At Stake Was More Than The Throne

[DISCLAIMER: so, a few weeks ago, there was a scifi con in Adelaide, Australia…and I received a few questions in regards to something that was said in one of the whatever they’re called (where actors talk…as you can tell, not a convention attendee)…apparently, one of the Stargate:Atlantis actors has a project based on the book A Terrible Splendor in the works, and because I have curious friends, I got questions after some googling happened and they realised what that actually was. Since I’d used the 1937 David Cup match in my MA thesis last spring, I decided it was easier to post an altered version here, rather than the same explanation to several people over text. So, this originally was part of an Annex to my thesis…I’ve made it less thesis-like and more bloggy…and talks a bit about the book, instead of just the politics of the match. SO, since this is actually just straight history, skip if you only read for the tv/film integration]

The stage of the 1937 David Cup match played like a Hollywood film: a blonde, blue eyed, six foot tall German, who, on the outside, was the image of everything the Third Reich called “perfect” (and on the inside everything but) vs. a man from California who was considered America’s golden boy of tennis, playing on an English court. Ironically, It was foreshadowing of what the world would look like in four short years.

The reality of international politics in the inter-war period was such that everything was political, even sporting events. Nothing shows that more prominently than the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin. Hitler was so determined to show the superiority of nazism (sorry guys, don’t call Nazi Germany a fascist state…just don’t do it) over democracy that he was willing to just about anything, including threatening the lives of his athletes. The irony, of course, was Hitler’s opening speech in which he said “The sportive, knightly battle awakens the best human characteristics. It doesn’t separate, but unites the combatants in understanding and respect. It also helps to connect the countries in the spirit of peace. The bigger irony is that three years and one month from this, Germany invaded Poland and began a world war.

The 1937 David Cup Match was, ostensibly, an extension of the 1936 summer Olympics. The finals pitted a German aristocrat against an American Wimbledon winner. American Donald Budge had beaten Germany’s Baron Gottfried von Cramm to win Wimbledon in July 1937. Some had concerns that the repeat stage of Wimbledon would make Budge cocky, and interfere with his preparations. In reality, Budge’s fight was for country and glory…von Cramm was fighting for so much more.

On top of the intense pressure von Cramm felt to win, especially considering his defeat at Wimbledon, was his own personal secret (which wasn’t actually much of a secret): von Cramm was a homosexual. History suggests that Hitler (and the Gestapo) knew von Cramm’s preferences, but ignored it, along with von Cramm’s refusal to join the Nazi party and his friendship with Jews. The problem for von Cramm was that Hitler wouldn’t be so congenial if he lost, again. Baron von Cramm wasn’t only fighting for a title, he was literally fighting for his life.

By 1937, Hitler’s propaganda machine was in full swing…and so was the buildup to what would become the holocaust. The political problems Hitler faced at home were well trampled by the Nazi propaganda boss Joseph Goebbels, and in reality Hitler didn’t face too many issues at home. The most important thing to remember about Nazi Germany is that everything Hitler did up until 1939, was legal. Hitler was legally appointed chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg (after two successive parliamentary elections hadn’t returned a majority…Germany at this time was a parliamentary republic). Hitler, through the Enabling Act, was legally allowed to pass laws without the the Reichstag, and upon von Hindenburg’s death 2 Aug 1937, legally became führer of Germany. Although Hitler had opponents on home soil, in 1937 the majority of Hitler’s opponents were international. ..although it would take another year for Hitler to be on an inevitable path to war, most countries realised the foreign policy consequences of what Hitler had achieved so far. Having rearmed Germany against the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, withdrawn from the League of Nations (of with the US was never a part), and the reoccupation of the demilitarised zone of the Rhineland, Hitler was actually quite popular at home. Germany’s victories during the 1936 summer Olympics only re-enforced Hitler’s German superiority propaganda. Goebbels and Hitler wanted the Davis Cup match to become the next proof of German excellence. For von Cramm, that simply meant that he couldn’t have a repeat of Wimbledon…unfortunately that’s exactly what it would turn out to be.

Bulge, trailing 1-4 in the final set, came back to win 8-6, once again shutting down Germany’s chances of victory on English soil. Bulge would go on to win the David Cup, the first time in twelve years an American took the title. Three years later Germany would once again find itself engaged in battle in Britain.. only this time, instead of on the courts of Wimbledon, it would be over skies of of Britain… and once again Germany would find itself outgunned by pluck and home court advantage. The David Cup did not become the propaganda coup Hitler and Goebbels wanted, and much like the Battle of Britain, von Cramm’s loss would severely impact how Germany was viewed on the international stage.

[AFTERWARD: After von Cramm’s loss, he returned to Germany amidst heavy international press. Less than a year later, on 5 March 1938, von Cramm was arrested for “immoral behaviour” and sent to a concentration camp. Bowing under international pressure, Germany released von Cramm six months later stating “good behaviour.” In reality, international pressure followed von Cramm wherever he went, often disallowing his participation in international tennis events, and he was eventually drafted into the German army where he was sent to the Russian Front (arguably a death sentence). Baron von Cramm survived (given an early discharge for frost bite) and married the Wolworth heiress Barbara Hutton (he was her 6th husband)]

[I vaguely recall this being a LOT easier to write the first time. Keeping it blog-like and not thesis-like is a lot harder than I anticipated. Comment/email/Twitter if you need clarification on anything.]

[To Read: Nazi Games-David Clay Large (who was one of my profs @ MSU) and A Terrible Splendor-Marshall Jon Fisher]

[The title of this post comes from an article in the 7 June 1937 edition of Time Magazine]


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