British Deference to Nazi etiquette

How elite collusion necessitated a cringing deference to Hitler’s Germany.


Germans give the Nazi salute at Tottenham Football Ground in December 1935

It was a little after 2 pm on Wednesday, 4 December 1935.  The heavy morning rain had given way to sunshine and the Swastika fluttered alongside the Union Jack over Tottenham Football Stadium in north London.    Both flags flew at half mast in what the press described as “a mark of sympathy” for King George V, who’s sister, Princess Victoria had died two days earlier.[1]  In the stands below, a crowd of some fifty  thousand, many drawn from London’s East End Jewish community, waited impatiently in silence for the German and English teams to emerge. Then, unexpectedly, the band struck up with the Horst Wessel Lied, the infamous Nazi anthem.

For the briefest moment there was a breathless silence from the ten thousand German spectators. Nazi party officials had warned them repeatedly against overly extravagant displays of propaganda while visiting London. Their political masters feared the time was not yet appropriate. Such an overtly political anthem might upset the carefully crafted comradely atmosphere.  Yet now the English band was playing their anthem for them and surely it would be disrespectful not to stand, and as was always required when singing a hearty chorus of the Horst Wessel, to extend their arms in a Nazi salute.  So glancing cautiously at first to their left and right along their own lines, hundreds, and then with growing confidence and exuberance, thousands rose to their feet, raising their arms energetically and the words of the Nazi anthem started to echo across the stadium.

Comrades, shot by Reds and reactionaries,  marching in spirit, with us in our ranks.”

As the eagle eyes of dozens of police constables and stewards were distracted by the astonishing spectacle, a lone protester deftly climbed over a gate and up on to the roof of the stadium and with a swift slice of a knife cut the lanyard of the swastika flag, which tumbled on to the stands. The culprit surrendered to the police on his descent as officials raced to replace the flag. However, such was the distraction afforded by the exuberance of the singing and saluting that some in the vast crowd didn’t even notice the shocking act of defiance.

Those who missed it would have been unlikely to have read about it later.  The next day, the national newspapers, with the singular exception of the heretical Daily Worker, diligently avoided any mention of it.  However, the Daily Express did make reference to protesters outside the stadium, as “a few foolish people carrying placards” who were, to cite the colourful words of another daily, the News Chronicle, engaged in “so detestable a poisoning of the springs of human fellowship.”[2]

Every major British national newspaper (The Daily Worker was again the sole exception) was exuberant and deferential in its coverage of the game and at the same time censorious of anyone who protested. With such a total media subservience, it is perhaps not surprising, that besides the flying of the Nazi flag, there were other equally shameful incidents of British obsequiousness to the Nazi regime which occurred on the day of the match and also on many other occasions during the 1930s. Shameful moments which have been written out of most histories of the period. However, I think it’s important to look at such incidents in detail.  One of the most reliable indicators of how vital any ally is to Britain is the degree of deference accorded by the establishment to its leaders and officials as well as its pageantry and symbols. That’s why, as well as exploring the overt political and ideological endorsements of Hitler’s Germany,  I also wish to look at some of the many forgotten acts of extraordinary obeisance to the Nazi regime.

Throughout the first six years of the Third Reich, from 1933, when Hitler came to power, until 1939, when war broke out,  the British government demanded due deference whenever deemed appropriate to Nazi etiquette and symbols, such as the Hitler salute, the swastika and the singing of the “Horst Wessel” anthem. Comradely and courteous hospitality was laid on for German visitors, including high ranking Nazi officials, at carefully staged social and sporting events, with the primary intention of reminding the public of the abiding bond of friendship between Britain and Germany.  Whenever such events in Britain provoked political protests, these were rigorously suppressed with the support of the British press which condemned any “political interference” as being abhorrent to the British sense of fair play.

German team gives the Nazi salute at Tottenham.

Whatever the political differences between the two countries, however distasteful Germany’s murderous internal policies,  the British government passionately pursued a policy of collaboration. A decision which was based on two related imperatives, first, that of maximising the profits of British big business which had a strong foothold in the Germany economy and second, relying on Hitler to keep in check a danger which, like the Mongol hordes of the thirteenth century, supposedly threatened to engulf civilized Europe; the international communist conspiracy, with its headquarters in Moscow.

This was not just a logic limited to a few establishment conservatives and mavericks. Rather, as we will soon see, it was the world view of intellectuals from almost the entire spectrum of elite society, including conservative commentators in the Daily Express and the Daily Mail and more progressive intellectuals writing in the Manchester Guardian and even the former Liberal prime minster Lloyd George, one of the early architects of Britain’s welfare state, who in 1934 warned his fellow MPs that “”If (Nazi) Germany were seized by the communists, Europe could follow.”[3]

There were a few dissidents,  journalists who allowed the horrors they witnessed to influence their reporting and who occasionally dared to risk exposing the truth, such as Robert Dell and Frederick Voigt of the Manchester Guardian, Norman Ebutt of The Times and George Gedye of the Daily Telegraph but they were either, as in the case of Dell and Voigt, pressured into line or, as in the case of Ebutt, they found their reports on “the dark side of Nazi Germany” dropped or, as in the case of Gedye in February 1939, forced to resign.[4]   Gedye’s resignation over the publication of Fallen Bastions, a book critical of appeasement, was subsequently described as a “mutual arrangement” by the Telegraph‘s editor, Arthur Watson.  The journalist agreed that this was technically true, but added sarcastically that “it is equally correct that Herr Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia by ‘mutual agreement’ with (the Czech) president Hacha.”[5]

George Gedye.

The consensus view of the British establishment was of Hitler’s regime as the pivotal power of central Europe, which would act as a bulwark against any creeping socialist takeover of big business in the region, a development that would threaten the interests and profits of British exporters. It is also true that there were many who were also sincerely deluded by the paranoid propaganda of a communist revolution in Germany even though as historian Allan Merson, in his extensively researched Communist Resistance in Nazi Germany, has pointed out, there was never a realistic possibility of an uprising because “the Communist Party was not strong enough to attempt an individual action, yet was too isolated to act in concert with others.” [6]  Yet, in February 1933, Britain’s highest circulation newspaper, the Daily Express, could still implore the Nazi regime to use “extraordinary measures” to fight the supposed “Red wave of terror”.[7]  Hitler was only to willing to oblige, first by ending any possible democratic opposition to the use of extreme force and then by murdering or imprisoning anyone deemed a threat. Nevertheless, five years later, the newspaper still seemed suitably impressed, and quoted Historian Stephen H Roberts that “just as the young German knight of old went out in the dim, dark forests to kill dragons, so he (Hitler) goes out to exterminate Bolshevism.”[8]

Naturally, there was some disapproval expressed when Nazi officials and thugs enforced Hitler’s savage ideology of racial purity against Germany’s Jews, murdering thousands and interning tens of thousands in concentration camps, places of appalling barbarity which would later become the industrial killing centres of the holocaust. British politicians and intellectuals were not, by any means, wholly supportive of Nazi persecution, but a significant number were shockingly sympathetic and most of the remainder had strict limits to their compassion and believed, as Winston Churchill wrote in 1937, that the murder, torture and imprisonment of German Jews “was not our business” so long as it “was confined inside Germany.” [9]  As we shall see an almost identical position was also expressed at the more progressive end of mainstream establishment opinion,  notably by Ramsay MacDonald in 1933 (who in 1924 had been Britain’s first Labour prime minister) and  by  Labour leader Clement Attlee in 1935 (who after 1945 was to oversee the founding of the national health service and post-war welfare state.)

There is still a powerful the taboo against discussing this broad British establishment consensus to allow the Nazis to commit whatever crimes they wished so long as they were “confined inside Germany.”  To better understand it, may I request the reader to briefly indulge in some hypothetical conjecture ? Imagine if a politician, speaking at a memorial to the heroes of the Battle of Britain, started by apologizing for Britain’s collusion in the deaths of thousands who were murdered in Hitler’s Germany during the thirties and then claimed that the majority of the British establishment, including most intellectuals and much of the press, were either apologists for, and often enthusiastic admirers of the German dictator for most of that decade. He then continues by claiming that even Winston Churchill had expressed his appreciation of fascism and praised Hitler’s strong stand against Bolshevism. There would be outrage at such heresy.

It is impolitic to challenge the British belief that our love of freedom and fair play and our deep rooted parliamentary system have always made us immune to fascism. Almost a century after the Second World War many people in Britain can still quote Winston Churchill’s heroic words spoken in the House of Commons on 4th June 1940 – “We will fight them on the beaches, we will never surrender.” They are the highlight of a speech which is integral to the legend of little Britain defying Hitler.

Although most will gladly admit that Britain wasn’t adequately prepared for war, even by 1940, this blunder is blamed on the isolationism of a peace loving nation reluctant to repeat the bloody mistakes and appalling human cost of the First World War. Few would dare to suggest that the British government’s policy of appeasement was in any way due to widespread elite support in Britain,  at least until late 1938, for the Nazi regime. Nor is it only any questioning of the legend of British defiance of fascism which is considered dangerously seditious.  Even the slightest ignorance of the Battle of Britain saga immediately brings ignominy on any commentator and we can understand better the reasons for such sensitivities by studying two incidents at the British seaside town of Hove.   One, which allowed the nation to remember its “proudest moment”, was headlined in the national press while the other, though it occurred in the same building and recalled a shameful moment of our collusion with Hitler,  remained completely and conveniently unmentioned.


1. See for instance “Defeat of Germany,” The Hull Daily Mail, 4 December 1935, p12

2. The two phrases are taken from two different newspapers. “A few foolish people carrying placards” was the phrase used in a front page article by the Daily Express, 5 December 1935 p1 and “so detestable a poisoning of the springs of human fellowship ” by the News Chronicle which was quoted in “Today’s Opinions,” The Northern Daily Mail, 28 November 1935 p3.  Regarding the swastika flag incident see “Nazi Flag Pulled Down at Tottenham Football Ground,” The Daily Worker, 5 December 1935 p1 and for other details on the match and protests please see the relevant section in this book (page numbers to be updates when the draft is complete.)

3. Lloyd George speaking in parliament quoted in “Bulwark Against Communism”, The Belfast Newsletter, 29 November 1934 p9

4. Franklin Reid Gannon (1971), “The British Press and Germany: 1936-1939,” Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1971 p46-48 and p78-79.  In February 1939, George Gedye was given the choice by the Daily Telegraph of either cancelling the planned publication of his book “Fallen Bastions,” which was a damning indictment of the Nazi regime and appeasement, or leaving his position as the Telegraph’s Central Europe correspondent. Gedye chose to resign his post.  See also “Sacked After His Book Appeared,” The Daily Worker, 1 March 1939 p1  “On the dark side” quote from letter from Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times, to H.G. Daniels quoted in William Shirer (1979) “Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941,” Penguin, New Yok, p41

5. George Gedye quoted in Will Wainewright (2017) “Reporting on Hitler: Rothay Reynolds and the British Press in Nazi Germany,” Biteback Publishing, London, p243

6. Allan Merson (1985), “Communist Resistance in Nazi Germany,” Lawrence an Wishart, London p24 and 26

7. “Red Wave of Terror,” The Daily Express,” 1 February 1933, p2

8. Stephen H. Roberts, “Why Hitler Backs His Hunches,” The Daily Express, 14 March 1938, p12

9. Winston Churchill, “Friendship with Germany,” The Yorkshire Post, 17 September 1937 p10.  The same article was also published at the same time in The Evening Standard.