The Nazis at Tottenham: Why did the swastika fly at White Hart Lane?

Spurs have bid a tearful farewell to the ground they called home for 118 years – but one match it hosted won't be remembered with such affection. John Harding remembers the controversial England vs Germany friendly in December 1935

“Herr Hitler has sent us no message. We are here as sportsmen to play against the best footballers in the world.”

Fritz Szepan, Germany captain. December 4, 1935. White Hart Lane. England vs Germany.

As the Nazi flag flutters over White Hart Lane, thousands of Germans waving swastikas belt out their national anthem with gusto. To the lusty strains of Deutschland Uber Alles, the German team raise their arms in a Heil Hitler salute. The crowd – both German and some English – respond with the fascist gesture.

It may sound like a scene from a horrendous parallel universe: one in which the Allies have lost the war and everyone from Land’s End to John O’Groats is forced to speak German and praise the Fuhrer. But, incredibly, this actually happened.

On December 4, 1935, England played Germany in north London amid a storm of protest from Jewish groups. Hitler himself was following the game with interest back in Germany, but during a deeply uncertain time, few in England knew how best to react. It was a game that divided the country, and at its core was a question that the British public was asking itself, but could not yet answer: how bad is this Adolf Hitler bloke?

It may be a no-brainer in retrospect, but in 1935 the National Socialists had only been in power for two years, and the extent of Hitler’s evil intentions were up for debate.

Widespread opposition

The Nuremburg Laws of September 1935 had just stripped Germany’s Jewish citizens of many of their basic human rights

The argument was still raging a year later, when the Berlin Olympics prompted a worldwide fit of hand-wringing and brow-wrinkling over how to deal with the Nazis. Should athletes salute Hitler? Should countries boycott the Games, as Germany increasingly began to persecute Jews and other ‘undesirables’?

Some in America believed that the US competitors had to withdraw, but it’s easy and convenient to forget that many others had anti-Semitic views themselves. Avery Brundage, of the US Olympic Committee, went as far as saying that a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” was behind calls for a stay-home.

Avery Brundage

Avery Brundage, pictured here in 1972, called "conspiracy"

In England, the idea of a game of football between England and Germany brought similar off-colour opinions to the surface. It’s a story from which surprisingly few people emerge with any credit – apart from an apolitical German midfielder, a toolmaker from Shoreditch and a number of plucky anti-Nazi protestors.

White Hart Lane was announced as the venue for the match in October 1935, but within a few weeks the fixture was mired in controversy. “Jews and the England match,” screamed the headline of the Tottenham Weekly Herald. “Letters of protest have been received by the England FA and the Spurs,” explained the article. “The Jews complain of the Nazi treatment of their compatriots in Germany and demand that the match be cancelled.”

The Nuremburg Laws of September 1935 had just stripped Germany’s Jewish citizens of many of their basic human rights, while Catholics and Trade Unionists – suffering under the regime since Hitler had seized power in 1933 – also protested.

War of words

The letters in the paper were overwhelmingly against the Jewish view: one urged them to allow English sportsmen to enjoy 'their favourite pastime without interference'

Spurs, even in the 1930s, were considered to have a sizeable Jewish support, and the choice of venue was insensitive, if not sinister (it was White Hart Lane’s turn for a match, regardless of opposition). “If no action is taken, we can visualise from the present agitation amongst Jewish, Catholic and democratic organisations that the Nazis will be in for a very hot time,” said the secretary of the Edmonton and District Sunday Football League. “Tottenham Hotspur will be holding the bag for Nazi advertisement.”

White Hart Lane

There was considerable unease at the prospect of White Hart Lane hosting the German national team

But their objections were met with cynicism. “Someone within the inner councils of the Spurs told me this week that the size of this [Jewish] following was not nearly so large as was popularly imagined,” wrote the Herald’s sports editor. The letters printed in the paper were overwhelmingly against the Jewish view: one urged them to allow English sportsmen to enjoy “their favourite pastime without interference”, while another complained: “It’s going too far when the Jews try to dictate to us. It will be the Jews who cause another war between England and Germany.”

Some even issued threats similar to those of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, in Berlin. “The Jews apparently do not realise they are guests in England,” wrote a reader. “They are only making things worse for themselves.” And following rumours that at an upcoming Spurs match 6,000 Jews would walk out in protest, one of the club’s oldest season ticket holders slammed back in the Herald with an article headlined: ‘England For England’.

“I am in every way with them that they should walk out – but with a one-way ticket and not come back. The Spurs will always find enough English support without worrying about the ‘Yids’... it will be very nice to watch an English match with only English supporters.”

Joseph Goebbels

Joseph Goebbels (left) was one of Hitler's closest allies

Ugly clashes looked likely, and then news emerged that was certain to worsen the situation. ‘Hans Across The Sea!’ tromboned the headline: 10,000 German supporters were on their way to watch the game.