Every country has those stories that help build its collective national consciousness. Some, of course, have receded into the mists of time only to be kept alive by a collection of monuments or statues. The grizzled looking horseback warriors in Budapest provide a particularly intimidating example -- Attila and his gang don't look terribly pleasant modelled in marble. In the United States, on the other hand, no school child makes it long without learning of the heroic American colonists like Paul Revere shaking off the imperial British forces seeking to oppress them during in the Revolutionary War. And Germany? Germany has the World Cup. Specifically, the global football championship of 1954 held in Switzerland. The Miracle of Bern. In one 90 minute match against Hungary, modern-day Germany was born.
By now, of course, you're become accustomed to callous overstatement by the Germany Survival Bible and you may be wondering how something as trivial as a football match could midwife a nation. But consider the following: after World War II, the country of Germany essentially ceased to exist. It was occupied and divided into four zones. On top of that, it was split between those who supported the Nazi party and those who didn't. By the early 1950s, the split between the children too young to fight in the war and their parents was likewise beginning to make itself felt.
In short, Germany was divided and defeated in so many different ways that people were no longer keen to identified with being German anymore.
Until the evening of July 4, 1954 when the final whistle blew with West Germany holding a 3-2 lead over a team that, at the time, was just as feared as Brazil is now. An entire nation went berserk.
"People didn't say that the national team players were world champions," recalled Horst Eckel, right forward for the championship team, in a recent conversation with SPIEGEL ONLINE. "They said: 'We are world champions.' The feeling of togetherness of the Germans was suddenly there again."
But going into the final, the German team was a hopeless underdog. Indeed, just a few days earlier in the group phase, Germany had lost to Hungary by the embarrassing score of 8-3. Of course, that first result might have been a sneaky ploy by German coach Sepp Herberger, who actually held out many of his star players during the match. But underdog sneakery doesn't really fit with being a national founding myth. And the fact remains that Hungary hadn't lost in 30 international matches until that fateful final.
It looked bad for the Germans at the beginning. It took the Hungarians little time to shred the German defense for two early goals. But the game quickly turned with Germany scoring two goals before the half -- the second on a corner by team star Fritz Walter onto the foot of Helmut Rahn who drilled it into the back of the net.
The second half was a rainy, muddy battle with the Hungarians mounting attack after attack on the German goal. Until just six minutes before time when it was finally the Germans turn. Radio commentator Herbert Zimmerman captured the action in the most famous play-by-play ever uttered in Germany: "Headball! Blocked! Rahn has to shoot from the background. Rahn shoots! Goooaall! Goooaall! Goooaall! Left-footed shot from Rahn! Schäfer pushed his way past Bozsik. 3-2 for Germany You may think I'm crazy! You may think I've cracked! But even football players should have a heart!"
But what did it mean?
"We really had no idea how important it was or what was waiting for us back in Germany," reports Eckel. "We only realized when we returned to Germany -- as soon as we crossed the border."
The team was mobbed. The train could hardly continue after the first stop after the border with so many people on the tracks cheering the players. In Munich, hundreds of thousands turned out for a gigantic party on the central square. The same frenzy repeated itself over and over until the team finally managed to make it to Berlin for the biggest party of them all.
Soon after the Miracle of Bern, Germany found its economic footing and the so-called Economic Miracle got underway. Many today see a direct connection between the two. And even between 1954 and the success modern, democratic Germany has since become.
"We can still see how important it is today," says Eckel. "It's now 52 years after the Micracle of Bern and people hardly talk about the championships from 1974 and 1990" -- which Germany also won. "All the attention is still focused on 1954 -- that tournament was a very important event in German history."