Why the England Football Team Gave the Nazi Salute

When the England football team visited Germany in May 1938, diplomatic protocol resulted in the team giving a Nazi salute.

Crowds at the 1936 Summer Olympics. Two years later the Berlin Olympic Stadium was host to the England-Germany football game. Finnish Heritage Agency (CC BY 4.0).

Politics and football are a dangerous combination. Yet football has largely been spared the worst excesses of political interference. Mussolini’s order to the Italian World Cup side of 1938 to win the trophy or not bother returning home – Italy won – has proved unusual.

But with another World Cup about to begin, a notorious example of political interference in the game is worth revisiting. In May 1938 the England football team visited Berlin and, before over 100,000 spectators, gave the Nazi salute. The reverberations of that incident still resound. As James Corbett comments in his book England Expects (De Coubertin, 2010): ‘No one incident in the history of British sport has caused such consternation and controversy.'

In 1938, international football, like much else, was overshadowed by the spectre of armed conflict. Before the First World War England had toured the hotbed of central European football, the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, with two foreign tours, the first in 1908 to play Austria, Hungary and Bohemia. Germany was not on the itinerary.

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