It is an image that, in retrospect, seems intuitively abhorrent. An extraordinary political concession. After all, a team these days would never be seen singing the opponent’s national anthem let alone seemingly endorsing their politics.
However, before this image of England’s football team saluting the Nazi regime in 1938 is used as an example of a shameful period of English history, the truth behind the reasons why they did this should be examined.
In 1935, a fixture between England and Germany at White Hart Lane went ahead despite Jewish Trade Unions demanding its cancellation due to Hitler’s began aggressive local policies. In the end, the game went ahead without incident.
This in contrast to the previous year when Mussolini’s Italian team started a mass brawl with the English side. The Borsen Zeitung said: “For Germany it was an unqualified political, psychological and sporting success.”
In light of the success, a return fixture was scheduled for May 1938 in Berlin. During the intervening period, Germany invaded and annexed Austria in violation of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Britain and Europe were witnessing overt German expansion and aggression. Prime minister Neville Chamberlain, along with many in the country, was eager to avoid a resumption of war though many within his party urged him to resort to force to curb Hitler’s aggression. If the worst did happen, Britain also needed to give themselves time to arm themselves.
Chamberlain was well aware of the political significance of the upcoming match. The Germans were able to recruit Austrian players to the team and the Nazi regime were more interested than they had previously been in their team’s fortunes.
The British ambassador in Berlin, Neville Henderson said: “The Nazis are looking for victory to boost their regime in their way of claiming a super race.” The German public made their interest clear with over 400,000 extra applications for tickets.
Both countries’ journalists depicted the other as analogies for their respective political systems and wondered who would prevail.
Only an hour before the game, the England team were informed they would be required to give the Nazi salute and were assured by their manager that this decision had not been taken lightly. The FA member in charge of the England team gave the request having attended the 1936 Berlin Olympics during which Hitler had taken offense to the British team’s failure to acknowledge him.
Sir Stanley Matthews later wrote: “All the team were livid. Eddie Hapgood, a respected and devoted captain told him where he could put his Nazi salute.”
Britain’s ambassador Henderson interceded and told the players that the salute would not constitute and endorsement of the Nazi regime. The team were placated and carried out the request.
After the game, which England won 6-3, little attention was given to the incident. The Times went so far as to congratulate the players for respecting their hosts and there was little anger in the majority of the papers. Letters from the public criticizing the team did appear in the papers at the time but much of the umbrage only blossomed later. In 2003, the BBC labelled the moment “one of the darkest moments in sport.” Even the supposed disgust of English players was expressed in the decade following the war during a time in which anti-German sentiment was at its understandable peak.
This moment serves as a useful lesson from history even if it was ignored at the time. The request that the players saluted the Germans was made in the midst of an extraordinary period. Four months later Neville Chamberlain would travel to Munich and secure what he believed was a promise of ‘peace in our time.’
That announcement was met with great relief in England just as the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis would be in 1961. The English did not know that there would be no peace, nor did they know the most awful war in history would follow. Facilitating the Germans in a small way was the path of least resistance at the time.
Today, we are aware of the consequences of appeasement just as we are aware that history has a tendency to repeat itself. As Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson advises the England team to boycott the World Cup as a protest against Russia’s cumulative roguish aggression, there are questions to be asked over whether or not his argument is valid.
Appeasement involves a failure to repudiate and a normalization of the controversial activities of another. Does England’s attendance at the World Cup mean that we choose to carry on as normal? Does a football team’s decisions affect the course of history? These are questions at least worth asking. After all, hindsight can cast an entirely different light on actions that, at the time, seemed to be an unpleasant necessity for many.