Field of Shadows: review

From Brazil to Qatar, via Sochi, what price – and there, perhaps, is the crux of the matter – sport free from political interference, corruption and general distastefulness? Sport than can be enjoyed without guilt felt over the lives lost, dissidents silenced and despots appeased seems increasingly rare, certainly at elite levels. But it would be wrong to see this as a purely modern phenomenon. From the Munich Olympics to rebel rugby and cricket tours of apartheid South Africa, interference from and complicity with the dark side of the “real world” has been inescapable.

Nazi Germany has become a universal acme of evil, and its relationship with the wider world of sport has come to be particularly symbolic, the regime with the cult of racial fitness and supremacy against the reality of genuine sporting triumph, personified by Jesse Owens’ success at the 1936 Olympics. The writer and journalist Dan Waddell has identified and described a less well-known and far less symbolically charged encounter, an English cricket tour to Germany in 1937. Rather like the rebel tours to South Africa in later decades, it was a private tour that came to stand for a lot more, cricketers far from international standard practising diplomacy by proxy through their sporting performance.

For the veterans of the First World War amongst the tourists, visiting Nazi Germany was not an act of complicity; rather, they sought to avoid inflicting the horrors of war on another generation by the means available to them. The MCC backers – hardly Bolshevik opponents of fascism – saw it as an opportunity to cool the hostility building between the nations, but still instructed the tourists to win. Losing to the Germans has clearly never been acceptable for English sports teams.

Waddell does an excellent job with this fascinating material, doing especially well not to stray into Escape to Victory territory, although occasionally the opportunities are too good to miss – the Nazi who punches fielders if they drop catches of his bowling for example! But the difficulties for home sportsmen, representing their abnormal societies, are equally real and well conveyed. For Felix Menzel, the passionate and endlessly enthusiastic promoter of cricket in Germany, his passion was met with suspicion and hostility. For Arthur Schmidt, probably Germany’s most gifted cricketer, his talent was worth nothing because of his descent. He is believed to have been Jewish, and a man fitting his description, name and all, died in Auschwitz.

Those cricketers more amenable to the regime fit neatly into modern stereotypes of violent, thuggish Nazis. But the Gentlemen of Worcestershire reflected their society no less. Robert Berkeley was a talented club batsman, but was better known for owning the oldest bed in Britain and for participating in the Berkeley Hunt, the pack which have entered the English language as choice Anglo-Saxon rhyming slang. Robin Whetherley, on the other hand, whilst being a fine ‘keeper at Oxford, also spoke German and arrived apart from the rest of the team. It is certainly possible that his trip has purposes beyond sporting success. English aristocrats and veterans may have had fewer qualms than some about reconciliation with Germany, but the threat Hitler posed was still being closely monitored.

For all the talk of establishing relations and developing German cricket, the Gentlemen were there to win. They were representing their country against a leading rival and the prospect of defeat was a humiliating one. Certain niceties were observed, including some reluctant saluting. Waddell excuses it, although regarding 1937 as a “comparatively benign” period of Nazi rule is perhaps overstating the case. There were standards to be upheld; perhaps it is best regarded as a necessary if unfortunate observance of ritual.

This desire to please is perhaps unsurprising. In many ways, it was a typical cricket tour – the beer halls of Berlin were certainly well frequented. But the underlying threat was always apparent. The city was tense, Nazi insignia was prominent, Jews were facing significant persecution. The unpleasantness of ordinary life under Nazi rule was becoming evident, and the great strength of Waddell’s work lies in revealing the contradictions and compromises involved. On all sides, key individuals were torn between resistance and collaboration, and their everyday lives, their passions and hobbies revealed the damage of these ruptures. Sport is not always an escape; it can be deeply revealing about its participants. For a group of Englishmen, free but aware in Nazi Berlin, cricket revealed much about themselves and their opponents.

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