One of the most versatile players of his generation, Frenchman Oscar Heisserer was coveted by the Nazis in order to aid the German National team. Yet he defied them and created an everlasting legacy as a result. FP tells his story.
The Romans invaded the French region of Alsace in 58 BC and re-established it as a centre of viticulture – the study of grapes to make wine. So good was the Alsatian wine that Julius Caesar himself reportedly proclaimed it as the best in all of Gaul.
Alsace fell to the Alemanni, Germanic tribes from the upper Rhine river, as the Roman Empire declined. The Alsatian dialect which is spoken to this day is a direct descendant of the Alemanni languages. It is quite remarkable that the dialect endured even after the Franks occupied the region for centuries.
The reason for this historical peregrination is to stress the fact that Alsace is a melting pot of Romanesque, Germanic and Frankish cultures. The Germans and the French have fought over the region for centuries. Imagine a highly pulsating tennis rally where the ball is Alsace. You get the idea.
The two European giants last engaged in conflict over the region’s sovereignty during the Second World War.
And it was during this most horrific of times that the loyalties of several Alsatians were tested. Most notably of a man called Oscar Heisserer.
Slender, blonde and born in a typically Deutsch sounding commune called Schirrhein (then in Germany), Heisserer looked a great deal more German than French. But it was the French national team jersey that he wore with pride with the captain’s armband around his arm.
If Germany had not ceded the region to France in the Treaty of Versailles then Heisserer would have probably starred for Die Mannschaft and history would have been deprived of an inspiring tale of moral courage shown in the face of adversity.
With the iniquitous, actions evoke a greater response than mere words. An intuitive grasp of this metaphor led Heisserer to have, ironically, a counter-intuitive reaction to the members of the Schutzstaffel who put him in a locus of unparalleled moral conundrum.
Even as a child, Heisserer displayed prodigious talent with a football at his feet. His step up to the ‘big league’ came in 1934 when he moved from FC Bischwiller to Racing Club de Strasbourg Alsace who at the time of Heisserer’s joining, had won the regional championship on three occasions.
Strasbourg is the pride of Alsace not just for its football club but for also being the seat of several major international institutions such as the European Parliament, the European Science Foundation and the International Institute of Human Rights among others.
From Marie Tussaud to Arsene Wenger, the Alsatian capital is the birthplace of several eminent personalities who have contributed immensely to their respective metiers.
In Alsace, everyone had something of both France and Germany. For example, Germanic surnames are commonplace. At one point, all the players in the Racing starting XI had surnames of Alemanni roots such as Roessler, Keller, Schwartz or Hummenberger. Antoine Griezmann, the Atletico Madrid superstar and French international has Alsatian roots from his father’s side, hence such a German sounding surname.
RC Strasbourg, founded in 1906 as FC Neudorf, stood the test of time amid a geographical merry-go-round that made the club oscillate between the French and German leagues. It had to wait until 1933 to turn professional after a meeting at the Restaurant de la Bourse. The club began in Ligue 2 and earned promotion to the top flight at the end of the 1933-34 season by beating Mulhouse and AS Saint-Etienne in a couple of two-legged play-offs.
Racing’s crowning glory of the 1930s could have come in the 1937 Coupe de France final against rivals Sochaux. Played at the Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir in Colombes, Heisserer started the game but unfortunately finished in the losing side as a late winner from an Irishman named Bernard Williams gave Sochaux a 2-1 victory.
Despite the setback, Racing remained a formidable force in French football and Heisserer their finest footballer.
Standing at 5ft7, Heisserer was one of the most versatile players of his time. For example, he started the Coupe de France for Racing at the inside left position, played inside right for France but cited Patrick Vieira when asked about his playing style. Heisserer, in his own words, was “more attack minded and stockier”.
The Racing talisman had a keen eye for a pass and chipped in with crucial goals for both club and country, most notably a 90th minute captain’s goal against a Stanley Matthews led England side at Wembley that earned Les Bleus a 2-2 draw.
His international career spanned for eleven years earning 23 caps for the French national team. Heisserer was the first Alsatian and the only Racing player to ever captain France.
Heisserer also appeared in the two games that France played in the 1938 FIFA World Cup on home soil. The Belgians were dispatched 3-1 in the first round but the French fell victims to the Italians in the second round by losing 3-1. France’s consolation goal was scored by Heisserer himself.
Consistent performances for Racing Strasbourg drew the attention of Racing Paris, French league champions in 1936, ambitious beyond measure and looking to dominate French football for years. But the Parisians were dealt with a heavy blow. The Nazis.
The French capitulation at the hands of Hitler’s Germany was swift and clinical. Within six weeks, the Nazis had conquered France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
Alsace was integrated into the Reich and was officially under German occupation for the first time since 1919. Laws were passed that that forced Alsace to join Baden and form a single administrative united called Gau Baden Alsace. The German language was declared as the lingua franca, outlawing French and Alsatian languages.
Mandatory military service forced more than 130,000 men from Alsace and Lorraine to be conscripted into the Nazi army. Most were sent east to fight off Stalin’s Red Army. More than a third of those men never returned to their homes.
The Nazi invasion was followed by the German rechristening of several organisations and institutions. Racing Strasbourg were renamed Rasensportverein Strassburg while tiny Red Star Strasbourg were adopted by the Schutzstaffel and were turned into SS Strassburg.
The Nazis did not just exploit the industry and resources of the occupied countries but also capitalised on the abundance of athletes and sports personalities readily available to augment the Third Reich’s increasing sporting supremacy.
For example, the Poland international Ernst Wilimowski and many other Polish footballers of his generation, took German citizenship as Volksdeutschers. Wilimowski was the finest Polish international at that time having scored an impressive 21 goals in 22 appearances for his country.
Following the Nazi invasion of Poland, ‘Wili’ became a policeman and played for Polizei-Sportverein Chemnitz. After scoring an astonishing 37 goals in five games, Wilimowski was called up to the German national side.
Heisserer was meant to follow his footsteps.
In the summer of 1940, Heisserer had returned to Alsace after fighting as a soldier on the Maginot Line. One fine day, while leaving Racing Strasbourg’s training ground, Heisserer was besieged by three vehicles out of which disgorged several SS officers. The local pharmacist who accompanied the SS pointed at Heisserer and shouted “That’s him!” Things were looking bad.
Heisserer was taken to the SS headquarters where he was told that Alsace will be part of the Reich for the next hundred thousand years so it was in his best interests to join the SS.
To which Heisserer replied, “Yesterday I was a French international and the captain of the national team. So how can I join the SS today?”
“You will regret this,” said the Nazis and left him. But this was just the beginning of the torment that Heisserer would endure to ward off their advances.
Heisserer’s defiance stands in stark contrast with another French national team captain, Alexandre Villaplane, whose avaricious and treacherous nature made him turn into a psychopathic Nazi monster at the flip of a coin. Heisserer, however, was of a different breed.
People had agreed to much worse. All Heisserer was demanded of was to play football for the Nazis. Why did he decline?
Aged just 25, he was at the peak of his powers. A ‘yes’ would have propelled him to unprecedented success and riches. Yet, he refused. He saw right through the anthropocentric sense of entitlement that the Nazis carried.
But that was just the beginning of his torment.
Sometime after Heisserer’s encounter with the Schutzstaffel, Sepp Herberger, the coach of the German national team, himself came down to Alsace. A former international, Herberger had been the assistant coach of Die Mannschaft before succeeding Otto Nerz as the full-time manager.
Herberger wanted Heisserer in his team; the same Herberger who would win West Germany the FIFA World Cup in 1954.
“I can’t be a French international and a German international. That’s not possible, is it?”
Herberger returned to Germany and never bothered the Frenchman ever again.
The SS tried time and again. They offered him monetary incentives as well but Heisserer refused every time. In fact, he played for Strasbourg with pride and did not lose a single derby against SS Strassberg.
“We always wore bleu-blanc-rouge, the French colours, and at every match many spectators were arrested for demonstrating. It was like France against Germany, you know. We always had a lot of spectators, fifteen thousand or twenty thousand during the occupation,” he said.
Football like always played a pivotal role in geopolitics and football stadiums like always played host to the rebels, the nationalists fighting against their unjust occupiers.
Heisserer, being as brave as he was, was also a critical thinker who recognised mankind’s moral crisis in times of ethical dilemma, suggesting that many joined the SS not because they believed in Hitler’s bastard cause but because they had no other choice.
“To be honest, not many of them were really SS,” he said when asked whether he had animosity towards other footballers who joined hands with the Nazis. “They were more or less forced to join. It was a crazy time. It took a lot of courage to say no.”
Celebrated football journalist Simon Kuper who interviewed Heisserer years later, asked him where he found his moral courage.
“I still had illusions. I was a famous man here in Strasbourg. All the people knew Oscar, and I was in the national team. I thought, the Germans would accept this of me. And i think that’s why they didn’t do anything. They always thought, well, at the end of the song he’ll change his mind.”
But one thing that Heisserer did not foresee was fighting for the Reich. He could opt out to represent Germany or the SS on a football pitch but military service was mandatory.
In 1943, the his inevitable call up to the Wehrmacht came in. But Heisserer had no intention to fight. He left Strasbourg for Lorraine and then arrived in Switzerland.
“I was called up on a Wednesday, and on Thursday I was gone. From here I went to Lorraine, I had false papers made- well, a whole novel.”
The Schutzsaffel arrested Heisserer’s wife who was pregnant at the time. But our hero had a contingency plan. He sacrificed his own career, character and reputation to protect his beloved wife. The Nazis were told that Heisserer had left town with another woman so as to not suspect his wife’s hand in his escape.
“Even a German friend of mine swore that I had left with another woman. Everything so that nothing would happen to my wife, you understand. I didn’t just run away, it wasn’t easy. I had made my decision, and couldn’t do anything against my own conscience, could I?”
Heisserer’s integrity and his devotion to his wife were exemplary. Seldom has there been a sporting figure who had displayed humankind’s most ethereal and numinous attributes in such a manner.
Heisserer was caught in Switzerland and interned for two years where he was forced to do hard labour. There have been reports that he helped many Jews evade the clutches of the Nazis which further throws light on his spectacular character.
In the meantime, the Germans had captured his brother, who was also a player a Racing, and sent him up to Danzig to work on a U-boat and his wife had given birth to his daughter. Both brothers returned to Strasbourg. Heisserer was part of the French army that liberated the city.
Men like Heisserer and their stories of courage, morality and virtuousness are lost in time. Tales like these reassure us of the often overlooked goodness of human nature. Within us, there lie the dormant potentialities for both good and evil. Our legacy is founded upon what we lean on when confronted with a predicament.
Heisserer chose the former and became immortal.