Many of you will have no idea who Bert Trautmann is, and I am not at all surprised by this. This is OK though, I’m not judging you. However, Trautmann is a very interesting example of how Anglo-German relationships can be very unusual and massively influential. Trautmann died this week and the litany of obituaries has made for some stunningly interesting reading. The most amazing thing about Trautmann is that in spite of the life he lived, one deeply tarnished by horror, he was utterly candid about it all, allowing an insight into how messed up things can be and how redemption can be obtained in the oddest of ways.
Trautmann was born in Bremen in 1923 and, as was common at that time, was raised in the mentality of the Hitler Youth, eventually going on to join the Luftwaffe at age 17. Trautmann spent the majority of his active duty on the Eastern Front, a period in which he was awarded five medals, including the Iron Cross First Class. In 1944 he survived the Allied bombing of Kleve, leaving him as one of only 90 members of the original 1,000 in his unit. Deciding at this point that war was hell and that he had ridden his luck far enough, he decided to bugger off back to Bremen. As a deserter, Trautmann was gambling big with his life, being that deserters were being shot on sight. Trautmann was found by some Americans, who he believed were going to execute him as he was of no use to them. He bolted. He leaped a fence only to be greeted with a truly stunning phrase:
“Hello Fritz, fancy a cup of tea?”
This was to be the third time Trautmann had been captured during the war, first by the Russians and then by the French Resistance. This time, with the British, he made no effort to escape.
Over the next few months in Blighty, Trautmann was moved around from POW camp to POW camp, each one evaluating how much of a Nazi he was. He ended up with non-Nazi “B” status and found himself in a camp in Lancashire, not far from St Helens and Wigan. Being that there was not much to do in these camps, football was a regular activity for him. The story goes that in one game Trautmann got into a fight on the pitch and was moved to goalkeeper to calm down the situation. With this, a legend was born, a man who would eventually go on to play for Manchester City over 500 times.
With the closure of the POW camps, Trautmann was offered the opportunity of repatriation. He turned down the offer, opting instead to stay in England, working on a farm and some bomb disposal programs. During this time, he was playing for the local football team, St Helens Town, where he met his future wife. His performances there were good enough for him to be bought by Manchester City, he had now turned professional.
The dream was to turn a bit sour though as Manchester City fans were understandably not all that happy about having a former Nazi and member of the Luftwaffe on their team tending goal. Boycotts were threatened, fervent letters were written, people were really pissed off. Oddly, it was a Rabbi, Dr Altman, who appealed for Trautmann to be given a chance, saying that he ought not to be judged for the sins of his nation. This quelled the situation significantly and Trautmann started on the road of a long and illustrious career for Manchester City.
Trautmann has a special place in the annuls of English football for more than just being ex-Luftwaffe though, he did something quite remarkable in a cup final in 1956. He broke his neck. What is more, he continued playing. For 15 minutes. Wait, there’s more. In the final moments he saved a certain goal which would have cost the team the game, with a broken neck. He was a hero. Steeped in the glory of winning the cup, Trautmann went along with the festivities. He collected his medal, enjoyed a banquet that night, and went to bed, all the while assuming that the next day his neck would feel better. Three days later, yes, three days later, it was revealed that he had dislocated five vertebrae, one of which was split in two. He only avoided paralysis or death by the smallest slither of fortune.
Needless to say, this made him very well known in football circles and Trautmann went on to become a cult hero for Manchester City fans who watched him tend goal for them for 15 years. This story, as amazing as it is though is not necessarily what is most amazing about Trautmann. I believe how his eyes were opened by his capture and subsequent relationship with the British makes for a stunning tale. “I feel British in my heart now,” he said in 2010. “When people ask me about life, I say my education began when I got to England. I learnt about humanity, tolerance and forgiveness.”
During his time in the POW camps, he was, as many German captives were, shown films about Belsen and the atrocities being perpetrated against the Jews, something he had actually seen first-hand when he accidentally stumbled across an SS death squad executing Jews in Ukraine when he was only 18 years old. “My first thought was: ‘How can my countrymen do things like that?'” he says. “But Hitler’s was an utter totalitarian regime.”
The fact is though, Trautmann concluded his journey this week, a journey that took him from his Birth in Bremen to his death in Valencia, Spain via the Hitler Youth, the Luftwaffe, amateur football to professional football and football management (Stockport County, Burma, Tanzania, Liberia, and Pakistan). Trautmann is a unique example of how our two nations can, even in the most divisive moments in our shared past, be willing to forgive the harshest of sins, safe in the knowledge that we simply cannot judge an individual based solely on the language the speak or what their governments are dictating as national policy. His life is a heart warming example of humanities ability to change and to love one another, whilst embracing what a land other than your own can offer you for better or for worse.
Trautmann will be remembered foremost for the keeper who played for 15 minutes of a cup final with a broken neck, this is certain, but we can only hope that people remember to tell the rest of his story as it is a pretty phenomenal one. In the words of Bob Wilson, Trautmann was an “amazing person who helped bring our warring countries closer together.”