Arms Raised in Shame: When the England Football Team Visited Germany in May 1938, Diplomatic Protocol Resulted in the Team Giving a Nazi Salute

By Fisher, Trevor | History Today, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Arms Raised in Shame: When the England Football Team Visited Germany in May 1938, Diplomatic Protocol Resulted in the Team Giving a Nazi Salute


Fisher, Trevor, History Today


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Politics and football are a dangerous combination, as the murderous attack on the coach carrying the Togo squad during the recent Africa Cup of Nations shows. Yet football has largely been spared the worst excesses of political interference. Mussolini's order to the Italian World Cup side of 1938 to win the trophy or not bother returning home--Italy won--has proved unusual.

But with another World Cup about to begin, a notorious example of political interference in the game is worth revisiting. In May 1938 the England football team visited Berlin and, before over 100,000 spectators, gave the Nazi salute. The reverberations of that incident still resound. As James Corbett comments in his book England Expects (De Coubertin, 2010): 'No one incident in the history of British sport has caused such consternation and controversy.'

In 1938, international football, like much else, was overshadowed by the spectre of armed conflict. Before the First World War England had toured the hotbed of central European football, the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, with two foreign tours, the first in 1908 to play Austria, Hungary and Bohemia. Germany was not on the itinerary.

When peace returned to Europe after 1918, England began playing friendlies with her wartime allies, France and Belgium, then Sweden, Luxembourg, Spain, and even her war-time enemies Austria and Germany. Austria proved a difficult opponent, narrowly defeated 32 in 1932. Earlier, during the Weimar Republic, a match against Germany took place in Berlin on May 10th, 1930, ending in a 3-3 draw. A visit by the Germans to London in December 1935, after the Nazi takeover, led to a 3-0 England victory, but aroused little controversy and became just another score to put in the record books.

By May 1938 the climate had changed. The aggressiveness of Nazi Germany had become ever more apparent; only a few weeks earlier Hitler had annexed Austria in the Anschluss. Most of England's footballers were apolitical, barely aware of the disappearance of what had been their most potent sporting foe. But when they reached Berlin it became clear that this would not be an ordinary match.

Recalling what happened six years after the event, the England captain, Eddie Hapgood, suggested that the British Olympic team had caused offence to their German hosts in 1936 when it had given neither the Nazi salute nor that of the Olympic movement (the right arm flung sideways rather than upwards in the manner of the Nazis) and 'the authorities' were anxious to avoid more controversy.

Quite which authorities Hapgood was referring to has never been fully established. It is generally accepted that Britain's Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Neville Henderson, a staunch supporter of appeasement, was consulted, but whether he ordered the salute is disputed. According to Hapgood, the two British officials in charge, Charles Wreford-Smith and the new FA Secretary Stanley Rous, visited Henderson voluntarily as they were uncertain of the protocol. Hapgood suggests Rous proposed that the team give the salute, a move Henderson endorsed. The FA officials then informed Hapgood, who objected to doing anything more than standing for the German national anthem. However, he had little choice and he informed the team. It led to' much muttering in the ranks', as he describes in his book Football Ambassador (GCR, 2009). …

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