The Day England's Footballers Gave the Nazi Salute
Ahead of their game against Germany in May 1938, the English national football side gave the Nazi salute. Almost 70 years on it remains among the most controversial moments in the team's history.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
On 30 September 1938, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arrived at Heston Aerodrome following a conference with Adolf Hitler and other European leaders in Munich. Holding up the recently signed Anglo-German Declaration for the assembled crowd to see, Chamberlain declared that he had secured "peace for our time". The meetings had resulted in the Munich Agreement, which allowed and legitimised Nazi Germany's recent annexation of parts of Czechoslovakia; Chamberlain had also agreed to a non-aggression pact with his German counterpart.
Of course, Hitler's territorial ambitions could not be sated and less than a year later World War II had begun. Chamberlain's failed policy of appeasement has dominated his legacy in the years since his death, but he was by no means alone in accepting Nazi Germany's demands.
Four months before Chamberlain's now infamous declaration of peace, on 14 May 1938, the English national football team played Germany in front of 110,00 spectators at the Olympiastadion in Berlin. It was the opening game of their tour of Europe and began with a powerful political statement.
Top-ranking Nazis such as Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess and Joseph Goebbels were in attendance for the match, though Hitler himself was not present. When the German national anthem was played before the game, England's players raised their arms to give the Nazi "Heil Hitler" salute. Seven decades on – and with full knowledge of what was to unfold under the Nazi regime – it is a fairly shocking visual.
Then as now, sport and politics were inextricably linked. The English players had been instructed before the match that they should give the salute, with the order coming direct from the Foreign Office. It was later reported that the team initially refused, only for the British Ambassador to Germany, Sir Neville Henderson, to intervene. Using FA Secretary Stanley Rous (later FIFA President) as an intermediary, Henderson told the team to give the salute for the sake of Anglo-German relations.
Stanley Matthews – who was among the goal-scorers in a 6-3 England win – recalled: "All the England players were livid and totally opposed to this, myself included.
"Eddie Hapgood, normally a respected and devoted captain, wagged his finger at the official and told him what he could do with his Nazi salute, which involved putting it where the sun doesn't shine."
But Henderson's intervention was enough to force the players into submission. England beat Germany comfortably, but there was indignation in sections of the British press.
It is of course necessary to put the gesture into context. The players were acting on instruction from an official; they were not spontaneously or independently supporting Nazism, a doctrine they are unlikely to have known a great deal about. Then as today, footballers were not exactly well versed in international politics.
What's more, the salute carries considerably more negative weight today than it did in 1938. While then it was a gesture associated with an aggressive foreign power, it is now directly linked to the worst horrors of Nazism – particularly the systematic murder of more than 10 million Jews, Slavs, homosexuals, disabled persons, and others considered undesirable by the Nazis.
It is also important to remember that Nazism was not wholly anathema in British society at the time, particularly among the upper classes. The Daily Mail and its owner, Lord Rothermere, had been openly supportive of the Nazi regime; the Duke of Windsor was known to be sympathetic to the Nazis (last year he was shown in a family film giving the salute with his niece, now Queen Elizabeth II); and many upper-class English people became close to leading Nazis, such as Mitford sisters Diana and Unity.
None of this makes it any less shocking to see the England players giving the Nazi salute. But the context is important to understanding this unsavoury snapshot from the national side's past.