Spartacus Blog

Why was the anti-Nazi German, Gottfried von Cramm, banned from taking part at Wimbledon in 1939?

Friday, 6th July, 2018

John Simkin

On 13th April, The New European, revealed that that Daily Mail had dropped a story about a German tennis player, Gottfried von Cramm, who was expected to win the 1939 Wimbledon's male-single championship, but was prevented from competing because of pressure from Adolf Hitler on the All England Lawn Tennis Club. The reason for this is that they discovered that the newspaper's then owner, Harold Harmsworth, the 1st Lord Rothermere, had used his influence to push for von Cramm's ban. (1)

Private Eye took up the story a few weeks ago. It reported that the Mail on Sunday also wanted to run the story but changed its mind when Geordie Greig, the newspaper's editor, discovered that his grandfather, Sir Louis Greig, the chairman of the All England Club at the time, like Harmsworth, a supporter of Oswald Mosley, also played his part in making sure that von Cramm did not take part in case it embarrassed Hitler. (2)

This was especially embarrassing for Greig for in his biography of his grandfather, The King Maker: The Man Who Saved George VI (2011), he attempted to cover-up his support of the fascists in the 1930s. Greig admits that he was a member of the Anglo-German Association as he believed that "by encouraging contact between Germany and England, he hoped that any future conflict would be more unlikely". Greig goes on then to claim that "the association is not to be confused with the sinister" Anglo-German Fellowship which "was used as an umbrella group by Nazi sympathizers". (3)

Greig quotes Richard T. Griffiths, the author of Fellow Travellers of the Right: British Enthusiasts for Nazi Germany 1933-39 (1980) as saying that "the Anglo-German Association was wholly innocent and bore none of the disturbing traits displayed by other similarly named bodies in the 1930s." It is true that he does say that on page 111 but he fails to mention what Griffiths says about Greig on page 52. Griffiths points out that Greig was a member of the January Club, a group of right-wing conservatives who were attracted to the ideas of fascism. (4)

Stephen Dorril has explained that the men who established the January Club later admitted that its main objective was to provide a platform for Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists (BUF). The intelligence services became interested in this new organization and the MI5 viewed it as "a powerhouse for the development of Fascist culture" and "it brought fascism to the notice of large numbers of people who would have considered it much less favourably otherwise." One of its main supporters was the newspaper baron, Harold Harmsworth, the 1st Lord Northcliffe. (5)

The secretary of the January Club was Captain H. W. Luttman-Johnson, and its chairman was Sir John Collings Squire, who claimed that membership was open to anyone who was "in sympathy with the the Fascist movement" and those who "believed that the present democratic system of government in this country must be changed." The correspondence between Luttman-Johnson and Mosley leaves "no doubt that the January Club was designed as a front organization for the BUF". (6)

Jonathan Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere, the current owner of DGM Media Group announced in June 2018, that Geordie Greig will succeed Paul Dacre as editor of the Daily Mail in November 2018. As he appears to like editors who are willing to distort the facts, it seems on the evidence of The King Maker: The Man Who Saved George VI, Rothermere has made a very sensible choice. (7)

It seemed to me a cover-up was taking-place and I therefore decided to research the story and make it available to those are unaware of how sympathetic our ruling-class in 1930s were towards those in power in Nazi Germany. Gottfried von Cramm, the third of the seven sons of Baron Burchard von Cramm and Countess Jutta von Steinberg, was born on the family estate near Nettlingen, Lower Saxony, Germany, on 7th July, 1909. (8)

The family had owned land in Lower Saxony since the 13th century and his mother was the sole heiress to the fortune of another ancient landed family. Baron Burchard von Cramm was very keen that his sons should be good sportsmen and he built a tennis clay court at Oelber Castle. (9)

In 1928 Gottfried von Cramm arrived in Berlin determined to become a full-time tennis player. In 1932 he won the German national tennis championship and became a member of the German Davis Cup team. He teamed up with Hilde Krahwinkel to win the 1933 Mixed Doubles title at Wimbledon. In 1934 he earned his first individual Grand Slam title by winning the French Open by beating the Australian ace Jack Crawford.

According to Will Magee, "He (von Cramm) was wealthy, sociable and open-handed, while his sporting success made him wildly popular back home. He had a winning personality, as well as a reputation for good manners, sportsmanship and honourable conduct towards his opponents." Gottfried von Cramm married Elisabeth von Dobeneck in September, 1930. (10)

Gottfried von Cramm came into conflict with Adolf Hitler over his anti-Jewish policies. On 24th April 1933, Hans von Tschammer und Osten, Reichssportführer (Reich Sports Leader) issued a declaration on behalf of the German Tennis Lawn Association stating that no Jew could be selected for the national team, and specifically that the Jewish player named Daniel Prenn would not be selected to the German Davis Cup team. Von Cramm protested against this decision but he was unable to persuade Hitler to change his mind and Prenn emigrated to England. (11)

Gottfried von Cramm (1927)
Gottfried von Cramm (1927)

In the Davis Cup Interzone 1935 final against the Americans, during the crucial doubles match, Cramm had to carry his much weaker partner, Kai Lund, against Wilmer Allison and Johnny Van Ryn, who had won four grand slam doubles together. One newspaper described it as "the greatest one-man doubles match ever". On the fifth match point, "Gottfried served a bullet that Allison barely got back. It was a set-up at the net and Lund muffed it. He collapsed on the grass but Cramm’s expression never changed. Instead, he served another bullet which, after an exchange, Lund finally put away for the match. But not quite. The baron, the soul of chivalry, walked over to the umpire and calmly informed him that the ball had grazed his racket before his partner had put it away. Neither his opponents nor the referee had noticed. The point went to the Americans and they eventually won the match and the rubber the next day."

In the changing-room after the game, the German captain Heinrich Kleinschroth supposedly head-butted the wall of the team's changing room. Incandescent with rage, he called Gottfried von Cramm "a traitor to the nation." He replied: "Tennis is a gentleman’s game, and that’s the way I’ve played it ever since I picked up a racket. Do you think that I would sleep tonight knowing that the ball had touched my racket without my saying so? On the contrary, I don’t think I’m letting down the German people. I think I’m doing them credit." (12)

Gottfried von Cramm with his wife, Elisabeth von Dobeneck
Gottfried von Cramm with his wife, Elisabeth von Dobeneck

Charles Graves claimed that "Gottfried von Cramm... has the best manners on the tennis courts of any player, whether English or foreign. He always makes the most charming excuses for beaten opponents. He never loses his temper, never throws his racquet about, and, in fact, is an object-lesson in good behaviour. When he is in action, he neither grins fatuously nor scowls. No wonder the sales of the picture postcards at Wimbledon prove that he is the most popular of all the aces. He is five feet eleven and weighs exactly ten stone. He never smokes... never diets, never plays golf... shooting, fishing, hockey or swimming are another matter. Gottfried von Cramm is one of the best looking boys I have ever met. He has clear, grey-blue eyes set, in his head very much like the late T. E. Lawrence's. He talks admirable English, thanks to an English governess, has very white teeth, and blond hair brushed back." Graves also praised him for "dressing like an Englishman" and for not adopting "those appalling shorts" that some of the male competitors wearing at the time. (13)

In 1935 von Cramm was beaten by Fred Perry in the Wimbledon final. He gained his revenge by beating Perry in the 1936 French Open. Perry defeated him again at Wimbledon in 1936 and the following year he was runner-up to Don Budge. Before the game von Cramm received a phone call from Adolf Hitler, who spent 10 minutes extolling the virtues of the Aryan race and impressing on him the necessity of measuring up to his heritage. He also won two grand slam doubles championships with Heinrich Henkel and in 1937 he was ranked as the best tennis player in the world. (14)

Gottfried von Cramm congratulates Fred Perry after the 1936 Wimbledon final.
Gottfried von Cramm congratulates Fred Perry after the 1936 Wimbledon final.

Gottfried von Cramm was seen as an "archetypal Aryan" and Adolf Hitler wanted to portray him as a powerful symbol by the regime. However, he disagreed with Hitler's politics and despite the pressure applied on him by Hermann Göring, he refused to join the Nazi Party. "Though he was compelled to wear tennis whites emblazoned with a swastika and to perform a Sieg Heil before the start of matches, he resisted numerous approaches to make him a central part of the Nazis' propaganda drive. While other sportsmen enthusiastically signed up to the idea of Aryan sporting supremacy, Gottfried continued to play gentlemanly tennis, and sought to get on with his life." (15)

In the summer of 1937 Germany played the United States in the Davis Cup Interzone Final. It was two matches all, and the final deciding game was between Don Budge and von Cramm. Budge later recalled: "War talk was everywhere. Hitler was doing everything he could to stir up Germany. The atmosphere was filled with tension although von Cramm was a known anti-Nazi and remained one of the finest gentlemen and the most popular player on the circuit." Budge said that Cramm had received a phone call from Hitler minutes before the match started and had come out pale and serious and had played "each point as though his life depended on winning". Von Cramm was ahead 4–1 in the final set when Budge launched a comeback, eventually winning 8–6 in a match considered to be one of the greatest in tennis history. (16)

Time Magazine, 13th September, 1937
Time Magazine, 13th September, 1937

According to Robert S. Wistich, this defeat "sealed von Cramm's fate". (17) The Gestapo began to investigate Gottfried von Cramm and his family. They discovered that his wife, Elisabeth von Dobeneck, was the daughter of Robert von Dobeneck and his wife, the former Maria Hagen, a granddaughter of the Jewish banker Louis Hagen. They became suspicious when official records showed that the couple divorced in May 1937 on the grounds of "incompatibility of temperament". (18)

After further inquiries the Gestapo discovered he had been having homosexual relationships. One of his lovers was Geoffrey Nares, a young Englishman. However, it was his relationship with Manasse Herbst, a young Jewish actor, who had fled Germany in 1936, that caused the greatest concern. Soon after gaining power Hitler ordered the passing of legislation that made homosexuality illegal. On 5th March 1938, von Cramm was arrested. The Daily Herald reported that Von Cramm had violated paragraph 175 of the Criminal Code, which covers sexual offences. However, his friends claimed that the real reason for his imprisonment was "unwise political utterances". (19)

Gottfried von Cramm was in fact charged with homosexuality and giving financial help to a Jew. While the charges were doubtlessly motivated by politics, he could not deny them as he had indeed had a homosexual relationship with Herbst and he both aided him and financed his escape to Palestine. However, he claimed that the relationship had ended before homosexuality had been banned in 1934. At a secret court he was sentenced to a year in prison. (20)

Don Budge, Joe DiMaggio, and 24 other signatories "whose names are famous in the world of lawn tennis and other sports made public an open letter demanding that the German government should immediately release and exonerate Gottfried von Cramm". The letter criticized the "dark secrecy" of the trial and denounced the charges as "mere subterfuges." It described "Baron von Cramm as an ideal sportsman, a perfect gentleman and decency personified... No country could have wished for a more creditable exponent." It added that "this darkness of silence so characteristic of dictatorships, where freedom of expression of the word or print has long ago given way to suppression of news and censorship." (21)

On his release from prison, in October, 1938, von Cramm attempted to play tennis again. However, he was told by Erich Schönborn, the president of the German Tennis Federation, that because of his criminal record he would not be allowed to represent Germany again. On the invitation of King Gustav V he went to live in Sweden and took part in several tennis tournaments in that country.

As von Cramm's main rivals Fred Perry, Don Budge, Bill Tilden and Ellsworth Vines, had turned professional, he was hot favourite for the 1939 Wimbledon singles championships. However, as he was still blacklisted by his own country, he had no choice but to apply as an individual (national tennis federations normally entered their players). As Marshall Jon Fisher points out: "the Wimbledon committee made up of viscounts and wing commanders and right honourables decided they could not admit a player who had been convicted of a morals charge." (22)

Gottfried von Cramm was allowed to play at Queens the week before and he beat Bobby Riggs, the winner of the Wimbledon final that year, 6-0, 6-1. Von Cramm's friend, Taki Theodoracopulos, complained that he definitely would have won the championship in 1939 if he had not been "refused entry by the cowardly All England club because of moral turpitude." (23) Elizabeth Wilson has argued in Love Game: A History of Tennis, from Victorian Pastime to Global Phenomenon (2015) that von Cramm "was one of the greatest tennis players never to have won Wimbledon." (24)

During the Second World War Gottfried von Cramm was conscripted into military service as a member of the Hermann Göring Division. Despite his background, Cramm originally served as a private soldier until being given a company to command. He saw action on the Eastern Front and was awarded the Iron Cross. His company faced harsh conditions and Cramm was flown out suffering from serious frostbite. Most of his company had been killed and, so to had two of his brothers. Not far away, at the Battle of Stalingrad, his former doubles partner, Heinrich Henkel, was also killed. (25)

According to Richard K. Mastain, the author of The Old Lady of Vine Street (2009) Gottfried von Cramm was involved in the July Plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Lieutenant-Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg planted the bomb on 20th July, 1944. but it failed to kill Hitler. If the attempt had been successful the plan was for von Cramm to go to Sweden and negotiate a surrender with the British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden. (26)

After the war Gottfried von Cramm returned to playing tennis. He won the German national championship in 1948 and again in 1949, when he was 40 years old. Von Cramm went on playing Davis Cup tennis until retiring after the 1953 season and still holds the record for the most wins by any German team member. Following his retirement from active competition, Cramm served as an administrator in the German Tennis Federation and became successful in business as a cotton importer. (27)

In November, 1955, Gottfried von Cramm married Barbara Hutton, an American socialite and an heiress to the Woolworth fortune. Von Cramm was Hutton's sixth husband and told the press: "We should have married eighteen years ago. We fell in love after our first meeting at Cairo in 1937, but somehow it never happened." (28) He later admitted that he had married her in order to "help her through substance abuse and depression but was unable to help her in the end." They were divorced in 1959. (29)

Baron Gottfried von Cramm, aged 66, died in an automobile accident on a desert road in Egypt on a return trip from Alexandria on business on 8th November, 1976. His tennis career had been forgotten until The New European discovered that the Daily Mail had spiked the story of von Cramm. After this article appeared Alexandra Willis, Wimbledon’s spokeswoman maintained that von Cramm had not been entered that year by the German Lawn Tennis Federation. (30)

That is of course true, as he had been banned by Adolf Hitler from representing Germany. However, his application had come from the Swedish Tennis Association. Willis then went on to say that Germany had entered another German player, Daniel Prenn, instead. This is a blatant lie. As I pointed out earlier, von Cramm had originally come into conflict with Hitler when in 1933 he refused to represent Germany in the Davis Cup, because he was a Jew. As a result he emigrated to England in and after changing his nationality represented Great Britain in the 1935 Maccabiah Games. (31)

Patrick Ryecart, the actor who has written the screenplay to a forthcoming film about von Cramm called Poster Boy, has pointed out: "Wimbledon have refused to make public the paperwork they have relating to this period, but this beggars belief... Just for a start, Prenn was banned from playing in Germany because he was a Jew and had actually escaped to the UK in 1935 and lived with the Sieff family, who founded Marks & Spencer.” (32)

Is it not time for institutions such as the Daily Mail and the All England Lawn Tennis Club to admit to the way that they had strong pro-Nazi sympathies in the 1930s. Of course they were not alone, as books by historians by people such as Stephen Dorril, Julie V. Gottlieb, Richard T. Griffiths and Martin Pugh, have shown. In fact, if the ruling-class had its way, we would have had a fascist takeover in this country in the 1930s, as they wanted the introduction of a "corporate state" in Britain.

As Harold Harmsworth, 1st Lord Rothermere, a member of the January Club, and a close associate of Adolf Hitler wrote in The Daily Mail on 10th July, 1933: "I urge all British young men and women to study closely the progress of the Nazi regime in Germany. They must not be misled by the misrepresentations of its opponents. The most spiteful distracters of the Nazis are to be found in precisely the same sections of the British public and press as are most vehement in their praises of the Soviet regime in Russia."

Rothermere then went on to argue: "As anyone who visits Germany quickly discovers for himself, consists merely of a few isolated acts of violence such as are inevitable among a nation half as big again as ours, but which have been generalized, multiplied and exaggerated to give the impression that Nazi rule is a bloodthirsty tyranny. The German nation, moreover, was rapidly falling under the control of its alien elements. In the last days of the pre-Hitler regime there were twenty times as many Jewish Government officials in Germany as had existed before the war. Israelites of international attachments were insinuating themselves into key positions in the German administrative machine. Three German Ministers only had direct relations with the Press, but in each case the official responsible for conveying news and interpreting policy to the public was a Jew." (33)


(1) Mandrake, The New European (13th April, 2018)

(2) Private Eye: 1472 (15th June, 2018) page 9

(3) Geordie Greig, The King Maker: The Man Who Saved George VI (2011) page 272

(4) Richard T. Griffiths, Fellow Travellers of the Right: British Enthusiasts for Nazi Germany 1933-39 (1980) pages 52 and 111

(5) Stephen Dorril, Black Shirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism (2006) page 258

(6) Martin Pugh, Hurrah for the Blackshirts (2006) page 146

(7) Jim Waterson, The Guardian (7th June, 2018)

(8) Deane MeGowen, New York Times (10th November, 1976)

(9) Elizabeth Wilson, Love Game: A History of Tennis, from Victorian Pastime to Global Phenomenon (2015) page 102

(10) Will Magee, Life, Death, Tennis and the Nazis: Gottfried von Cramm, The Man That Wimbledon Forgot (30th June, 2016)

(11) Raghu Krishnan, Times of India (13th June, 2011)

(12) Taki Theodoracopulos, The Spectator (2nd September, 2009)

(13) Charles Graves, The Bystander (8th July, 1936)

(14) Deane MeGowen, New York Times (10th November, 1976)

(15) Will Magee, Life, Death, Tennis and the Nazis: Gottfried von Cramm, The Man That Wimbledon Forgot (30th June, 2016)

(16) William Joseph Baker, Sports in the Western World (1988) page 257

(17) Robert S. Wistich, Who's Who in Nazi Germany (2001) page 33

(18) The Leeds Mercury (8th March 1938)

(19) The Daily Herald (4th May, 1938)

(20) Marshall Jon Fisher, A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever (2010) page 233

(21) Open letter sent to Adolf Hitler and signed by 26 leading sportsmen (May, 1938)

(22) Marshall Jon Fisher, A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever (2010) page 238

(23) Taki Theodoracopulos, The Spectator (2nd September, 2009)

(24) Elizabeth Wilson, Love Game: A History of Tennis, from Victorian Pastime to Global Phenomenon (2015) page 110

(25) Will Magee, Life, Death, Tennis and the Nazis: Gottfried von Cramm, The Man That Wimbledon Forgot (30th June, 2016)

(26) Richard K. Mastain, The Old Lady of Vine Street (2009) page 2

(27) Deane MeGowen, New York Times (10th November, 1976)

(28) The Daily Mirror (9th November, 1955)

(29) Marshall Jon Fisher, A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever (2010) page 247

(30) Mandrake, The New European (20th April, 2018)

(31) The New York Times (26th August, 1933)

(32) Patrick Ryecart, The New European (20th April, 2018)

(33) Harold Harmsworth, 1st Lord Rothermere, The Daily Mail (10th July, 1933)


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