When it was announced in October 1935 that England football’s next home match would be against Germany, there were misgivings; when the venue for the match was confirmed as White Hart Lane, home of Tottenham Hotspur, a club noted for its significant Jewish following, there was consternation. In September that year, Germany’s Nuremberg race laws had prohibited intermarriage and criminalised sexual relations between “Jews” and “persons of German or related blood” effectively turning Jewish Germans into second-class citizens. What was the Football Association thinking? Not much, was the answer.
There was, it was explained, no underlying malicious intent. The choice of venue had been made on purely utilitarian grounds. Between the wars, England matches were not played at Wembley but at prominent league grounds, almost always in London. Arsenal had already hosted three such games and Tottenham one. It was simply Spurs’ turn.
As the FA considered politics to have no place in sport, the match had been arranged without involvement or discussion with the government. The club itself appeared to harbour no misgivings. In fact, it immediately hiked admission prices. As for Jewish sensibilities, the Weekly Herald for Tottenham reported: “The extent of the Spurs Jewish following has often been discussed. Someone within the inner councils of the Spurs told me this week that the size of this following was not nearly so large as was popularly imagined.”
There were protests, the Herald acknowledged. On 18 October it admitted: “Apparently, 50-odd letters had been sent to Spurs from individual Jews and Jewish organisations, protesting against the match. A boycott is suggested and protests on the day threatened. Spurs simply sent them on to the FA and reminded the latter that it was their responsibility to keep order.” As far as direct action was concerned, at the forthcoming Spurs versus Burnley match “a bugle would be sounded and 6,000 Jews would walk out of the ground as a protest against the England-Germany match.” Elaborate police precautions were taken to prevent disturbances but nothing happened.
The controversy prompted an outpouring of letters to the Weekly Herald whose football correspondent concluded: “The Jews complain of the Nazi treatment of their compatriots in Germany and demand that the match be cancelled! The Jewish protest has received little sympathy amongst the general football public who resent the introduction into sport of such a controversy.”
To prove the point, the News published a score of letters from “fans”, the vast majority of whom were against any sort of protest and a number quite openly racist. Under the heading “England For England”, one read: “As one of the oldest season ticket holders of the Spurs it greatly amused me to read of the Jewish proposed boycott of next month’s match. I am in every way with them that they should walk out at a given signal but with a one way ticket and not come back … It is up to the English boys to turn up as many as they can; it will be very nice to watch an English match with only English supporters.”
But it wouldn’t only be English supporters standing on the terraces. Close on the heels of the fixture’s announcement came the news that upwards of 10,000 – perhaps a many as 20,000 – German supporters would accompany the team, something quite unprecedented.
The Jewish Chronicle understood the implications: “It is idle to suppose that the great German descent on London has been organised and encouraged – even to the extent of providing cheap travel – out of pure love of the game … there can be little doubt that the ulterior purposes in the present instance is to present to the world the spectacle of mass Anglo-Nazi fraternisation, to blanket the protests against Nazi tyranny by English churchmen and others and to create the impression that this country is reconciled with Nazism and all that it implies.”
In fact, it would be the invasion by thousands of German supporters that would arouse the most intense media interest. The football, by contrast, paled into insignificance. The preparations for the trip – the feeding, accommodation and travel arrangements for such a large number of people – took up swathes of newspaper space. On the day of the match, 4 December 1935, the Daily Express revealed beneath a headline “Hans Across The Sea!” that a score of cross-Channel steamers had already disgorged up to 16,000 Germans and that airliners, trains and coaches were now relaying them into London.
Crucially, the visitors were polite, they didn’t wear Nazi badges and they praised everything they saw. Germany captain Fritz Szepan extolled “wonderful London” and said: “I am a footballer. I know nothing about politics. After all, the game is the thing, is it not?”
The only note of scepticism in the popular press came in the Evening Standard, where David Low’s cartoon appeared beneath the caption “Germany Discovers Sportsmanship”. It depicted a football team of Jewish East Enders striding out to play surrounded by Nazi Storm troopers hurling abuse. The accompanying text read, “Berlin press appeals to British sportsmanship to give the German footballers fair play. That’s the way to talk. Berlin of course will respond when we send a team of Whitechapel boys over on a return visit.”
As kick-off approached, it was clear that fair-play or not, the authorities were taking no chances. According to the Daily Worker, “The concentration of police and plains clothes detectives was one of the largest yet organised in London with scarcely a turning or side-street left uncovered.” Police were stationed every 10 yards along the road leading to the ground and inside they were positioned every eight yards around the pitch perimeter. Almost 1,000 officers were on duty in and around the ground. A temporary police station with cells was provided in one of the out-buildings in the Spurs car park, while reserves of police were secreted in the pavilion on a neighbouring school ground.
Two hours before the match, an anti-Nazi parade left Bruce Grove station and proceeded towards the ground handing out leaflets and carrying posters proclaiming “Fascist Sport is Jew-Baiting”, “Our Goal, Peace: Hitler’s goal, War”, “Hitler Hits Below The Belt” and “Keep Sport Clean, Fight Fascism”.
Close to the ground, police moved in on the march, tore down the posters and arrested those shouting slogans. Leaflets were grabbed and torn up. Undaunted, protestors handed out leaflets at Manor House and Stamford Hill while others showered leaflets from the open windows of buses onto the crowds below. Men with sandwich boards proclaiming “Stop the Nazi Match” chanted at the visitors; there were regular scuffles with lone pro-Nazi sympathisers.
Inside, the vast German contingent was accommodated in the New Stand where they waved little flags bearing the swastika. When the band struck up the German national anthem, they gave the familiar Nazi salute. Above the ground, two flags were displayed side by side: the Union Jack and another bearing the swastika – although the latter would experience a brief moment’s absence.
Of the match itself, little need be said. England ran out 3-0 winners, although it was not a vintage performance. Forwards Stanley Matthews and Raich Carter endured poor games, with Matthews uncharacteristically missing three good early chances. Szepan, interviewed afterwards by the Daily Express declared it an “honourable defeat”. He praised the English players’ “clean play and fine sportsmanship” and said his abiding memory would be the “enthusiastic cheering from the spectators”.
While the two teams and officials gathered for a post-match banquet, thousands of German visitors were swiftly hustled back to their coaches and on to trains for the return journey. By 11pm that night, they had vanished from the capital, sent on their way by a flurry of protests at Victoria Station, where more leaflets were distributed and large banners proclaiming “Free Thaelmann” displayed. Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the German Communist Party leader had been imprisoned since 1933. He was murdered in Buchenwald on 18 August 1944.
The day after the game the people who had been arrested were dealt with at magistrates courts in Tottenham and Westminster. They were, for the most part, veteran Communist demonstrators. Sid Elias, William Morris, Barnie Bercow and Herbert Ettlinger had all served prison sentences for various offences connected with anti-Nazi demonstrations in recent months. The Westminster contingent were charged with scattering “offensive and insulting” literature at Victoria Station and hurling insults such as “Down With Hitler”. All were working-class, including a labourer, a hairdresser and a carpenter.
At Tottenham the charges were mainly of obstruction and refusing to take down banners. The star, however, was Ernie Wooley, a 24-year-old Shoreditch turner. Wooley was charged with maliciously and wilfully doing damage (to the amount of 3/6) by cutting the lanyard which held up the Nazi flag over the East Stand.
In evidence, detective sergeant Wilkinson explained: “I was near the turnstiles at the main entrance. I saw prisoner walk to the end of the stand and after loitering about for a few minutes he clambered on to the gutter at the end of the stand and edged his way along the gutter towards the lanyard supporting the German national flag. He produced an open knife from his pocket and cut the lanyard causing the flag to fall on to the roof of the grandstand. He was seized as he climbed down. Upon being arrested, Wooley remarked: ‘You’ve got thousands of police about the ground but no one to watch the flag.’ Wooley claimed: ‘I did not maliciously cut the rope. I was merely going to unfurl that flag by untying the knot of the lanyard. That Nazi flag is hated in this country.’”
A Spurs official present said there was no evidence that the rope was worth 3/6 nor was the rope produced in evidence. There followed some confusion concerning the exact knife used (the police had lost the original) and the case was dismissed. Wooley apparently smiled broadly as he left the dock.
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