History makers: Spurs fans

In the aftermath of quenelle-gate, we remember a time when the 'Yid Army' tried to kick the politics out of football.

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.

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But there was opposition. It’s just that this opposition did not come from the top of society, but from its base. The Trades Union Congress and assorted individual trade unions got involved. Campaign groups like the Non-Sectarian League and the Anti-Nazi Council mobilised, as did Jewish groups. And most striking of all, groups of football supporters got stuck in. That’s right, that section of society that the authorities today love to paint as recidivists, the last refuge of racist, anti-Semitic sentiment, was opposed to the Nazi invasion of the football sphere. And they did this while the authorities back then just looked on.

On the day of the match itself, an anti-Nazi march converged on White Hart Lane. Leaflets that had been printed in German were handed out by demonstrators. And pro-Nazi sympathisers were met with short shrift and punches.

In the stadium itself, the FA had deemed it good manners to let a Nazi swastika flutter above White Hart Lane. This was too much for one Spurs fan, who climbed on to the roof and tore it down. The authorities’ response was to arrest and fine him for his trouble. Not that it mattered in the main: the great Nazi propaganda tour of England had been stopped in its fascist tracks by fans and comrades.

It’s a snapshot of a different era, but it sheds light on our own, too. This was a time when racism was real, when anti-Semitism was a genuine force in society – indeed, this was just 10 months before the Battle of Cable Street, a period when Oswald Mosely’s blackshirts were growing and arming. But it wasn’t the British state putting up a fight, it was normal men and women, including football fans. Today, however, the roles are reversed. At a time when racism and anti-Semitism are far, far less of a problem than they were 80 years ago, British officialdom has decided to intervene in football more than ever. But it’s not because there is a genuine fascist presence in football stadia; it’s because today’s politicians have an incredibly dim, uncomprehending view of football fans. 

Tim Black is deputy editor at spiked.

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