Continuing our History Workshop World Cup series exploring the history and politics of international sport, Neil Carter tells the story of the English footballers caught up in the tensions of Nazi appeasement.
On 14 May 1938 in a packed Olympic Stadium in Berlin, a crowd of 110,000 watched the England football team defeat Germany 6-3 in very hot conditions. The game is chiefly remembered as the setting for one of the most famous photographs in the history of English football. Before the kick-off, the England players stood to attention for God Save the King, while the German players gave the Nazi salute. Then, during the German national anthem, Deutschland über Alles, and the Nazi anthem Horst-Wessel-Lied, both the English and German teams joined in giving the salute. The resulting photographs remain iconic as a representation of sport’s relationship with politics. Watching the game, and observing the protocol, were the players of Aston Villa, who were due to play a German Select XI – mainly composed of Austrians – in the same stadium the following day.
The context to these fixtures was the British policy of appeasement, introduced in 1935. By May 1938, Anglo-German tensions were increasing following the Anschluss with Austria, and repeated German claims to the Sudetenland. Just a week before the game, Hitler had been on a state visit to Mussolini’s Italy. Nevertheless, Neville Chamberlain remained committed to seeking international détente with an emphasis upon rapprochement between Britain and Germany.
Throughout the 1930s, international sport was becoming ever more explicitly politicised. The Nazis used sporting events to pain a favourable image of Germany in the international spotlight. In 1935, 10,000 well-behaved German fans had visited London to watch their team lose 3-0 to England. The following year’s Olympics in Berlin gave Hitler and Goebbels a global platform to promote the virtues of Nazi Germany. In 1930s Britain too, governments were no less concerned about the impact of sport on international relations. Sport became part of a cultural propaganda campaign in which international success was used to promote the British values of sportsmanship and “fair play”.
In 1938, the British Ambassador, Neville Henderson, was keen for an English victory to refute German propaganda claims of racial superiority. However, for diplomatic reasons, Henderson had also wanted the team to show respect to the Nazi regime. Thus, before the international match in 1938 FA officials, included its secretary, Stanley Rous, decided that the players should give the Nazi salute during the anthem and after the game. England’s players were not unaware of the game’s political significance and their initial reaction had been to refuse, but they were persuaded by the FA of the importance of the gesture. After the game, Rous had been keen to cement good relations. “It was a splendid game”, he reported, “We are glad we won by such a good margin. The boys are delighted with the result. They particularly admired the sportsmanship of the crowd. You can say that we greatly appreciated the attitude of everyone – referee, officials, opposing players and the crowd.”
The German press, under instruction from Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda, was full of praise for England’s performance. In British coverage meanwhile, there was little direct criticism of the German regime, with newspapers instead focusing on England’s success on the pitch. One press report described the “picturesque sight” of the stadium, “with the Nazi Swastikas flown from the poles all around the ground.” Nevertheless, Anglo-German tensions were never far from the surface. On the same page of the Birmingham Gazette, a column praising the performance of Villa’s Frank Broome sat alongside a main article – under the eye-catching headline, “GESTAPO” – describing Nazi surveillance of the 20,000 Germans living in Britain.
The careful diplomatic efforts which had preceded the England fixture were put into disarray twenty-fours later following the Aston Villa game. While the second match also attracted a crowd of 110,000, the atmosphere though was in marked contrast to Germany versus England, which one British press report claimed had been played in silence. Before the game the Villa players had given the Nazi salute as instructed and would go on to win 3-2. However, this match itself was marked by “a continual chorus of cat-calls and shrill whistling”. During the match Villa had stirred the fans’ ire by successfully employing an offside trap. This tactic was unfamiliar to German football at the time and had the effect of frustrating fans and players alike. Tensions were raised further after Villa’s Alec Massie brought down Germany’s inside-left, Camillo Jerusalem, with players from each side needing to be separated by the referee.
The jeering intensified after the final whistle, when the Villa players this time failed to give the Nazi salute demanded by protocol. This was later claimed as a misunderstanding: most of the Villa players had been near the dressing rooms and had simply walked off at the end of the game. Nevertheless, their actions sparked some frenetic diplomatic activity on both sides. Goebbels suppressed hostile press coverage as well as photographs of the Villa players walking off the pitch, on the grounds that it might have affected Anglo-German goodwill. The FA then put pressure on Villa via Fred Rinder, an FA councillor and long-serving Villa director, to ensure that protocols would be followed for Villa’s next game a few days later in Dusseldorf.
While the Dusseldorf game – against another German Select XI – passed without incident, Villa players dutifully saluting, tensions resurfaced at the team’s third match, this time in Stuttgart. Ahead of the game, attempts had been made to placate German spectators, who were informed that Villa’s offside trap was in accordance with the laws of the game and warned against making hostile demonstrations. This had no effect, and after every offside decision the crowd rose as one to boo and hiss the English side’s tactics. It was a rough game, with Villa playing for much of the game with ten men due to an injury to one of their players. After the game the Villa players were given protection by SS guards and Stormtroopers.
While some post-war accounts sought to claim that English players had been unhappy at having to give the salute, there was little indication of this at the time. Indeed, the policy of appeasement was generally accepted in Britain until after the Munich Conference. Nevertheless, the Villa games of 1938 provide an insight into the fragile nature of diplomatic relations at the time, as well as the increasing importance of international sport as a form of soft power.