Ajax, the Dutch, the War
[ bookreviews ]
Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch and Simon Kuper’s Football Against the Enemy ushered in a new era of football books. Hornby started a trend for personal accounts of fandom, of what football meant to an individual, or a community. At its worst, this trend produced various dull, increasingly predictable tomes. Kuper began a more cosmopolitan, universalist trend in football writing. Football Against the Enemy focused on the relationship of football with politics and nationalism.
Much of Ajax, the Dutch, the War was originally published by Kuper in a special edition of the Dutch literary football magazine, the wonderful sounding Hard Gras. He focuses on football during World War II, and on how Dutch society – Ajax in particular – dealt with the legacy of the war, especially their behaviour towards Jews. Being a “member” of a Dutch club (as in many continental European countries) is far more than being a fan; most clubs are wider sporting and social associations. The Dutch are, according the Kuper, a nation of joiners and club-members; thus the prism of a football club tells us much about the nation.
Sport is sometimes portrayed as an easily manipulated tool of dictatorships and totalitarians. For example, George Orwell wrote a famous essay that showed no love for football, arguing that sport exacerbates nationalist tension and hatred. However, as Kuper writes, the Nazis found the unpredictability of football frustrating; it was hard to manipulate to produce the required allegory of racial superiority. Hitler’s one definite attendance at a football match was Germany’s defeat to Norway in the 1936 Olympics. Football had a struggle to gain respectability in Germany in the late 19th century; nationalists preferred endless Turnen gymnastics and a non-competitive cult of the body, seeing football as a decadent English game. The leading Nazis themselves preferred motor sports and boxing.
Kuper relates this to football’s ongoing relationship with politics. One of the themes of Football Against The Enemy was that football, and more particularly fan culture, is one of the best ways to understand the daily life of a country. Without this book, would I have ever known that “Traditional Dutch swearing usually revolves around diseases. People urge each other to get cancer, or cholera or typhoid or pleurisy”? Such sidelines aside, Kuper’s theme is an extremely serious one; in particular, he tries to dismantle the Dutch myth of heroic resistance to the Nazis, the notion, as a chapter title has it, that “The Netherlands was better than the rest.”
There’s a tragicomic account of Sparta Rotterdam’s War; Sparta have preserved their minutes and other documentation. Here Kuper tries to demythologise the Dutch War Myth; the closest Sparta got to resistance was their debate as to the size of the Forbidden for Jews sign they had to erect.
As the title suggests, Ajax are the central actors of the book. While Ajax expelled its Jewish members in 1941, Kuper writes “what distinguishes Ajax from most other Dutch clubs is the support and help it gave to the Jews during the war.” Yet unlike other Dutch clubs, Ajax don’t even have a memorial to their members who died in the war. Kuper explores the reasons for this official amnesia; partly the fact that many Ajax members collaborated to various extents during the war. Yet the legendary Ajax that emerged in the 60s and 70s had a strong Jewish ethos. Paradoxically, Holland is hugely popular among Israelis – only Poland had lost a larger proportion of its Jewish population, and other countries (notably Denmark and Bulgaria) occupied by the Nazis did far more to try and hinder the Holocaust but the Anne Frank story and a usually pro-Israeli stance have cemented Holland in the Israeli mind as an ally.
Kuper also deals with the fans of Feyenoord (the Rotterdam team) and their loathsome anti-Semitic chants (such as making hissing noises to represent the gas chambers), and indeed the pre-Pim Fortuyn popular image of the Dutch as a nation of tolerant, pot-smoking liberals has to be further refined after reading this book; he deals with the casual anti-Semitism that has crept back into even educated Dutch discourse, and in the final chapter, Kuper observes that “Amsterdam is a more segregated city that Johannesburg, where my family came from” The Amsterdam Arena is located in Bijlmer, a Turkish / Surinamese ghetto, yet Ajax attract hardly any fans from these ethnic groups.
Kuper has taken football writing to a new level both of sophistication and insight, and still remains genuinely entertaining. Highly recommended.