January 27 marks international Holocaust Memorial Day, in remembrance of the millions who were murdered by the Nazis. It is, perhaps, a fitting time, to remember also those who, while not victims of the Holocaust, were also deported during this period. Writing for the excellent French-language SoFoot website (also available as a monthly magazine in all good newsagents), Nicolas Kssis-Martov wrote a touching tribute to one such victim – FC Metz footballer Marcel Muller.
For a long time, he must surely have thought that it would be the worst day of his life. On 8 May, 1938, at the Parc des Princes, Marcel Muller, along with FC Metz and their English coach Ted Magner, lost the Coupe de France final to the legendary Marseille side of Aznar and Ben Bouali. Equalising in the 84th minute through Albert Rohrbacher, a late Metz penalty, which would have sealed a victory for Les Grenats was refused under significant Blue-and-White pressure by the match referee Charles Munsch, who would become the Lorrains’ focus of ire for generations.
The Marseillaise would go on to win their fifth trophy while Metz’ 22 year old striker could barely contain his rage as he shook hands with French President Albert Lebrun. A few years later, Marcel Muller would have been able to contextualise his sporting sadness when he found himself at Dachau for refusing to serve in the army of the “Thousand-Year Reich”. His is an exceptional journey which also reveals a lot about the first generation of professional French footballers.
At first glance Marcel Muller fits a classic profile for the nascent pro footballer of the 1930s. Born in Morsbach on 26 March, 1916 (and thus a subject of Kaiser Wilhelm II), he grew up in the charming village on the border where “Germany was at the end of the road”, as André Isch, a former sports journalist for Est-Républicain - a living encyclopaedia of Lorrain football - who often met Muller post-War, puts it.
Like many players of the time, Muller began by making a name for himself playing for US Forbach in the amateur leagues of the surrounding coal mining basin, before - inevitably - joining the flagship club of the area, FC Metz. Muller was lucky, as his ascension to the elite level in 1934 coincided with the beginnings of professionalism in France, and, by all accounts, he excelled despite his young age (17 at the time of his first contract); “Many witnesses whom I subsequently met told me that he possessed a variety of skills”, André Isch confirms, “and that, without the War, he would surely have played for France”. Indeed Muller was, reportedly, pre-selected for Les Bleus once but, destined only to be a reserve, he refused the call-up.
Another brake to Muller's progress was the all-powerful Metz President Raymond Herlory (who remained in situ until 1966), who categorically refused to sell him to Racing Club de Paris, who were moving heaven and earth to secure the talented youngster’s move to the capital. An entirely different future – sporting and personal – may have awaited him in Parisian colours.
Symbolic of a lost generation, the War contrived to destroy Muller’s career. In early 1940 he was mobilised into the 162nd RIF (Infantry Regiment), and booted up along with several other Grenats (Hibst, Nuic, Zehren). An opportunity, at least, was available for young footballers to grab the title of Military Champions of France - as good a way as any other to kill time during the strange war that was dragging on around the Saint-Avold fortified zone. Within weeks, however, rather than coming to a standstill at the Maginot Line, German Panzers broke through on 10 May, 1940 via Belgium and destroyed the French army in less than a month. Muller was taken prisoner near Saint-Dié in the Vosges, but had been freed by July, as he was a Lorrain and so now, against his will, a German.
Despite the fact that the conditions of the Armistice made no provisions for this, the Third Reich annexed Alsace and the Moselle. These former Departments of the Republic then underwent a violent programme of forced Germanisation (Rückdeutchung) and Nazification. The locals had to choose between acceptance, exile (of the 180,000 Lorrains evacuated in 1939 - 70,000 didn’t return), resistance or collaboration (up to 12,000 members of the NSDAP – the foreign branch of the Nazi Party – were from the Moselle). This moral and patriotic question arose in footballing circles too. “This period was a lot more complex than anyone realises”, explains historian Alfred Wahl, a specialist in war time football and the Alsace. “The Alsatian teams quickly started playing matches against their German counterparts, under the eye of the Gauleiter (the Nazi District Official). Red Star Strasbourg even became a club of the SS – SG SS Strassburg – for whom many signed up in the hope of finding some work, since professionalism didn’t exist in Nazi Germany. Even Fritz Keller, French international, played there!”
“It’s hard to explain now”, André Isch, concurs. “Take the example of Fritz Walter, a future Germany captain who would go on to win the World Cup in 1954. He was a soldier in Lorraine and played a few matches at Thionville, playing alongside Charles Kappe, the famous FC Metz goalkeeper.” Indeed, FC Metz had to conform to the new order, changing from Football Club to Fussball Verein, and now enter Gauliga Westmark competitions.
In any case, Metz as a football club was now just a shadow of its former self. Many players were exiled to what was still France, particularly in the vicinity of Lyon or Saint-Etienne. The daughter of Roger Rocher – Saint-Etienne’s president during their 1960s-70s heyday – would go on to marry the son of Jean Lauer, an FC Metz stalwart, who moved to the Loire industrial area and never returned. Among the exiles was the club’s emblematic president Herlory, who retreated to Gerardmer. In a letter dated 20 September, 1941 an administrative representative of the Saarbrücken branch of the German National Community, Workers' Gymnastic and Sport Community – rebuked him for having emptied the coffers before making a run for it!
Marcel Muller had other things to worry about. In 1942, fourteen different age classes were mobilised, generally to the Eastern front, including 30,000 young Mosellans - the famous Malgrés Nous (“against our will”). Many decided to do all they could to escape, either for reasons of personal interest or genuine patriotic, anti-Nazi sentiment. This meant escaping from German territory. Oscar Heisserer, a former French captain, managed to get to Switzerland in 1943 before returning to participate in the liberation of Alsace at the end of 1944. In Moselle, networks were also developed. Muller, having refused inscription on the list of enrolment and failed to present himself at the draft board, opted to reach out to one of these networks to try to get to free France. His luck failed. He was arrested by the Gestapo en route on 18 March 1943 at Novéant. As a deserter, he was braced for the worst and was imprisoned in Metz. However the Nazi regime wanted to make an example in order to dissuade others.
Muller was deported to Struthof in Alsace, then moved from camp to camp before finding himself in the notorious Dachau – the first concentration establishment put in place by the Nazis, once in power, to ‘deal with’ opponents and resistants (not to be confused with the extermination camps for Jewish and gypsy populations).
Muller’s past offered a chance to improve his daily life a little: “At Dachau”, explains André Isch, “he still wanted to retain a level of fitness, by doing a bit of jogging I suppose, something like that. Some Luxembourgers who had seen him play for Metz recognised him. They were posted to work in the kitchens. Thanks to that recognition, he managed to have a little extra to eat. It may not have been much, but in the concentration camp it was crucial to surviving and waiting for the end of the War.” And Marcel Muller was keen to share; “When he died in 1993”, his son Gaston Muller recounts with emotion, “I saw on television an old fighter who warmly paid tribute to him, and explained that he had saved his life and the lives of others in their barracks, by sharing his extra rations. That without him they would never have survived.”
Muller was liberated, along with the rest of the camp, on 29 April, 1945, by the 45th infantry division of the 7th US Army. He returned to Lorraine on 8 May, the day of Nazi Germany’s total capitulation. He would thereafter speak little about his extraordinary experience. “He told me very little about it”, his son says. André Isch agrees: “I learned all this from others.” However, Muller accepted official recognition, when he was rightly decorated with the Military Medal in 1959 and in 1963 with the order of the Knight of the Legion d’Honneur.
Nevertheless, the War, somewhat invariably, did change Muller’s outlook on life. While FC Metz returned to action, under the protection of the FFF which played the patriotism card in the Mosellan club’s favour, and of the RCS – Regiment Command and Support (all former pros were obliged to return, no relegation in the first post-Liberation championship etc.) – and despite a petition signed by his former team-mates calling for him to return to action – he decided to turn the page on his professional career. Muller was offered a job in the purchasing department of the Merlebach branch of the HBL – the coal mines of the Lorraine basin. It was an offer which must have provided more guarantees for the future in his eyes – he had married during the War – than getting back into football.
Muller continued working at Merlebach until his retirement in 1976. He didn’t entirely abandon football, returning to the amateur world of his early days (in 1946 he was the only non-pro selected for a Lorraine representative team), turning out in the colours of SO Merlebach from 1945 to 1949, with whom he won several titles and reached the Round of 64 of the Coupe de France, and of US Forbach from 1949 to 1952, where he played until the age of 36. He then completed his return home, becoming a prominent citizen in the town of his birth – his footballing aura may have helped – serving as an independent mayor from 1953 to 1982.
Marcel Muller passed away on 8 June, 1993. Whether or not he had yet forgiven the referee of the 1938 Coupe de France Final, we will never know.