Stan Cullis, Jack Kirby and English Football’s Nazi Salute

Football is often referred to ‘more than just a game’ for its ability to bring people together, its ability to dissolve differences and set examples in a positive way. Several embodiments of such examples have graced the game and one such example is that of Stan Cullis.

A proud man and a great footballer, Stan Cullis carved a football career on his strong moral foundations. There is no better example of this than in 1938 when he refused to give Hitler’s West German side the Nazi salute in a friendly between England and West Germany. This decision saw him dropped from the team but has since won him great praise for standing up for what he believed in.

The broader impact of football here spilled over into politics, during the interwar period. From 1937 to 1940 Chamberlain’s Conservative government was best known for its appeasement foreign policy with Germany and the Nazi Party, this strategy can also be seen in football. An incident occurred in 1938 when the English football team joined in with the German Nazi salute. This infamous image has been depicted as ‘Munich-style national humiliation’. The Football Association (FA) in England supported Chamberlain and organised for England to play a fixture in the German capital just two months after the German takeover of Austria.

In May 1938, England faced Germany at the Olympic stadium in Berlin with one hundred and fifteen thousand people in attendance and during the national anthem of the Germans, the English team joined their opponents in the Nazi salute. The salute was met with distaste from the British press as Adolf Hitler was not even present at the game. The common perception was that the event that day was less about sport than politics. The game was thought to have helped pave the way for Chamberlain’s meeting with Hitler and his famous ‘Peace in our Time’ quote. It was a highly political decision to face Germany and give the Nazi salute. This incident had nationwide consequences and exemplified the importance of football on world stage. It also underlined the cultural role of football, as a friendly was organised to symbolise the relationship between Germany and England at the time.

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The image from the day clearly displays twenty two players from both sides giving the Nazi salute. This is a harrowing image and must have been a shameful moment for all the players on that day looking back at the event. England went on to win the game 6-3 with the English goals coming from Stanley Matthews, Frank Broome, Leonard Goulden, Clifford Bastin and two from John Robinson. But despite the 6-3 win, English FA seemed to have politically lost.

The game itself is often overlooked for the political propaganda that preceded it. However, it certainly deserves mention when examining this dark moment of English football history. It was the final game for the Germans before the 1938 World Cup in France. They came into the game off the back of a sixteen game unbeaten run. Sepp Herberger had just become their new manager and he had only lost twice since he had been appointed to Scotland and the Irish Free State. England arrived hopeful to end the German unbeaten run and match their British peers.

The off-field occurrences of Hitler’s Nazi Party also had an impact of the German football team. As Austria had been annexed to Germany in March 1938, the pool of available players had grown for the German side. This Anschluss was a huge advantage for the Germans as Austria were one of the best teams in Europe at the time. The third-place play-off match at the 1934 World Cup in Italy saw Germany beat their Austrian opponents 3-2. Now with their forces combined they felt confident of building a great side for the 1938 World Cup.

This German-Austrian combination worried the English as they did not believe the German Anschluss was politically correct. Therefore, they requested that there would be no Austrian players in the friendly match and in return the FA offered a friendly with Aston Villa for the combined German-Austrian side. This was agreed between both nations, yet Hans Pesser who played and scored in the game – was an Austrian.

The Nazi Party realised how powerful this match could be as a propaganda tool for their regime. They encouraged the team to train tirelessly for the match. This led to a two-week training camp in the South-West of Germany in the Black Forest. This was in stark contrast to the English team who were more focused on allowing the players some recovery time after they had finished a long season. The squad they selected for the match was also much like the England squad for the 2018 World Cup, young and inexperienced on the international stage. Only two had made more than ten appearances, two made their debut and one winning his second cap. England were certainly taking this game seriously but their preparations were a lot more relaxed than the Germans.

It was under the instruction of Neville Henderson, Britain’s German Ambassador, and Stanley Rous, the FA secretary (who went on the become the FIFA President), that England rendered the Nazi salute. The salute was during the German national anthem and, although Hitler was not present, it was performed in front of several influential Nazis. Hermann Göring (President of the Reichstag), Joseph Goebbels (Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda), Rudolf Hess (Deputy Führer of the Nazi Party) and Joachim von Ribbentrop (German Ambassador to the United Kingdom) were all present at the game. The salute did not appear to be acted out unwillingly and reports suggest that many of the players and the FA did not perceive it to be an issue until they received substantial backlash from the press when they returned home.

Despite the negative reaction that was to greet them when they returned home and the insufferable heat that slowed the game, England were out to win the game and provided a fine performance. Bastin provided England the lead, yet it was cancelled out by Rudi Gellesch all within the first twenty minutes. From then on, England did not look back. Goals from Robinson, Broome and Matthews gave them a 4-1 lead until Jupp Gauchel gave the Germans hope right at the end of the first-half.

The sides continued their to-and-fro as Robinson scored his second, quickly followed by the Germans third goal from Johann Pesser. Goulden’s long-range effort sealed the emphatic England 6-3 win. This victory had a big impact on a demoralised German side ahead of the 1938 World Cup. Their unbeaten streak ended and they had been humiliated on home soil. They were defeated by the Swiss in a first round replay at the final World Cup before the end of the war when the competition returned in 1950.

This interwar fixture is the main reason why so many of the players had recorded so few caps for their international sides. Only one German and one English player represented their country again in a competitive match after the war, the two wars that sandwiched this game greatly hampered many promising football careers. England had been offered to take the place of the Austrian side at the 1950 World Cup but refused due to their rejection to recognise Anschluss.

The game itself would have been a memorable event for all the spectators present; however, the game has now become an important reminder of the political role of football. The glaring attempt to use this football game as propaganda for the Nazi party seemed to have been overlooked, or worse accepted, by all those involved. Everyone that is, except for Stan Cullis. It is important to analyse the events of the game and why it is such a historically significant football match, yet the one man who stood up against what was so obviously wrong was Cullis. His role in the game was simply not participating but this should forever be remembered more than the role of his teammates.

Stan Cullis was born in Ellesmere Port in Cheshire and his senior career began with Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1934. His father was from Wolverhampton which was the reason for his strong relationship with the club throughout his life. Following a trial, he was offered a contract and became the captain within two years at the club, aged just 19. He also went on to become the youngest ever England captain at 22. His Wolves manager, Major Frank Buckley, favoured youth in his sides and was a key reason for the fast development of Cullis. He went on to play and lose the 1939 FA Cup final, an event that left a long-standing reminder to Cullis of the loss. Not mentally, rather in the form of wax. As the 1939 final was the last before the war, the traditional Madame Tussaud’s waxwork of the two FA Cup Final captains shaking hands remained until 1947.

His strengths on the pitch, aside from his obvious leadership qualities, were his physical ability, competent heading and the ability to play football from the back. He was a regular for club and country and praised for his polished and consistent performances. His flailing arms led to the nickname of ‘Flipper’ from international teammates, two of whom he formed a great partnership with: Cliff Britton and Joe Mercer. This defensive trio was a mainstay of the England side yet was greatly hindered by the war.

Like many players of the time, Cullis was drafted into the war and based in Aldershot. This led to a string of ‘guest’ appearances for Aldershot, along with Fulham and Liverpool as he moved around the country during his service as PTI (Physical Training Instructor) for the British Armed Forces. These wartime appearances do not count as official games and so his club and international appearance tallies are greatly diminished and do not illustrate his stature in the game.

His obvious leadership qualities only make it more significant that he chose not to participate against Germany. He was an influential member of the squad and had served as captain, this further illustrates how highly thought of he was within the team. For him to stand up to the FA’s cowardice towards the Nazi party, shows the strong moral power he had. As well as this, it is perhaps rather surprising that no other members of the squad followed his lead and refused to partake in the salute. His measly twelve international appearances could easily have been thirteen but he put integrity before his football.

The game that made Stan Cullis famous was unfortunately not the only time that an English side was involved in the Nazi salute. As aforementioned, the English FA had agreed with Germany that they could field a combined German-Austrian side against Aston Villa the day after the England Vs Germany game.

Aston Villa were a famous British side at the time and despite being in Division 2 for the season preceding the famous game, it was a big coup for the German-Austrian XI to face them. Villa had just been promoted in the 1937-38 season and the game that followed Cullis’ display of courage, has been viewed similarly by the Villa fans.

The England game was shrouded in political motivation, despite the Aston Villa game being politically important – the shackles were somewhat released. The interest from supporters was still immense as over 100,000 people turned up for the game, however, the atmosphere was very different as the noise and spectacle of the day before was not repeated. Put simply, the crowd were dead. Whether this was down to the lesser significance or excitement of the day before is difficult to ascertain.

Despite there being four less goals than the England match, the supporters were still treated to a five-goal thriller, decided by one Villa goal. Again, the match was preceded by a sign of unity with the Villa players giving the Nazi salute. This has again become an image that shocks many football fans, the fact that football can be so negatively portrayed for political propaganda is chilling in this instance. More to the credit of Cullis once again, no player refused to give the salute. Despite the players’ reluctance, Villa still gave the Nazi salute.

Aston Villa fans giving the Nazi salute [Credits: Birmingham Mail]

This show of ‘respect’ from the players was not reciprocated by the unimpressed supporters. Villa were orchestrating the new tactic that was unbeknown to the Germans, of the offside trap. This was met with anger from the supporters. They did not like this new method and responded with whistling and shouting. The two teams later clashed when Camilo Jerusalem was brought down by Villa’s Alec Massie, this certainly did not aid relations between the players and fans.

The pre-match Nazi salute was completed by the Villa players, nevertheless they did not follow through with their post-match salute as was agreed. The Villa players claimed that they were not aware of this arrangement and headed straight down the tunnel, oblivious to the outrage they had caused. Officials from both England and Germany were pushed to respond to Villa’s lack of a second salute. Goebbels, perhaps surprisingly, was keen to kerb the negative press response to the Villa players to maintain the English and German relations. The FA pressed Villa representatives to ensure that the players carried out both salutes in their next game in Dusseldorf, later that week.

The game in Dusseldorf was against another German XI, comprising of Austrian and German players. In this instance the players followed protocol and delivered two salutes before and after the game. This settled the tension between the two nations, but only temporarily. The Villa players headed to Stuttgart on the next leg of their 1938 German tour. The distaste for the Villa offside trap had continued throughout both previous games, this was only furthered when the German fans were alerted that it was legal. The supporters were encouraged not to jeer the Villa defence, this was to no avail as each offside decision was met with German catcalls. This hostility led to the Villa players being escorted from the pitch by SS guards and Stormtroopers.

The sight of English players performing the Nazi salute led to unbelievable images that have since been published. The players involved did not seem to be bothered by having to salute the Nazi party. It appeared that only Stan Cullis had a strong enough moral compass to reject being involved in the game. Overall, the players were happy to show unity with the Germans and this was an indication of the Anglo-German relations up until the Munich Conference.

Villa’s German tour perhaps illustrated that the people of each nation were less happy with the unity. The upset ran deeper than an offside trap and a ‘forgotten’ salute, both players and supporters seemed to have an underlying tension. These tensions show how the people of both nations truly felt and how brave Stan Cullis had been to stand up to the Nazis.

There is another instance of an English team partaking in the Nazi salute before these incidents of 1938. Derby County embarked on a tour of Germany in 1934 and were requested to respect their German hosts. Despite this being four years before the other two events, it is relevant to again show how special Cullis was to refuse to participate in the salute. Derby’s tour was not as successful as the England or Villa game as they lost three and drew one in their four games.

Bamfords auctioned the photograph of Derby County FC giving the Nazi salute in 1934 for £550 [Credits: BBC]

Despite Stan Cullis being in the focus for his defiance, he was not alone. Four years earlier, South Derbyshire-born Jack Kirby also marked his distaste for the Nazi salute in a perhaps more poignant way. He was part of the Derby County side that was asked to visit Germany off the back of a fourth-place finish in Division One in the 1933-34 season. Their side also consisted of four England internationals which made them the perfect invitees.

“Everywhere we went, the swastika was flying. If you said ‘good morning’, they’d reply with ‘heil Hitler’. If you went into a cafe and said ‘Good evening’, they would respond with ‘heil Hitler’. Even then, you could see this was a country preparing for war.”
-19-year-old Dave Holford on his time in Germany with Derby

Derby County were pitted against four different German XI sides spread across Germany. They were soon to realise the prowess of German football as their tour was an ultimate failure. The Rams lost 5-0 in Cologne, 5-2 in Frankfurt, 1-0 in Dusseldorf and drew 1-1 in Dortmund. The players enjoyed their time in Germany, despite their results and it was only marred by one thing – the obligation to deliver a Nazi salute at each game. The players had informed the manager, George Jobey, that they did not want to take part in the salute but Jobey was pressed by British ambassadors to ensure that his players would comply. They believed that any sign of distaste toward Hitler could ruin the fragile relations between the sides and all the players reluctantly agreed to conform.

All the players except for goalkeeper Jack Kirby. Kirby was obstinate that he would not salute Hitler and the Nazis and he stood by his word. Kirby’s defiance was captured by photographers but gained little attention. If it had angered the Nazis, it was not announced publicly. Kirby displayed similar bravery to Cullis and the only reason why he is not focused upon as much as Stan Cullis is because the tensions between the two nations were a lot worse in 1938 than in 1934. Kirby deserves the upmost respect and praise for not sacrificing moral beliefs for politics and the picture of the squad must fill him with great pride.

Stan Cullis and Jack Kirby are the perfect example of standing up for what is right. The Germans and English governments were stuck in a phony display of unity that was not shared by the people they represented. The Aston Villa tour displayed the distaste between the nations and the bravery that Cullis and Kirby showed to stand up to Hitler was colossal. Kirby’s actions were mostly overlooked and if Cullis had been allowed to start and not salute the Nazis, the reaction would have been much worse. The police presence at the Villa matches displayed how much worse relations had become and Cullis’ defiance could have started a riot. Cullis was prepared to publicly display his distaste and it was only the cowardice of the FA and the British government that stopped him from doing so. His rise from humble beginnings to a leader of men at such a young age provided him with a strong moral compass that never left his side and his brave actions will be remembered for generations to come.

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