Bert Trautmann: From Iron Cross to OBE

Biographies may turn out to be just about anything; they come as pack of lies, as means to drop names, as a way to shift blame to others, or as a collection of pointless anecdotes. Every once in a while, a biography is published that stands out presenting a riveting life's story. The biography written about Bert Trautmann is one of the latter.

Bernhard Trautmann was born in Bremen, Germany, in 1923. The German economy had not really recovered from the Great War and was already in a downturn again. By 1931, the economy was a shamble. And in 1933, Hitler took over. Bernhard was 10.

Boys of that age usually are interested in sports, flags, uniforms, and parades. Hitler drew up his Hitler Youth movement on exactly these premises and was rewarded with 98 percent of the targeted boys joining it (and there was no opting out clause offered, either). The brain-washing of a whole generation could begin. The boys were programmed to respect nothing but Nazism and the Fuhrer. The oath the boys swore in the Hitler Youth can still make your blood freeze: “In the presence of the blood banner, I swear to devote all my powers and my strength to the savior of our Reich, Adolf Hitler. I am willing and ready to give up my life for him, so help me God.”

Bert Trautmann was a sporty boy, thereby easily exalted, guided, and molded. When it was time for him to join the army, he was a picture book Nazi. He was sent to the Eastern Front, and survived. He was awarded two Iron Crosses for bravery and rose from the ranks first to Corporal, then to Sergeant.

A month before the war ended, he was captured by the Americans who let him go by mistake. Later that day, he was apprehended by the British who sat him under a tree and told him to shut his trap. When they handed him a cup of water to drink, he didn't comprehend why they were doing this. Everything the British did was strange to him, the way the bantered and laughed, and the way they answered back their officers.

He was transported to Britain and there to the reception area at Kempton racecourse and from there to a camp in Cheshire. He was considered a convinced Nazi due to his long association with Hitler Youth and sent to a special camp near Cambridge. The camp was dedicated to younger Germans considered to having been brain washed as children.

Britain’s government had decided to re-educate the Germans into shedding their allegiance to Nazism and get them on course for a sort of democracy. It proved to be a long process, especially as the fast learners were usually found hanged in the toilets. Bert Trautmann’s redemption started with a film on Bergen-Belsen concentration camp being shown to the prisoners. Unlike others, he had seen a mass grave in Ukraine, and therefore was ready to accept the reality of the film.

He was completely won over by British kindness and forgiveness. In 1946, a local choir came to the camp to sing Christmas songs in both English and German, and Bert Trautmann ended up in tears. He became one of 24,000 Germans to stay on in Britain helping to rebuild the country. He changed his name to Bert. And he was offered a footballing job with St Helen’s Town football club.

In 1949, he prepared to go back to Germany on a holiday for the first time. He was presented with a trunk full of food and provisions for his family, and £50 for his parents, all collected from St Helen’s supporters. But when Manchester City signed him on as goal keeper a year later, 25,000 people demonstrated against his appointment and there were catcalls of Heil Hitler in the stadium. A letter from the chief Rabbi of Manchester to a local newspaper begged fans not to rush any judgement. Bert Trautmann would become legend. As a football goalkeeper he had been one of the best ever, and was once voted player of the year.

Bert Trautmann lived the later years of his life in Spain and died on the 19th July, 2013, aged 89. In 2004, he had received the OBE for his work in bettering Anglo-German relations. 

Catrine Clay’s Trautmann’s Journey was published by Yellow Jersey Press. She acted as the writer who put down the memories of Bert Trautmann. The book could have done without her deviations into the many assassination attempts on Adolf Hitler which add nothing to the story. The story all on its own was riveting enough. All the same, a book I highly recommend.

Further reading