Is It Only A Game?

Review of Ajax, The Dutch, The War: the Strange Tale of Soccer During Europe's Darkest Hour, by Simon Kuper (New York: Nation Books, 2012)

Bill Shankly, legendary manager of Liverpool, once famously told an interviewer, "You only get out of the game what you put into it. And I put everything into it I could, and still do. . . . Somebody once said football's a matter of life and death to you. I said listen, it's more important than that."

And so I approached Simon Kuper's newest book with high expectations. His previous book,  Soccer Against the Enemy,received lavish praise and, as a soccer lover myself, I relished the opportunity to delve into a subject dear to my heart but completely outside of my own research. Much to my delight, this book exceeded my high expectations. It will be of great interest to soccer fans and World War II history buffs alike, but also everyone in between interested in the subject of Jewish and European politics.

Kuper's treatment of Dutch soccer before, during, and after World War II is both responsible and engaging. I use the term responsible because Kuper ultimately grapples with controversial subjects ever-present in the collective memory of World War II survivors and succeeding generations: collaboration, resistance, and the Dutch claim to have been on the "good side" of the war.

Kuper approaches the histories of various Dutch soccer clubs—Ajax in particular—as microcosms for what happened in Holland and Europe in terms of collaboration and resistance. He challenges Dutch memory of the war that overwhelmingly celebrates resistance and argues instead that the majority of the Dutch had actually "gone on with their lives" during the Nazi occupation and "never made great moral choices" (9, 11-12). The wide-spread and popular, yet simplistic and deeply-problematic, notion of the Dutch as unfailingly "good" is what Kuper works to dismantle throughout the work.

Kuper also discusses the rise of soccer's popularity in Holland during the occupation and attributes this not to an escape from Nazi terror, but rather to an escape from the tedium of life for those who were not targeted by the Nazis. This reinforces one of the overarching themes of the work, which strives to show that the majority of Holland's non-targeted population simply remained "safe and dull" and fairly unexposed to the great dangers facing its Jewish population (98).

Gripping as these chapters were, the ones I found most compelling were those that grappled with Holland's contemporary public imagination and understanding of the war. Kuper writes that though most of the Dutch have made peace with the fact that they were in fact "gray and cowardly" during the war, there is now an alarming lack of public discourse and education on the subject.

He highlights the widespread and silent acceptance of anti-Semitism in Dutch soccer at large as well as the virulent anti-Semitism among some Dutch supporter groups. Kuper ponders to what extent Nazi symbols have become exciting taboos in Holland (222). He does a marvelous job of entwining this theme with that of emerging Dutch anti-immigrant sentiment and violence in Holland. The result is a snapshot of a troubled country, one which stands in opposition to the myth (lie, Kuper might say) of an ever-welcoming, peaceful, orderly country.

The stories that Kuper tells from his research—some from his own observations—are fascinating and tragic. How does one react to being at a Feyenoord-Ajax match nowadays and hearing a group of Feyenoord supporters making hissing sounds in reference to gas-chambers?

As a member of the Jewish community and having grown up for a period in Holland, Kuper remains a strong presence throughout this work, commenting, for example, that "being cheeky about gas chambers became a short cut to being considered original, witty, important" (227). What I appreciated most about his voice is its frankness, sometimes delightfully and deservedly acerbic but never distracting. Kuper does not attempt to hide or disguise his presence.

He thinks like a historian. The bibliography attests to work done in archives and with newspapers and secondary research. This is especially evident through his exploration of the culture of war throughout Europe and the extent to how this affected resistance and collaboration (136). While he is often frank in regards to the limitations of his interviewees as sources, I would have liked him to explain his methodology in conducting interviews.

While I appreciated that Kuper included English, German and French soccer histories, I would suggest that the soccer histories of the remainder of Europe would better serve to contextualize the work. However, the extent to which Kuper problematizes Dutch history and culture in World War II through the prism of soccer is both effective and compelling. In his own words, the game is sometimes not just a game, and this book amply demonstrates that.