Tottenham Hotspur, based in north-east London, has always been a football club with a large Jewish fanbase. The reasons for this aren’t entirely obvious given that another London club, West Ham, was far closer to the large Jewish communities around Spitalfields and Whitechapel. But dig a little deeper and things become clearer: it all hinges on the tram routes.
On the Sabbath, Jews were forbidden to use combustion-engine-powered cars and buses. But they were allowed to use the electric tram, which, as luck had it, stopped right outside White Hart Lane. By the 1930s, it was estimated that one in three of Spurs’ 30,000 fans were Jewish.
It might seem odd, then, that in August 1935, the English Football Association decided that the ideal venue for an international game between England and Germany was White Hart Lane, the home of the most Jewish football club in England at the time. This Germany team was not simply a collection of footballers who happened to be German. Bearing swastikas and Sieg Heil-ing at every opportunity, they were meant to be an expression of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, especially if they were beating all-comers. As the Daily Worker said of this ‘football stunt’ at the time: ‘In Nazi Germany, there is no sport apart from Nazi politics.’ Given that Nazi politics was, of course, famed for its deep-seated anti-Semitism, many Spurs fans must have found the prospect of the match more than a little sickening.
The British government’s attitude towards, and relationship with, sport was rather more hands-off then it is now. Having only discovered that the FA had organised the match in late September, when a German steamship company had asked the Home Office for permission to land supporters at Southampton, the government’s response was distinctly disinterested. Despite the government’s own Defence Requirements Committee describing Hitler’s Germany as Britain’s ‘ultimate potential enemy against whom our “long-range” defence policy must be directed’, the attitude was that sport was not a governmental matter. As the then home secretary, Sir John Simon, put it, ‘in our country [there is] a tradition that this sporting fixture is carried through without any regard to politics at all’.
Not even a planned Nazi march featuring fascists and fascist sympathisers pouring through Stoke Newington and Wood Green on their way to White Hart Lane stirred the government into action. This was a sporting affair, not a political one.