.

The bridge is a historic link, it allowed the lifeblood of Buda and Pest to flow unimpeded into one another. Its centrality to the city’s convergence is without equal in annals of European history, magnetically pulling the two sides together to create Europe’s fastest growing metropolis in the latter half of the 19th century. The Buda Hills across the river from where I stood that day, displayed a series of treasured buildings that any city would be pleased to call its own. I counted at least six church spires, the most prominent of which soared above all, that of the Matthias Church on Castle Hill. There was another set of spires recognizable just below the church. These were part of the Fisherman’s Bastion. Further on was a dome that signaled the top of Buda Castle which spread royal wings beneath it. This panorama of Buda as seen from Pest was so wondrous that I could hardly believe my eyes.

Looking towards Castle Hill from the Danube in Budapest

Looking towards Castle Hill from the Danube in Budapest

Rising From Ruins – The Building Of Buda
To think that all this is not the product of prior planning, but many centuries worth of organic growth is mind boggling. Here is a scene of stunning urban perfection that has scarcely been repeated. Descriptions will not do it justice. Taken as a whole, this part of the city as it stands astride the Danube is one of the great wonders of the world, a setting that has no peer, even in the annals of old Europe. The sheer scale of grandiosity on offer along the Danube in Budapest is overwhelming. That makes it hard to imagine that the beautiful scene standing on the Buda Hills has been reduced to a smoldering ruin on multiple occasions in the past. When the Habsburgs took it back from the Ottoman Turks in 1686 and the Red Army stormed it during the winter of 1945, they left a residue of rubble that paradoxically became a foundation for regrowth, rebirth and reconstruction.

Following World War II, what was left of both the Margaret and Chain Bridges lay submerged in the river. Revolutions in 1848, 1919 and 1956 left bullet scared buildings and rising plumes of smoke in their wake, signals of the resistance that lay at the heart of all good Magyars. The embankment I stood upon has been inundated by the Danube too many times to recount, sending parts of Pest to a watery grave. Good men and women laid low by the pessimism of the Magyar mentality have leapt into the dark waters of the Danube in alarming numbers over the past two centuries. Jews had been marched to these river banks and shot by the hundreds in acts of genocidal indifference. Historical fate had subdued this city and its citizens repeatedly. Yet through it all the city rises again and again.

Chain Bridge looking up at Buda Castle at night

Chain Bridge looking up at Buda Castle at night (Credit: Noval Goya)

The Will To Splendor – In The Minds Of Magyars
Budapest by the Danube is a sparkling example of triumph over tragedy, the will to splendor, an astounding adherence to national destiny. For all their reputed gloomy cynicism, the heart of every Hungarian must be filled with an abiding optimism to overcome the many misfortunes of history inflicted upon their nation. How else to explain the creation of a capital that is such a showcase of scintillating beauty? Optimism is the eternal answer. Optimism took the grey Danube, spun it into a silvery thread and wove it into a fantasy cityscape of the most furtive imagination. Optimism built a series of unforgettable bridges that transcended nature to connect a city and nation into a greater whole. Optimism touched the sky with steeples that soared from a wellspring of faith. And optimism created a city that is a stunning exposition of the majesty that lives in the heart and mind of every Magyar.

Stealing Away – Repulos Gizi (Airplane Gizi): Hungary’s Queen Of Thieves

Theft is something I often think about when traveling in Europe. Perhaps that is why I have managed to avoid it. I am extremely cautious at public transport stations, always keeping a close eye on my belongings. The same logic goes for when I am onboard either a bus or train. One of my travel mantras is that you can never be too careful. This mindset does not apply to air travel. I usually stow my bags in the overhead compartment without a second thought. This has caused me few problems. I figure if someone can afford to take a flight, then they have little reason to steal a few of my travel guides, an IPod or old laptop.  I had never given much thought to thieves and airplanes until I read about the extraordinary exploits of a Hungarian woman who is best known by her nickname of Repulos Gizi (“Airplane Gizi”). Gizi’s preferred method of travel was by airplane while carrying out numerous thefts that brought her fame and infamy. There is no telling how many passengers sat beside Gizi on planes, unaware that they were traveling with one of the world’s most prolific kleptomaniacs. Even more fascinating is the fact that the woman known as “Airplane Gizi” had little interest in stealing while airborne, that was because she had already done her dirty work beforehand.

Gizella Bodnar - also known as Airplane Gizi

Gizella Bodnar – also known as Airplane Gizi, explains her extraordinary story

The Business Of Theft – Gizi Takes Flight
A few years ago I flew on the now defunct national carrier, MALEV Hungarian Airlines, from Bucharest to Sarajevo by way of Budapest. I have trouble remembering anyone onboard or anything that happened, other than I had to borrow the flight stewardess’ pen to fill out a customs declaration and almost forgot to give it back. She politely reminded me of this as I exited the plane. Both flights were pleasant to the point of being unmemorable. I am quite certain that thousands of passengers had the same experience on MALEV’s short hop flights around Hungary over the years. It is doubtful that they ever suspected or even noticed an unprepossessing lady onboard some of these flights. She would have looked like any other ordinary passenger traveling to see family or conduct business in a provincial city. The latter reason would have been closer to the truth, but the business she conducted was theft and the getaway vehicle was a MALEV airplane.

MALEV - the now defunct Hungarian National Airline

MALEV – the now defunct Hungarian National Airline

The history of Hungary during the 1950’s usually has to do with one of two things, either Stalinist terror or revolutionary upheaval. Overlooked is the fact that the people, with all their flaws, ambitions and impulses continued to act as they always have. Life went on, with all of its banalities, eccentricities and abnormalities. It was during this time that a woman by the name of Gizella Bodnar first came to notice as she began a sixty year career in crime with her first reported robbery. There were two things that made Gizella’s criminal activity so unique. For one thing, she did not commit theft in the pursuit of material wealth or personal gain, but because she felt an uncontrollable urge to do so. In other words she was a kleptomaniac. Secondly, she carried out a remarkable number of thefts by using the domestic flight service of MALEV to fly from one city to another in Hungary. Upon arrival she would break into several residences, steal whatever valuables she could get her hands on before taking a return flight back home, with her booty in tow. Later on she would do this with international flights to cities in Western Europe. It might be said that the flights provided her with “cloud cover” as no one would suspect a woman using domestic flights to abet in habitual theft. Thus, she was given the nickname of Repulos Gizi for her exploits.

Gizella Bodnar (Repulos Gizi -Airlane Gizi)

A legend in her own time – Gizella Bodnar (Repulos Gizi – Airplane Gizi)

Collecting Your Belongings – “Airplane Gizi” Rides The Rails
It could be said that for Gizi the steal was the thrill. She just could not help herself despite being apprehended on multiple occasions and put on trial over twenty times. She ended up serving 16 of the 40 years for which she was sentenced. Gizi said she had developed kleptomania after suffering meningitis as a young child. No scientific link has been proven to exist between the two. She also claimed that her behavior was stress induced. She was a student living in Kassa, Hungary (Kosice, Slovakia), when the city was bombed, precipitating Hungary’s entry into the Second World War. This supposedly set her on a binge of thievery. Whatever the case may be, there is little doubt that Gizi was a chronic thief. Long periods of confinement did nothing to dissuade her from stealing again and again. She became quite famous for her criminal impulses, even penning a memoir, in which she referred to herself as the “Queen of Thieves.”

As she grew older, Airplane Gizi was grounded, more due to her notoriety than infirmity. This did nothing to stop her from engaging in unlawful activities. She was still physically able to carry out larcenous escapades. A couple of years ago, she was apprehended by police at a train station in the town of Bicske, 35 kilometers west of Budapest. The officers found her in possession of 15,000 forints. She was suspected of taking the money from a wallet, sitting on the living room table of a home she had broken into. In the first half of 2015, Gizi was caught robbing a residence in the Burgenland region of eastern Austria, two weeks after disappearing from a nursing home. Later that same year, she was caught hiding inside a closet in the eastern Hungarian town of Hajdúszoboszló. Gizi claimed she was taking shelter from a rainstorm. At the time of her arrest she was a sprightly 89 years old. Airplane Gizi is still alive today, though it is highly unlikely she will take to the air again for another round of breaking, entering and stealing. What is not beyond the realm of possibility, Gizella Bodnar (Repulos Gizi) might get caught once again, making a last grasp to satisfy her urge for theft.


Villages Peopled By The Imagination – A Train Ride Between Gyor & Sarvar

I have always had a fondness for the obscure. The first time I became aware of this was while reading a twenty-four hundred page history (do not ask why) of the American Civil War. I enjoyed learning about each of the major campaigns, but I became fixated on the battles and skirmishes of the New Mexico campaign, an obscure theater of the war that I had never known about before. Perhaps this fondness for the obscure is what led to my interest in Eastern Europe. I am bored to death by Paris, London or Tuscany, but the idea of Budapest, Krakow and Kiev thrills me to no end. Now that I have been able to make many trips to the region, I find myself gravitating more and more towards the obscure. Mention Hungary to me and I am dreaming of the Nyirseg in the nation’s eastern extremity. Transylvania stimulates thoughts of Szekelyland. For some mysterious reason the next time I visit Ukraine, Volyhnia is at the top of my list, not for any compelling reason other than the fact that few go into this forested northwestern corner of the country. And so it goes on, give me Szekszard instead of Szeged, Kaunas over Vilnius and Novi Sad over Nis.

Rolling into obscurity

Rolling into obscurity

An Unknown Force – A Passion For Obscurity
One of the best ways I have found to fulfill my fetish for the obscure is to take a regional train through the countryside. These trains tend to stop at smaller sidings, offering a window into crumbling towns and tiny villages that dot the landscape. Places that the upwardly mobile escaped from long ago, but are still somehow hanging on despite the effects of urbanization causing long term demographic decline. In Eastern Europe such places are sometimes foreshadowed by an abandoned collective farm that looks like it lost its raison d’etre long before the Iron Curtain fell. It is in Hungary where I have been able to experience these rural settings most evocatively. These are the kind of places that no one other than their inhabitants will ever remember, but for some strange reason I am the only foreigner unlikely to ever forget them either. These proverbial wide spots in the road drift into the consciousness, hide there and then resurface, triggered by an unknown force.

On an uneventful train trip in Hungary during the early spring I was able to spy several of these small villages from a window seat. I was traveling on a rattle trap of a local train from the city of Gyor in western Hungary to Sarvar. The excursion was for one reason only, to visit Sarvar Castle. The castle had been one of the main homes for the dreaded “Blood Countess”, Elizabeth Bathory. The horror which had occurred in the castle during the late 16th and early 17th centuries had kept me reading wide-eyed for many evenings prior to my trip. It occupied my imagination to the point that on the morning I boarded the train in Gyor, I had an ominous sense of dread, a nervous anticipation of what I might discover later that day in Sarvar. This was the product of an overactive imagination searching for drama.

Mihalyhaza Train Station

Mihalyhaza Train Station

The Land Of Just Getting By – A World That Lies Fallow
As the train rolled out of Gyor and into the countryside, the morning fog was slowly burning off. The train was nowhere near even half full. Being an American, I immediately thought of how nice it would be to have trains such as this rolling through obscure regions in the Midwest or Great Plains. The United States once had such trains, seventy years ago. Hungary was not seventy years behind the United States, but this train felt like a throwback to the days of communism. It was a purely mediocre mode of transport replete with cracked leather seats, a bare bones bathroom with a hand soap dispenser parceling out a grainy substance that looked like half bleached sand. Running water was little more than a leaky faucet. The windows on the train looked like they had ossified themselves shut. Other than that, it was a pleasant ride through a Europe few tourists would ever see. The trees were not quite in bloom, the fields still lay fallow, but greenery was starting to show. This was a land on the verge of rebirth, unlike the towns which inhabited it.

The train slowed and made intermittent stops. The first few towns were relatively prosperous due to their proximity to Gyor. The further out from Gyor, the more a village could best be defined as a place “where people live.” There was Szerecseny, Gecse-Gyormat, Vasvar, Mezolak and Mihalyhaza. There were places with unusual, typically incomprehensible Hungarian names such as Kemenesmihalyfa and Ostffyasszonyfa. Here was a world few would ever see except for the local inhabitants. There was no breathtaking beauty, only pleasant pastoralism. Small sized, frayed houses in many of the villages were a reminder that the economy had long since moved elsewhere. A question which I had no way to answer kept coming to mind, “What do people do here?” From the looks of it, they either had the career choice of staying inside or farming, but there were no farmers in the fields. There was land everywhere, but where were the people who worked it. Hidden behind walls, windows and curtains was the answer to that mystery. This was the land of just getting by. There was no dire poverty, only a slow steady decline into obsolescence.

Rural Hungary - a window into rural decline

Rural Hungary – a window into rural decline (Credit: Marcel Bauer)

Western Hungary In My Heart – A Place For Imagination
These villages for me were the height of obscurity. Places no one really cared about or was even conscious of. Because of that I wanted to know everything about them. I could only imagine what history was hidden inside all those houses, personal rather than national, love affairs and loneliness, homemade feasts of food and alcohol, a slow life and an even slower death. These were places with too much past and hardly any future. At least that is what I wanted to imagine. To know the truth would have been illuminating and enthralling, but then these villages, this train line and that forgotten land would have no longer been obscure to me. I would then almost certainly lose interest, move on to another place down the line. It was best just to know them for a few fleeting minutes. That way they could stay forever obscure and I could keep a small slice of Western Hungary in my heart.

A Brilliance Beyond 1954: The Last Triumph of Hungarian Football

For all the accolades showered on Hungary’s “Golden Team” there is one achievement that gets scant notice. After their 32 game unbeaten run was broken by West Germany in the 1954 World Cup Final, the Golden Team did not suddenly collapse despite a hostile Hungarian public and a government searching for scapegoats. Instead they continued to play at an incredibly high level. They did not give into defeatism or wallow in the sorrow of that stunning loss. For a year and a half they continued to beat one team after another, much the same as they had before the World Cup loss. Even after they lost a game in 1956, the Hungarians rose to the occasion one final time in Moscow to defeat what was soon to become their nation’s greatest foe.

Setting Records & Precedents – Kocsis Rises To The Occasion
Two months after the 1954 World Cup, Hungary began to play internationals once again. The loss to West Germany seemed to have little effect on their play. The star during this period was Sandor Kocsis. He had been the leading scorer in the World Cup, netting eleven goals. He kept up that pace for the rest of 1954 and into 1955. In the first ten internationals Hungary played after the loss, Kocsis scored 16 goals, including five multi-goal games. His prolific scoring ability helped carry the team as Kocsis set a standard unmatched in football history. He still holds the all-time record for average goals per game against FIFA Class A competition. In one of those matches, a friendly played in September 1954 against the Soviet Union in Moscow, he scored the lone Hungarian goal in a 1-1 draw. This was as close as the Soviets had ever come to losing at home. It would not be the last time the teams met in a precedent setting match in Moscow.

In the winter of 1954 Hungary traveled to Glasgow where they faced Scotland in front of a massive crowd of 113,000 at Hampden Park. This was the largest crowd the Hungarians would play in front of during the 1950’s. The Scots were well aware of what the Hungarians had done in their two earlier routs of England. Their strategy was very different from England’s. They launched fierce counterattacks in an effort to put Hungary on the defensive. These tactics were only partially successful. Hungary scored the first two goals and held the lead throughout the game, but the Scots showed great resolve. They pulled to within 3-2 a minute into the second half. From that point, the Scots narrowly missed on several shots that would have leveled the game. Only in the final minute did Hungary put the game away when Kocsis scored. The Magic of the Magyars was on full display that afternoon. They showed that even on the road, in the face of fierce resistance both on the field and in the stands, a top notch opponent was still no match for their brilliance. In the return affair in Budapest six months later Hungary triumphed once again, winning 3-1 before 100,000 of their countrymen.

Heading up the team - Sandor Kocsis

Heading up the team – Sandor Kocsis

Ending An Era – One For The Road
From September 1954 until the end of 1955, Hungary played 19 games, winning 16 matches and drawing three others. This was part of a six year run where they only lost once in 52 games. Then starting with their inaugural match in 1956 they hit a shockingly bad streak. First, they played poorly in a 3-1 road loss to Turkey. In their next match at home they tied Yugoslavia. The decline continued when they suffered their first home loss in an international match since 1943 as they were soundly defeated by Czechoslovakia 4-2. A couple of weeks later they traveled to Belgium where they would attempt to break a losing streak, something none of the Hungarian players had ever experienced playing for the national team. They raced out to a 3-1 lead, only to collapse in the second half, allowing four goals and losing 5-4. Changes would now have to be made. Blame focused on the coach, Gusztav Sebesz. For years he had been hailed as a footballing genius, a master of tactics, who had built the most brilliant team in football history. Ever since the World Cup loss, Sebes had become increasingly suspect in the eyes of the communist government. Following the loss to Belgium, he was relieved of his duties. Sebes would never again be allowed to manage the national team. The end of an era was close at hand.

The domestic situation in Hungary began to resemble the national team’s collapse. The Soviets removed the hardline Hungarian dictator Matyas Rakosi from power. Stalinist-era purges were denounced and victims were rehabilitated. This thaw unleashed pent up frustration about the country’s direction under the communist regime. Once the edifice of stability had cracked, it was not long before it began to crumble. The country was headed toward revolution. The Hungarian national football team dramatically inserted itself into this fraught situation when on September 23, 1956 they played the Soviet Union at Lenin Central Stadium in Moscow. The Soviets had never lost an international match at home. The 102,000 spectators on hand fully expected to witness another triumph by a team that was seen as an icon of what the Soviet system could produce. The Hungarians were seen as well past their prime, even though all the old war horses – Bozsik, Czibor, Grosics, Hidegkuti, Kocsis and Puskas – were still playing in the match. In the 16th minute, Czibor scored the lone goal of the game. It was an incredible upset in the backyard of worldwide communist officialdom.

The revolution to come in Hungary - autumn 1956

The revolution to come in Hungary – autumn 1956

Anything Is Possible – On The Edge Of Revolution
The Hungarians had conjured another remarkable victory. At the same time they helped stoke a patriotic fervor sweeping across the nation in what would be the final month before the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The nation’s pride swelled as anything seemed possible. Their football team had defeated the best squad the Soviets had ever assembled. Once again it seemed that nothing could stop these Magical Magyars. That was until the outbreak of a revolution that would change Hungary and the Hungarian national football team forever.

The Road From Revolution – Hungarian Football Exiled Abroad

One of the great achievements in European football took place before 127,000 spectators at Hampden Park in Glasgow, Scotland on May 18, 1960. The European Cup Final was played that Wednesday afternoon with the Spanish club of Real Madrid facing Eintracht Frankfurt of West Germany. Real had come back from an early deficit to take a 2-1 lead, but with the first half almost at an end the game was still a toss-up. Then Ferenc Puskas, the prolific forward so often associated with the glory days of Hungarian Football during the 1950’s, scored the first in what would be a barrage of goals. He single-handedly stretched Real’s lead from 2-1 to 6-1 by scoring four goals over a period of 27 minutes. Such a one man offensive assault has never been seen again in a European Cup Final.

Ferenc Puskas - star striker for Real Madrid

Ferenc Puskas – star striker for Real Madrid

At the time of the match, Puskas was 33 years old. He had been exiled from his homeland for over three years and many thought to be well past his prime. Then in less than half an hour of match time he had reminded everyone of the superb power and precision of his left foot shot, one of the best in football history.  “The Galloping Major” as Puskas had been known while playing for the army sponsored club of Honved in Budapest for years, galloped off to Spain after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, a move that revitalized his career. He was one of several Hungarian players who just a few years before had been part of the famous Magical Magyar team of the 1950’s. This team had revolutionized the game of football with their training, tactics and innovation of an early form of Total Football. Ironically, another revolution, one based not on sport, but that of politics cast much of the team adrift, ending the golden age of Hungarian football forever.

Soldiering On – Honved Hits The Road
On October 23, 1956 an uprising exploded in the streets of Budapest. Tens of thousands of Hungarians had started out by protesting peacefully. The protest grew larger and more virulent throughout the day. Then in the evening violence broke out. Hungarians demanded an end to the one party communist state that held the nation in its iron grip for far too long. On that mid-autumn day Hungary was transformed. These changes were also felt by a group of Hungarians who were outside the country when the revolution broke out. Several members of the Hungarian national football team played for the Budapest Honved club. At the time of the uprising they had just lost the away leg of a two match series in the European Cup against the Spanish team, Athletic Bilbao by a score of 3-2.

The home match for Honved was to take place in Budapest, but was postponed due to the unrest. Despite the outbreak of fighting, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) announced that Honved would have to play the match or forfeit the game. It was rescheduled and played at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium. This time Honved managed a tie, which was quite a feat considering the emotionally charged atmosphere surrounding the team. Unfortunately the tie did not allow them to advance. They ended up losing the series on aggregate score 6-5. All was not lost though, as this was just the beginning of their autumn adventure. The revolution had ended in defeat, but Honved soldiered on. Instead of returning to a homeland suffering in deep despair, Honved’s players had their families join them and went on the road for a fundraising tour.

Exiles abroad - Sandor Kocsis, Laszlo Kubala & Zoltan Czibor with FC Barcelona

Exiles abroad – Sandor Kocsis, Laszlo Kubala & Zoltan Czibor with FC Barcelona

Stateless Wonders – Kocsis, Czibor & Puskas Soar
The fiercest opposition to the tour did not come on the field of play. Officials at the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) were against it since Honved did not have the support of the Hungarian Football Association. In effect they were stateless when it came to official support. Nevertheless they played throughout southern Europe and as far afield as Brazil on the tour. While ostensibly for a good cause, the tour was also an opportunity for Honved’s top players to showcase their talent before prospective foreign clubs. These auditions might possibly lead to a lucrative contract for a lucky few. Playing for pay as a professional in the west was a much better proposition than playing for the perks doled out by the Communist Party back in Hungary. Who would return and who would stay was an open question. Honved was not the only Hungarian club to tour abroad. MTK Budapest also left the country and went on the road. The difference was that the MTK players would return home, while some of Honved’s best players decided to stay abroad.

Three of Hungary’s greatest players, Sandor Kocsis, Zoltan Czibor and Ferenc Puskas eventually signed contracts to play in Spain, the first two with Barcelona and the latter with Real Madrid. Kocsis and Czibor were the kind of world class players any time would have been grateful to acquire. FC Barcelona was able to sign them due to the efforts of Lazslo Kubala, another Hungarian exile who had left the country in 1949 when it became apparent that a hard line Stalinist regime was being implemented in Hungary. Kubala’s efforts paid immediate dividends for the club as the additions of Kocsis and Czibor led to Barcelona winning the La Liga championship. In 1961 Barcelona made it all the way to the European Cup final. Ironically, the final was being played in Wankdorf Stadium in Berne, Switzerland, the same place where Kocsis and Czibor had experienced defeat in the 1954 World Cup Final. The second time was not a charm for them either as Barcelona lost 3-2 to Benfica. After Kocsis retired he opened a restaurant in Barcelona. He lived out his life in the city. Czibor eventually would return home.

The flag of Hungary with the center cut out - these became symbols during the 1956 Revolution when the communist coat of arms were cut out

The flag of Hungary with the center cut out – these became symbols during the 1956 Revolution when the communist coat of arms were cut out

Losing Twice – A Nation & Its Football Team
As for Puskas he played world class soccer for Real Madrid up into the mid-1960’s helping lead them to multiple European Cup finals. He then took up coaching, enjoying a fair amount of success. Never more so then when he took the Greek team Panathinaikos to the 1971 European Cup final. Only after the collapse of communism would he return to Hungary. Puskas was feted as a national hero. His long and notable adventures as a foreign exile were behind him. So were the glory days of Hungarian soccer. The national team had never been a threat to win the World Cup after Kocsis, Czibor and Puskas fled abroad.  Puskas was made coach of the national team in 1993, but this did little good. He failed to resurrect a team that was lacking in talent. Miracles rarely happen twice. The Magical Magyars of the 1950’s were a once in a lifetime team. No one knew this better than Puskas. Their brilliance and mystique had been damaged by their loss in the 1954 World Cup Final. Two years later, it disappeared entirely with the outbreak of revolution. The Hungarian uprising of 1956 had transformed both the nation and its national football team. In both cases, Hungary lost. These are defeats from which the nation has yet to recover.

Losses On & Off The Football Field – Shadows Of Defeat: Hungary’s 1954 World Cup (Part Six)

It was an uneventful and quiet journey from Berne back to Budapest for the Hungarian national football team following their upset loss to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup Final. The trip could not have been long enough for each member of the team. Every one of them knew that nothing would be the same when they arrived back home. They had no idea who or what would greet them, but it would certainly not be good. Much of the capital had been festooned with bunting prior to the final in anticipation of a victory. Following the loss all of the bunting disappeared in a matter of hours. What appeared on the streets was much more ominous and foreboding. In the working class districts of Budapest thousands gathered together to vent their frustrations resulting in localized riots. Some of them went even further. Among their targets was the National Football Lottery which they set on fire. Prowling the streets, shouting and inebriated, these vandals made their way to the National Radio Station, a prime target since it had broadcast the catastrophic loss. In vain they would shout for commentator Gyorgy Szepes to be brought out. They were searching for a scapegoat. The government would find one soon enough. These incidents were symbolic of the heartbreak and frustration of an entire nation now seething with discontent. Into this fraught situation, the Golden Team – its luster turning rapidly to rust – returned.

Losing the blame game - Ferenc Puskas

Losing the blame game – Ferenc Puskas

The Search For Scapegoats – “I Knew They Had It In For Me”
Much of the anger was directed at Ferenc Puskas. The star of the team became a lightning rod for much of what had gone wrong in the final game. Puskas had convinced the team’s coach Gusztav Sebes to add him to the lineup. Not only was Puskas still injured and unfit for match play, but his presence in the lineup also denied a place to Laszlo Budai who had been one of the stars in the victory over Uruguay. Later it was said that Puskas did this out of jealousy and a habitual dislike for Budai. After the loss Puskas was kept out of the limelight for many months, both for reasons of personal safety and fear that his appearance might provoke the public further. For his part, Puskas accused the Germans of doping. His complaints were loud, but few were listening. Hungarian goalkeeper, Gyula Grosics and the team’s coach Gusztav Sebes bore the brunt of the Hungarian communist regime’s wrath for the loss. Grosics was already under suspicion for attempting to defect several years before.

Fall guy - Gyula Grosics

Fall guy – Gyula Grosics

Because of his checkered past, Grosics became a convenient fall guy for the communist regime. Who could be guiltier than the man who allowed all three goals by the West Germans? This was despite the fact that he had been named to the all-star team for the 1954 World Cup.  Many years later Grosics would recall the greeting given to the team upon their arrival in Budapest by Hungary’s communist dictator Matyas Rakosi. “None of you should be punished for this game. I get the sound of his voice still in my ears…I knew that this means exactly the opposite. I knew that something bad would happen. I had often clashed with state security…now I had the feeling to be in danger. I knew they had it in for me.” Grosics was correct. Soon thereafter he was arrested, charged with smuggling goods and espionage. He could have been given the death penalty, but instead was banned from football for a year, then exiled to the mining town of Tatabanya, where he played for the local team when he was not being taken in for weekly interrogations. Only after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 did the pressure on him subside. He would be allowed to rejoin the national team, playing in both the 1958 and 1962 World Cups.

A Failure Of Nerves – The Plight Of Sebes
As Hungary’s coach, Gusztav Sebes found himself shouldering much of the blame. His decision to play Puskas was seen as a fatal error that helped cause the loss, but that decision was not just Sebes’. Other officials in the Ministry of Sport also put pressure on him to start Puskas. Sebes made some other odd lineup and position changes that directly impacted the team against West Germany. He included Mihaly Toth in the starting lineup though he was not a regular starter. He also switched Zoltan Czibor from his traditional position on the right wing to the left. Perhaps Sebes’ decision making was influenced by the immense pressure of trying to win the championship. During the tournament he said, “I never suspected the World Cup would be such a test of nerves.”  An even greater test of nerves awaited him back home in the aftermath of that dreadful defeat. Sebes was a fierce communist ideologue, but he had let the regime down on one of the biggest international stages. Such a failure could not be easily explained away.

Coach and scapegoat- Gusztav Sebes

Coach and scapegoat- Gusztav Sebes

Sebes reputation was badly damaged, though he did manage to continue as the team’s coach for another two years. Then in 1956 after Hungary lost a friendly to Belgium and with the political situation in the country growing to a combustible level, Sebes lost his job. He was denounced by officials in the Ministry of Sport for being too bourgeois, a code word for ‘enemy of the people.’ His notoriety likely saved him from a worse fate than being fired. Eventually Sebes would find his way back to the game as an administrator and coach at the club level, but he would forever be shadowed by the 1954 World Cup Final. Sebes saw in the defeat a monumental political, as well as sporting loss. He once said, “If Hungary had won the football World Cup there would have been no counter-revolution, but a powerful thrust in the building of socialism in the country.” Such a statement might be dismissed as ideological nonsense. Then again what else did Hungary have in the 1950’s except an extraordinary football team, a team that represented an entire nation’s hopes and dreams? When those Magical Magyars were defeated, so was the state. At least that was the way it worked in the mind of Sebes.

The Greatest Loss
Sebes, Grosics and Puskas were all vital components in one of the greatest football teams ever. Yet each of these men also received much of the blame for Hungary’s stunning defeat. Hungarian football had ascended to such stratospheric levels that a single loss ended up obscuring the team’s many spectacular achievements. That was the way it had to be for a government and a nation that lost the one thing they could believe in together. It was a horrible loss, but more horrible ones were to come for Hungary and the losses would not be on a football field.

A Strange, Schizophrenic Quality – German Restoration & Hungarian Devastation: Hungary’s 1954 World Cup (Part Five)

During the Cold War it was a thinly disguised secret that communist bloc nations were involved in doping to enhance athletic performance. East Germany was among the worst offenders. Their state sponsored program was successful in helping the hardline communist nation win many international championships and Olympic gold medals. Today East Germany is remembered for little more than rampant cheating in sports. What is less well known is that West Germany also had a state sponsored doping program. Its most important sporting victory was most likely assisted by performance enhancing drugs. The drugs used were not illegal at the time, but are now banned. Because of this, great controversy swirls around West Germany’s upset victory over Hungary in the 1954 World Cup final.

Getting Their Fix – Assuming The Offensive
To have any chance at all against a Hungarian team that was likely the strongest in football history, the West Germans needed every advantage they could get. This was why prior to the game doctors may have injected the West German players with Pervitin, a powerful type of methamphetamine that boosts stamina and energy level. This was a crucial aid in a tight game, played in deplorable weather conditions, that was deadlocked late into the second half. Reports of the methamphetamine injections were later denied, but 35 million doses had been manufactured for use by German soldiers during World War II, thus there were large quantities still available in Germany. Officials did admit that West German players had indeed been given injections, but of vitamin concoctions. A damning report, Doping in Germany From 1950 To Today, which was commissioned by the German Olympic Committee in 2008, told of systemic support by West German officials for the use of performance enhancing substances in national athletics. Though the report did not specifically refer to the 1954 World Cup team, the implication was clear. A person who worked on that study later stated that the 1954 World Cup team had received regular injections of Pervitin in the run up to the tournament, as well as during it. Players had sometimes shared the same needle and syringe for these injections.

In the months following the match several German players became seriously ill, contracting jaundice or black fever with two eventually dying from cirrhosis of the liver.  The price of victory for some unlucky players may have been their lives. Such controversies would arise after the final, but as the second half opened with the game tied at 2-2, both teams focused on probing for an opening that could lead to the decisive goal. The Hungarians again assumed the offensive. Star striker Ferenc Puskas was a shadow of his pre-injury self, unable to convert opportunities into goals like he had so often in the past. Nevertheless he was still extremely dangerous. This became apparent in the opening minutes of the half when Puskas came close to scoring with two shots on goal expertly saved by Toni Turek. A few minutes later, Golden Head Sandor Kocsis hit the bar with a header. Such close calls kept the partisan German crowd on edge, over half the crowd of 64,000 in Berne that day were estimated to be rabid West German supporters.

A moment that will last forever - the restored match clock outside the Stade de Suisse

A moment that will last forever – the restored match clock outside the Stade de Suisse (Credit: Sandtein)

Tiebreaker – The Ultimate Goal
The second half turned into a continuation of the last two-thirds of the first half with neither side able to score. It was not so much a defensive stalemate, as it was a series of missed opportunities. The match had a strange schizophrenic quality to it. In the first 16 minutes four goals had been scored, then for over an hour the match was scoreless, this was followed by a frantic finish with two goals in two minutes, but only one of them would be allowed. Though the Hungarians had come close to scoring several times in the second half, it was the West Germans who finally broke through. In the 84th minute, Hans Schaefer on the left wing sent a cross that just barely eluded Hungarian defender Mihaly Lantos. The ball reached Helmut Rahn, who advanced with it, seemed to pause momentarily, then used his weaker left foot to put a shot past Hungarian goalie Gyula Grosics into the left corner of the goal. The Germans had finally taken the lead. All they needed to do now was hold Hungary scoreless for a few more minutes. This turned out to be rather difficult as the Hungarian offense unleashed a frantically attack.

Desperation suddenly elevated Puskas’ play. In the 86th minute he broke free to receive a precision through pass from Mihaly Toth, entering a gap, he was able beat Turek. His shot found the goal. For a precious few moments it looked like the game was tied once again, but the flag of Welsh linesman Mervyn Griffiths was raised calling an offside penalty on Puskas. To this day the call is still debated. Replays seem to show Puskas onside. Many still believe – and not just Hungarians – that the goal should have counted. To this day, the offside on Puskas is one of the most controversial calls in World Cup history. No one will ever know if the Hungarians would have been able to win the game in extra time. Hungary had one last golden opportunity in the waning seconds of the match when Zoltan Czibor broke free and sent a shot toward the corner of the goal, but Turek was there just in time to knock the ball away.

West German captain Fritz Walter and friends celebrate the Miracle of Bern

West German captain Fritz Walter and friends celebrate the Miracle of Bern

More Than A Game –  West Germany Rising
When the final whistle blew West Germany were the 1954 World Cup champions. It was the nation’s first major post-war international success and called the Miracle of Berne (Das Wunder von Berne). A country that had nearly ceased to exist less than a decade earlier, that was still occupied in some parts by foreign armies, were now world champions of the most popular global sport. An improbable victory had been won against incredible odds. The West Germans had defeated a Hungarian team that had not lost in four years, a team that exactly two weeks earlier had beaten them by five goals and led them by two goals eight minutes into the final. Was a victory ever this improbable? The West Germans may have been helped to victory by a powerful stimulant, but it was not illegal at the time. They may have been the recipient of an official’s error, but that is debatable. Nothing could take away from the emotional thrill and restoration of national confidence that the West German football team’s victory gave to the German people. For the Hungarian team as well as the nation losing the 1954 World Cup would be too much to overcome. The recriminations were about to begin.

Click here to read: Losses On & Off The Football Field – Shadows Of Defeat: Hungary’s 1954 World Cup (Part Six)

The Making Of A Miracle – Rise Of The West Germans: Hungary & the 1954 World Cup (Part Four)

Some losses can never be overcome and some victories are bigger than they seem at the time. No two teams in the history of international football represent these two extremes better than Hungary and West Germany in the wake of their 1954 World Cup championship match. The legendary magic of the Magyars ran out in a stinging 3-2 defeat to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup Final in Berne, Switzerland. This loss sent Hungarian football into a death spiral from which it has never really recovered, while the victory boosted West Germany’s national self-confidence and propelled their national team into the top tier of world football for decades to come.

A ticket to a miracle - 1954 World Cup final ticket

A ticket to a miracle – 1954 World Cup final ticket

A Miracle Made From A Matchup – Final Reckoning
Hungary came into the final heavily favored with an unbeaten streak of 32 games. The Golden Team as they were known had defeated both the 1950 World Cup finalist (Brazil) and champion (Uruguay) in the previous two rounds and scored at least four goals in every game. Their only real shortcoming concerned the defense, which had allowed seven goals in five games. Still, this total was less than the eight goals they had scored in trouncing West Germany earlier in the group round. Conversely, the West Germans came without any great expectations of success. This was the first major international sporting tournament they had been allowed to compete in since the end of World War II. West Germany had not been allowed to field teams in either of the two post-war Olympic Games nor the 1950 World Cup. Even their 1954 World Cup squad could not choose players from all of western Germany. Saarland – a region that included the Saar River valley and its tributaries in southwestern Germany along the border with France – had fielded its own national team which failed to qualify.

In the group round, West Germany’s play was unexceptional, but during the knockout rounds they stepped up their game. First was a shut out of Yugoslavia, then a convincing 6-1 victory over a strong Austrian team in the semifinals. This meant they would once again face Hungary. The West Germans fielded a very different team in the final from the one Hungary had shellacked earlier in group play. Their coach Sepp Herberger had not used several of his best players in that match, relying on reserves instead. He changed out six different players for the final. Many also believe the West Germans had given less than their best effort in the group round loss. It was a masterful strategy, because it lulled the Hungarians into a false sense of superiority.

Captains before the kickoff - Fritz Walter and Ferenc Puskas with referee William Ling

Captains before the kickoff – Fritz Walter and Ferenc Puskas with referee William Ling

A Matter of Minutes –  Shattering Confidence
The West German strategy was almost derailed by their dreadful start in the final. It was only matched by the awful weather in Berne on that memorable day. A drenching rain soaked the sod, making the field soft and muddy. This did little to stop Hungary from opening with their usual display of offensive firepower. In the sixth minute a shot by Sandor Kocsis hit a West German defender, the ball then found its way to the half-fit and hobbled Ferenc Puskas who hammered home a left footed shot. A mere two minutes later the West German goalie Toni Turek mishandled a back pass. The ball suddenly came into the possession of Zoltan Czibor who drove it in for Hungary’s second goal. No one knew it at the time, but it would also turn out to be their last. At this point the West Germans looked done. They were actually in a worse position score-wise than in their earlier match with Hungary. In that game Hungary did not take a 2-0 lead until the 17th minute. The difference this time was that the West Germans fielded a much better team. They proved that a two goal deficit was just a temporary obstacle.

The West Germans managed to shatter Hungarian confidence in a matter of minutes. The period of the match from the 10th through the 16th minute was transformative. First the West Germans enjoyed a fortuitous stroke of luck when a centered ball was deflected by a Hungarian defender toward Max Morlock, who was able to stretch out and stab it into the goal. Then just six minutes later a corner kick by Fritz Walter escaped the grasp of the Hungarian goalie Gyula Grosics. The ball made its way to Helmut Rahm who knocked it in to tie the game. The Hungarian lead had evaporated. The West Germans had showed grit and determination. For the first time, the match was bending to their will. They now had their feet under them, figuratively and quite literally. This was due to the football boots they wore, developed by Adi Dassler, the man who founded and gave his name to the sporting goods firm Adidas. The boots had screw-in studs that allowed the West German players much better traction on the drenched turf. They were surer of foot while the Hungarians slipped and slid about on a muddy field which only got worse as the match progressed. Their usually powerful offense got bogged down in this quagmire.

Max Morelock stretches out to score the West Germans first goal

Max Morelock stretches out to score the West Germans first goal (Credit: DPA/Press Association)

A Grinding Match In The Mud – Grinding To A Half
A closely fought, tense match now ensued. The Hungarians did their best to press the offensive. The German defense held, but just barely. This was partly due to the magnificent play of the goalie Turek. He made one of his most memorable saves when he stopped an excellent shot from the Golden Head of Sandor Kocsis. One of the few times Turek was beaten, the goal post provided an extra defense as it denied a shot from Nandor Hidegkuti. Then it was the Germans turn, as they besieged the Hungarian goal for an extended onslaught. Despite several openings, their efforts came to naught. The first half ended in a 2-2 tie. What had started out as a rout, was now a hard fought match among equals. The final had turned into a contest of will more than style, a defensive battle rather than an offensive assault, a grinding match in the mud that had become a test of strength and stamina. All of these developments favored the Germans and consequently, a miracle upset.

Click here for: A Strange, Schizophrenic Quality – German Restoration & Hungarian Devastation: Hungary’s 1954 World Cup (Part Five)