When the Swastikas Came to White Hart Lane - 6 minutes read

Fixtures against Germany have defined – or at least preoccupied – English football ever since the two nations played their first full international in Berlin on 10 May 1930. Games against the Germans evoke all sorts of images and stories, memories and moments: of English football’s greatest day – Wembley, 1966 – and of one of its most shameful – Berlin, 1938. The first time the two nations met on English soil may not, however, be as readily recalled – but it should be.

On Wednesday 4 December 1935 England played Germany at White Hart Lane stadium in north London, usually home of Tottenham Hotspur FC, winning 3-0. But these bare facts do not begin to tell the whole story. The fixture was extremely controversial and certain sections of British society believed – with good reason – that it should not have gone ahead. By late 1935 the Nazi Party had been in power for nearly three years and Germany was considered by a British governmental committee as ‘an ultimate potential enemy’. A few weeks before the German team travelled to London, the German Reichstag had passed the Nuremberg Laws, depriving German Jews of basic rights.

Against this background, numerous bodies in Britain, most notably the Anti-Nazi Council and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), lobbied the Football Association (FA) and the government to cancel the fixture. Concerns about the match were heightened not only because it was being held at Tottenham (a club with a substantial Jewish following) but also because, as the TUC argued, it had the potential to be ‘used as a political demonstration by the Nazi government’. Unease became even greater after it was rumoured that the German team would be followed to England by 10,000 fans. These fans were reportedly planning a march through Jewish residential areas in London, such as Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill, before the match while wearing Nazi badges. The British government sought to avoid involvement in the matter, arguing that it was a ‘private affair organised by private officials’. It clarified that it would not intervene unless it believed that the match would lead to a breach of the peace.

In the build-up to the match, the Jewish Chronicle made clear its ‘profound regret’ that a game should be played against ‘the representatives of a country where the very elements of sportsmanship are contemptuously trodden into the mire’. The publication was, however, largely alone in its alarm; much of the popular press welcomed the fixture and criticised those who sought to have it cancelled. The Evening News stated ‘let it be played: if German football enthusiasts … want to cheer on the German team by waving Swastikas, let them wave’. The Daily Mail ‘heartily welcomed’ the German team and criticised the TUC, accusing it of wanting ‘to stop all but Marxists from playing on British grounds’. A rare piece of satirical dissent came from Football Pictorial, which published a cartoon showing an England forward bearing down on goal, shouting ‘Heil’ at the German goalkeeper, and scoring into an unguarded net after the goalkeeper had instinctively raised his arm in salute.

On 3 December 1935 the German team arrived at Croydon aerodrome, welcomed by a flock of reporters. The players themselves declined to talk, but the rest of the party explained to waiting journalists that they were not interested in the politics of the game. Germany coach Otto Nerz informed reporters that ‘We have no association with the German government’, while Dr Georg Zandry, Secretary of the German FA, explained: ‘We have come over for the game and the game alone.’

German fans at the turnstiles at White Hart Lane, London, 1935.
German fans at the turnstiles at White Hart Lane, London, 1935. Photo by E. Dean/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images.

Thousands of German fans did follow the team to London, but they sought to avoid any trouble. Before the game, a number of them laid a wreath at the Cenotaph to honour the British dead from the First World War. Other fans were given guided bus tours of London. Some of the guides were German-Jewish refugees who had moved to Britain; they were, according to the Jewish Chronicle, ‘glad of an opportunity to earn a small fee’.

Before kick-off there were several small protests a short distance from White Hart Lane, but neither the rumoured fascist marches nor large anti-Nazi demonstrations materialised. The only incident of note came when a spectator climbed onto the roof of the West Stand and cut down the rope holding the swastika flag. He was arrested and the flag was quickly re-raised. Several reports of the game did not even mention the episode; the Jewish Chronicle simply described how both national anthems were played before the game and ‘every German present gave the Nazi salute for each’.

During the game German fans were said to have ‘waved hundreds of small swastika flags at exciting moments’, but the 90 minutes gave them very little to be excited about as England completed a comfortable win. The German team were amateurs, with an architect, a leather buyer, a butcher, a cobbler and several clerks among them; officials accompanying them to London had admitted to the British press that they were ‘certain to lose’. Yet the game was played in a good spirit. So much, in fact, that the Daily Mirror was moved to remark: ‘Doesn’t sport reconcile, doesn’t it bring nations together, can’t we kill war with perpetual football?’

On the evening after the match, before the Germans returned home, the FA invited their counterparts to a dinner at the Victoria Hotel in London. The FA president, Sir George Clegg, apologised to the German party for protests about the match and criticised the TUC for interfering in matters that were ‘not their business’. Toasts were offered around the room, not least to Adolf Hitler.

Hitler’s presence loomed large the next time the teams played each other, in Berlin in May 1938. It was English football’s most shameful day, with the England XI raising their arms in a Nazi salute before kick-off, having been instructed to do so by officials from the FA and the Foreign Office. England won the game 6-3 but the 90 minutes were irrelevant. By the time of the two nations’ next match, in 1954, Hitler was dead and Germany had been divided into two separate countries. England would not play against a united Germany on British soil again until 1991.


Oliver Price is a historian of contemporary British history.

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