Students working on the two life stories.
Students working on the two life stories.

Two players, two destinies

What can students learn by exploring the lives of two former footballers?

Geir Ove Halvorsen
Geir Ove Halvorsen Valle Hovin VGS, Oslo. FMH developer

This article explores the possibilities of using life stories in teaching history. What can students learn by exploring the lives of two former footballers? Is there potential to learn more than just about the lives of the footballers or could the learning outcome be wider? This article investigates an educational project which the last years students at Valle Hovin upper secondary school in Oslo worked on in their history lessons, and what the students felt that they learnt from working on the project.

The task

The students were given the task to explore the lives of Asbjørn Halvorsen and Otto Harder, who formed a dynamic duo and a friendship playing for Hamburger Sportverein’s successful team in the late 1920’s and the early 1930’s, before their lives and friendship went in separate directions. The students were asked to discuss how Harder and Halvorsen were affected by events such as World War I, events in the inter-war period, Hitler’s rise to power, World War II, and the settlement after the war. In addition, they were asked to discuss the choices Harder and Halvorsen took, and in what ways the choices affected their lives. The last part of the task was to discuss how the two are remembered today.

To help the students on their way, they were given several secondary sources to use in their study. Before the project started, the students had been working with the inter-war period and had earlier been working with the effects of the Versailles treaty and Hitler’s and NSDAP’s rise to power in Germany. They therefore had a certain degree of knowledge about the major historical events and facts, the big task would be to use this knowledge to study the lives and choices of Halvorsen and Harder. To present their findings, the students were given the choice of producing a podcast, write an article or do a presentation, individually or in small groups.  

The outcome

Being a class of students interested in football, all students started their products with Halvorsen’s and Harder’s careers on the football pitch and their path to becoming the stars of HSV. From Halvorsen becoming the youngest player ever to captain a team in a Norwegian cup final and to be a part of the Norwegian team beating England in the 1920 Olympic games; to Harder’s start in Braunschweig and the reason behind his nickname “Tull”. The turning point in the relationship between Harder and Halvorsen came in 1934 when Halvorsen returned home to Norway. This is where the students start to discuss in earnestness how major historical events changed the duo’s lives and the different directions their lives would take later. At the time Halvorsen started his journey back north, Harder had been a member of NSDAP since 1932 and even a member of the SS since 1933. This gave the students an opportunity to try to look at the reasons why “Tull” Harder had become a person bearing all the marks of a devoted national socialist. To find the answer to this question, the students looked into his role of being a soldier during World War I. Some students also investigated other events that might have had impact, such as the Versailles treaty, the political turmoil of the Weimar republic and the financial situation in Germany in the 1920’s and beginning of the 1930’s, discussing if the general reasons why other Germans turned into supporters of Hitler and the nazis also could be applied to the case of Harder. Another question the students discussed was whether the nazis rise to power and the beginning of the Nazification the German society could be the reasons behind Halvorsen’s choice to move home to Norway. Having lived in the Hanseatic town for over a decade, he had experienced success both on and off the pitch, being married to a German woman and founding an insurance company. 

After Halvorsen returned to Norway, he became the secretary of the Norwegian FA and manager of the national team, guiding the national team to a bronze medal in the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. Some of the students used the 1936 Olympics to discuss the role as sporting events as a tool of political propaganda, and some even drew comparisons to the current debate about sports washing. 

If Halvorsen’s return to Norway had been a turning point, the outbreak of the World War II would turn the lives of Harder and Halvorsen, like the lives millions of others, upside down. By looking at the roles Harder and Halvorsen played during the war, the students were also able to learn about different aspects of WWII. In 1939 Harder joined Waffen-SS, and later rose to become both an officer and camp commander of several concentration and prisoner camps, such as Sachsenhausen and Neuengamme. By looking at Halvorsen’s life after the German invasion of Norway in 1940, the students were able to learn more about how the Germans and the Norwegian nazis, lead by Quisling, tried to nazify different parts of society, among them football. As the secretary of the Norwegian FA, Asbjørn Halvorsen resisted the nazis attempt to use football as a tool for propaganda. As a silent protest the Norwegian cup final in the autumn of 1940 was played with empty seats where the royal family seats in the stand stood empty as symbol of resistance. Halvorsen resigned from the FA and later became one of the masterminds behind organizing a sports boycott against the nazis. The sports boycott became one of the most successful means in the civil resistance and served as an example for resistance in other parts of society.  He was also involved in organizing the distribution of illegal newspapers. A lot of the students had learned about military resistance before, but civil resistance was new to them. Several students had good discussions about why Halvorsen chose the path of resistance instead cooperation with the occupation forces. Some of the students pointed to the fact that Halvorsen had experienced the coming of the Third Reich and the effects of it in Hamburg. Like many others involved in the resistance movement, Halvorsen ended up being arrested and sent to Germany and different camps. Where he finally ended up in Natzweiler. Of the 504 Norwegian prisoners in the camp, only 266 survived. Among the survivors was Halvorsen. Harder on the other hand, ended the war as a war prisoner. He was later sentenced to 15 years as a war criminal, being released after 4,5 years. After the war Halvorsen went back to serve as secretary of the Norwegian FA, and played a major role in reuniting the Norwegian sports movement, which had been politically divided during the inter-war years.  In 1955 Halvorsen died as a man marked by his experiences during the war. A year later Harder passed away. In the end the students reflected on how they are remembered today. When the project was introduced, the students were asked if they had heard of Halvorsen or Harder. Only one of the students had heard the former’s name, none had heard of the latter. This led to some good discussions on why Halvorsen had been forgotten, but also productive discussions about the change in Harder’s reputation in Germany. From being hailed as a football hero by fans after his death, to today where he is remembered as a war criminal and used by HSV to educate students about the darker parts of German history.   

What did the students think about the project?

The overall reaction from the students about the project was positive. They felt that they had both learned more about major historical events, but also learned to see the events through new perspectives by studying history thorough the micro perspective of these life stories. Some students reported that the project had made them better at using different sources and to extract information from the sources. In some cases, they reported that it had been difficult to interpret the choices of Halvorsen and Harder, instead they had use different sources to try to assume what could have been Halvorsen’s and Harder’s motives and reasons behind their choices. 

The use of life stories could be a way to give student’s insight into major historical events and at the same time develop their historical empathy to understand the choices, motives and options people had in their lifetime. To sum up with the words of one of the students: “The most important thing I learned from this project is how quickly some persons and deeds are forgotten and how important it is that this knowledge is kept alive, so we can learn and understand the rights and wrongs of the past.” 

Thinking points

This project has been based on student’s working with secondary sources. Could the use of primary sources have helped the students to develop more insight to the choices and options Harder and Halvorsen faced? 

Are there other life stories that could be added to bring more perspectives to this project?

Let’s review

Students working on the two life stories.
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