Kuper interviews aged survivors of the war from every imaginable side—ranging from Dutch Jews who hid from the Nazis, sporting-club members who staged their own ousters of Nazi collaborators after the war, and athletes dragooned into playing for Hitler's national side—and digs into previously unexplored wartime archives like a seasoned historian. The resulting book is not about formations, transfers, or sporting glory—Kuper instead uses the game as a lever to open up a serious but engaging discussion of collective memory, group identity, the legacy of the Holocaust and the war, and what games can stand for beyond the pitch.
Any intelligent sports fan not familiar with Kuper's work is missing out, and Ajax more than lives up to his high standard. I had a chance to interview Simon Kuper via email on the occasion of the US release of Ajax, the Dutch, the War , to talk about the book, his sense of the future of soccer, and more. Do you think that Americans have a hard time relating to how profoundly life in Europe was changed by the war? What single anecdote in Ajax stuck out for you as the most memorable example of how the Dutch world was turned upside down by occupation?
Simon Kuper: Actually my surprise while researching the book was to find out how little the war changed for most people in Holland. There were very few German soldiers and officials based in the Netherlands; in smaller towns you could go years without seeing a German. That was very surprising for me, as I say, because I had grown up with the idea of the war as constant action. When we think back on the period, we think of Auschwitz, Dunkirk, the Blitz in London; but in western Europe, it was a lot tamer most of the time, I came to realize.
When the Simon Kupers of the future look back on today, how will football have changed, in your opinion?
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I think people will look back on and marvel at how small soccer was then. Nowadays people grumble that soccer players are overpaid, and I understand that, but one day we will come to think of this as small beer. The European game is going to tap ever more money from other parts of the world. You see Fox sometimes putting games on its main channels.
At the moment, the biggest soccer clubs are actually much smaller entreprises than most people think. And of course Madrid usually loses money. These clubs have a lot of scope to grow. Did postwar West German football teams face discrimination in the international community? How did West Germany become an international football power within a few generations of the war? West German soccer teams were indeed widely disliked for a long time.
Beating Germany was the big preoccupation for France, England, Holland and many other Europeans teams until about the s, and a lot of that did have to do with the war. Why did West Germany become so good soon after the war, winning its first World Cup in ? The country lay in ruins in but it had a lot of knowhow, in both business and in football, and knowhow is hard to destroy with bombs.
West Germany was also welcomed back into the western bloc fast because we needed it in the struggle with the USSR. So the amazing thing is how fast the Germans left the 12 Nazi years behind them—though of course some of the scars are only fading now. My sense is that only since about Europeans have really been leaving the war behind them, in emotional terms. Has much changed in Holland or elsewhere in terms of attitudes toward the war? You describe an alarming trend in the Dutch public sphere away from tolerance, both in terms of antisemitic chants from Feyenoord fans and in political opposition to immigration.
Do you think this rightward turn will continue? I wrote the first version of this book in Dutch in A couple of far-right parties, led first by Pim Fortuyn murdered by an animal rights activist in and now by Geert Wilders who is funded largely by American neocons have attacked the Muslims to some electoral success.
Indeed, Wilders is a strong supporter of Israel. But the rightward turn might be ending.
In soccer, you get anti-Semitic chanting in Dutch stadiums. No, the Dutch are actually very good about being criticized by outsiders.
In fact some books by Dutch people have been even harsher on the wartime Netherlands. This is a country with very open debate, and I admire the Dutch for that. While it's good to set the historical record straight and not believe in myths, I don't know that these books do much good beyond that. During World War II people were forced to make horrible choices concerning their survival, choices I hope I will never have to make. Calling people cowards and collaborators from the comfort of my living room 70 years later doesn't seem like a productive exercise.
Ajax, the Dutch, the War by Simon Kuper | The Independent
Good question. We follow the wartime lives of a few players and get chapters about Nazi era internationals and English and German football during the war. During the Nazi occupation, Dutch sports clubs were forced to expel their Jewish members. They mostly complied and also weren't so great about expelling non-Jewish members who behaved less than admirably during the war. This is presumably another example of the Dutch being not so good. As for Ajax, the club seems to have had a Jewish following before the war, given its close proximity to Amsterdam's Jewish Quarter.
Ajax now has a strange reputation as a "Jewish club.
While these slurs are probably just meant to be anti-Ajax, they are undoubtedly offensive to Jews and many non-Jews, myself included. Sending your opponents to the gas chamber is not an appropriate metaphor for sports. An afterword to the American edition describes recent events in the Netherlands involving the rise of an anti-immigrant, nationalist right.
This ugly side of the Netherlands has been addressed in other books and its connection to the preceding chapters isn't made very clear. Overall, I like Simon Kuper's work and this book has some interesting moments, but it doesn't make a lot of sense. Nov 29, Stephen rated it really liked it.
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A non-fiction book looking at the Amsterdam football club, Ajax, and how it and the people around the club were affected by the second World War. In fact that's a very reductive description - many other European football clubs and cultures are touched on, and the Kuper also ranges over decades around the war.
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- Ajax, the Dutch, the War : The Strange Tale of Soccer During Europe's Darkest Hour.
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- Excellent study of development of football in Europe during the Second World War;
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But at its heart the book is focussed on Ajax, and through that it examines the Dutch - their character, politics and history. The book is packed with detail and is excoriating i A non-fiction book looking at the Amsterdam football club, Ajax, and how it and the people around the club were affected by the second World War. The book is packed with detail and is excoriating in an understated way. It effectively manages to tell of the horrors of World War II in Europe, and warns of the tenacious attitudes that formented it still being with us today. Some of the detail can be overwhelming - the statistics are horrifying, but can be slippery to recall.
I'm not sure if that's due to the slightly scattershot structure of the book, or just that many of the events are so unimagineable. Certainly some of the sense of being overwhelmed comes from trying to wrap your head around the slightly contradictory ideas that are at the heart of the book. Kuper contends that Holland, and particularly Ajax Football Club was both better and worse during the war than pop culture history would have them. Holland gave up its Jews much more easily than most other European countries, though not, it is asserted, because Holland had a large Nazi Party they did but because the Dutch just wanted a peaceful, orderly life.
And the continuance of sport, and football in particular, were part of that as it was in many other countries. That said, many Jews associated with Ajax actually were protected and survived through their association with the club, and were later instrumental in the club's success. But peculiarly that's not celebrated by the club, or even really acknowledged, and that despite Ajax being perceived as a Jewish club. The Dutch as a whole, it asserts, understand that they were not particularly virtuous in WWII, but - or perhaps because of that - would also like to avoid any serious engagement with the casual anti-semitism that the author identifies in Holland since the war years.
There is lots of other interesting stuff, about English football, and football under the Nazis, and perhaps the book's greatest value is in correcting the accepted version of history the England team's Nazi salute, for example. While occasionally a touch ranty, it is unflinching and keen.
Mar 27, Cameron Norman rated it liked it. My motivation to read this was multi fold. I have been growing in my interest in Dutch football and, in particular, Ajax. My partner is of Dutch descent and we are planning a trip to Holland in the coming year and, as a football and history buff, thought this would be the perfect book to satisfy my many interests in all of those topics. It's difficult to say how well this book actually accomplished that.