Austrian footballer Matthias Sindelar
Given today’s headlines about sudden falls from grace and instant access to news, few people might be stunned but not surprised to wake up one morning to learn of the untimely death of a celebrated, in-the-prime-of-life athlete. But this was not the case on January 23, 1939, when newspaper headlines in Vienna declared “Sindelar is dead.”
On that date, Matthias Sindelar, the most renowned footballer in Austria, had been found dead in the apartment he shared with his girlfriend, who was found lying next to him and breathing her last breaths. The official police report mentioned “flue gas poisoning” as the cause of death. While there is little argument as to how the then 36-year old Sindelar died, there has been speculation as to why: political murder by the Nazi party that had taken over control of Austria the year prior; pre-meditated murder by the pimp of his former-prostitute girlfriend; suicide; double suicide; or accident. The intrigue has perhaps been encouraged by the fact that the police report has long-since gone missing.
Discussions about Sindelar—the “Paper Man”—and the circumstances surrounding his life and death have emerged sporadically over time, including a column authored in 2003 by the German writer Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger and another penned by the journalist Robin Stummer. And perhaps only the most die-hard football fan and the occasional historian could recall how, on April 3, 1938, the middling German national football team came to Vienna’s Prater Stadium to play a match against the premier Austrian team—the Wünderteam—in a celebration of Germanic unity. Sindelar, the team captain, had by then refused requests by Nazi officials to join the newly-organized German national team. During the game, he scored a goal and otherwise helped Austria to a 2-nil win in a game that is reputed to have been orchestrated by the Nazis to end in a draw.
Sindelar seems to have had little tolerance for how the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany seized every concept of society, including Austria’s professional football association. In part spurred by the banishment of Jewish players and officials who were his friends, Sindelar quit playing football almost immediately after the April 3 match and purchased a small café. The café had been owned by a Jewish acquaintance and became available when Aryanization dispossessed Jews of their businesses. But though Sindelar bought the popular business for a song, he is alleged to have paid its former owner the true market value rather than the discount price assigned by Nazi officials. He then maintained its clientele enough that the Nazi Gestapo labelled him a “social democrat and a Jews’ friend.” Within the year, he was found dead in the Vienna flat.
The story about Sindelar’s life is in its own way as remarkable as those of other athletes that the Nazis used—or intended to use—in their efforts to exhibit superiority (including those who opposed the ideology and were permitted to live despite it, such as the tennis star Gottfried von Cramm, whose story is accounted for in Marshall Jon Fisher’s A Terrible Splendor).
But what makes it even more worthy of attention are the conditions that created the vacuum that disrupted the world Sindelar knew: a depressed economy and social spirit that loaded-down the country with rising levels of inflation and unemployment; a growing policy rift between the two largest and most-influential political parties, which encouraged the growth of several right-wing “fringe” organizations; and a government that attempted to stabilize the economy by taking on an increasing number of foreign loans rather than seriously entertain a proposal by Austria’s one-time finance minister, Joseph Schumpeter, that sought to counteract the turbulence through a policy grounded in innovation and entrepreneurship.