England’s Nazi Salute – May 1938

The England team’s Nazi salute is praised in the British press

Shameful moment No. 7

The England Team give the Nazi salute – May 1938

It was the most infamous occasion of English sporting deference to the Nazi regime. On 14 May 1938, the England football team gave the Nazi salute in front of a crowd of one hundred thousand in the German Olympic Stadium.  The most shocking aspect however was not the event, but the press reaction to it.  Jonathan Duffy of BBC News Online commented in 2003 that “the gesture provoked outrage in the British press,” yet sadly I could find little or no evidence of any such criticism.[1]

The press did not seem at all concerned by the gesture. Many newspapers didn’t even mention it and of those that did, most thought it appropriate and courteous. The response of  The Times was typical. It observed that “the English team immediately made a good impression by raising their arms in the German salute,” and it praised them for their “splendid exhibition of football,” which was a “polished, clean and effective” display deserving of its comfortable six to three goals victory.[2]

The Daily Telegraph was equally effusive in its eulogy, commenting that “the team that bore the insignia of England on so important an occasion as the one which threatened our football prestige on the continent has done us proud” and it made no suggestion that the salute might have made an inappropriate contribution to Nazi propaganda.  Instead, it appeared delighted that “the action of the English team in giving the ‘German greeting,’ during the playing of “Deutschland Deutschland uber alles,”  was mentioned with approval by several (German) newspapers.”

It reported how the Voelkischer Beobachter had carried a photograph of the England team, with their arms raised in a Nazi salute, on its front page, and that the newspaper had commented that “when one knows the disinclination of English footballers for every kind of formality, this proof of esteem of comradely feeling should be particularly emphasised.” The Telegraph did not think it necessary to mention that the Voelkisher Beobachter was the official organ of the National Socialist Party.[3]

The Scotsman was also unequivocal in its praise for the English eleven.  Under a headline of “England Maintain British Football Prestige,” the paper declared that “it was a splendid game…. The stadium was a picturesque sight with Nazi swastikas flown from all round the ground….(and then) when ‘Deutschland Uber Alles‘ and the ‘Horst Wessel‘ song were being played the Englishmen gave the Nazi salute.”[4] A near identical report was carried by the Western Daily Press under the headline “England Triumph Over Germany in Berlin”  which also recalled the “picturesque sight with Nazi swastikas flown from poles” but it too made no reference to any controversy around the decision of the team to give a Hitler salute.[5]

Christopher Webb, the Daily Herald‘s football correspondent, also showered compliments on the English football team. “Nice work boys,” he declared, remarking that their superior gamesmanship on the day had been “the vindication of English football on the continent.”  Despite his paper’s supposedly left leaning reputation, he did not even hint at the team’s Nazi salute.  The more conservative Yorkshire Post also avoided any mention of the gesture and was equally exuberant.   Under the headline “England Regains Lost Prestige – Decisive Win at Berlin – Cheered by 100,000” it reported how “in a setting so impressive as to inspire the most seasoned footballer with a certain amount of awe, and with so much national prestige depending upon the result, the English association team rose finely to the demands of the keenly anticipated match with Germany last night. winning handsomely by six goals to three.”[6]

It was a similar story with the Sheffield Daily Independent. Its report was written by Ivan Gordon Sharpe, the editor of the Nationwide Football Annual.  Under the headline “England XI Astonishes and Delights the Germans – Brilliant Win Before Crowd of 103,000 in Berlin,” Sharpe praised the team for striking “a resounding blow for British sporting prestige.” Again there was no mention of the now notorious Nazi salute incident.[7] Even the progressive Manchester Guardian failed to offer even a hint of criticism against the gesture, instead merely noting that “the Englishmen gave the Nazi salute as it had previously been decided they should.”[8]

What of the players themselves ?  According to soccer historian William J. Murray they “had been reluctant to give the salute but received an order to do so from British ambassador Neville Henderson,” who, on the day of the match was seated in the Fuhrer’s box alongside Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess and the notorious Nazi Minister of Propaganda Jozef Goebbels.[9]  However, the pressure for the players to salute didn’t just come from the British ambassador.

According to a report in the Daily Express, published on the morning of the match, “Mr Stanley F. Rous, Secretary of the Football Association, said this (the decision to give the Nazi salute) was the unanimous decision of the committee…… It is a gesture to ensure the right atmosphere of the match.”[10] Surprisingly, the  newspaper’s sports correspondent Henry Rose, though not going as far as to voice his own opinion, was able to allow the players’ reluctance to give the salute to shine through his vivid account of the moment.

“They were not happy about it and they are not happy about it now,” he observed. “Hapgood, the captain, looks along the line. There is a shuffle and orders being orders, hands are raised. They are lowered again as one anthem finishes (I detect relief) and raised again with some diffidence.”[11]

Henry Rose’s eloquent and moving account was the most daringly dissenting of any published in the mainstream press. I did eventually find evidence of more clearly expressed editorial outrage, but it wasn’t (with one singular exception) directed against the salute itself but rather against the heretical Daily Worker, which had been the only newspaper to condemn the gesture as a “great blunder”.[12] As its sports correspondent George Sinfield noted in the following day’s issue

“With all due modesty, I state there is one paper which had the courage to treat properly this question of England’s team doing the Nazi salute in Germany…. other newspapers have decried our efforts to attach importance to this action of saluting. They saw politics imbued in the attempt to prevent our boys from raising their hands, but apparently, did not see the politics on the other side.”[13]


1. Jonathan Duffy, “Football, Fascism and England’s Nazi Salute,” BBC News Online, 22 September 2003 accessed at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/3128202.stm

2. Our Own Correspondent, “Association Football – England Beat Germany,” The Times 16 May 1938 p8 accessed online in The Times Digital Archive on 18 July 2017. The Times estimated the size of the crowd at 115,000, which was the claimed maximum capacity for the stadium.

3. “England’s Soccer Triumph in Berlin,” the Daily Telegraph, 16 May 1938, p21

4. “England Maintain British Football Prestige”, The Scotsman, 16 May 1938 p4

5. “England Triumph Over Germany in Berlin,” the Western Daily Press, 16 May 1938 p10

6. Christopher Webb, “Robinson As England’s Star of the Future,” the Daily Herald, 16 May 1938 p18 and “England Regains Lost Prestige,” the Yorkshire Post, 16 May 1938 p15

7. Ivan Gordon Sharpe, “England X1 Astonishes and Delights the Germans,” the Sheffield Daily Independent, 16 May 1938 p9

8. “England Beats Germany – The Match in Berlin,” the Manchester Guardian, 16 May 1938, p11

9. William J Murray (1998) “The World’s Game, A History of Soccer,” University of Illinois Press, Chicago, p75.  Information on the seating arrangements for the British Ambassador Nevile Henderson from “Association Football,” The Times, 16 May 1938 p8.

10. “English Team To Give Nazi Salute”, the Daily Express, 14 May 1938, p2

11. Henry Rose, “Hapgood Thought Standing at Attention Should Have Been Sufficient,” the Daily Express, 16 May 1938 p17

12. “England’s Big Soccer Triumph in Berlin”, the Daily Worker, 16 May 1938, p6.

13. “Players Still Disturbed Over Giving Nazi Salute”, the Daily Worker, 17 May 1938, p6