On August 10, 1937, at the culmination of a spectacularly improbable sequence of events, a team of Englishmen played the final match of a short cricket tour of Berlin on the grounds of the stadium where, a year earlier, American track and field athlete Jesse Owens had won four gold medals at Adolf Hitler’s Olympics.
Quite how it was that the Gentlemen of Worcestershire, a curious mixture of talented cricketers, aristocrats, businessmen and schoolboys — many of whom would soon be called to war against the Nazis, and some of whom would perish — came to be playing this most well-mannered and genteel of sports in a Germany with next to no interest in cricket, governed by a brutal, racist regime gearing up for conquest and genocide, is detailed in a book that was published last year by English author Dan Waddell.
“Field of Shadows: The remarkable true story of the English cricket tour of Nazi Germany 1937” begins with an account of Hitler’s own wildly unlikely exposure to cricket — during World War I, at a German military hospital where a group of British Army officers were being held. At his request, the British PoWs introduced the future Nazi leader to the intricacies of the game, Waddell writes and various other reports assert. Hitler then taught the game to a group of Germans, and initiated a friendly match against the Brits. The result is unknown, but Hitler, according to Waddell’s research, subsequently pronounced himself disenchanted with a sport he concluded was “unmanly and unGerman.”
“Field of Shadows,” I should probably stress at this point, is a carefully sourced work of non-fiction.
Waddell proceeds to recount a saga of further surreal near-impossibilities. The idea that the summer of 1937 in Berlin would find a group of English mavericks playing a game of cricket in the shadow of the Olympiastadion’s towering twin columns, then topped by Swastikas and gold eagles, in the presence of the Nazis’ sports chief Hans Tschammer und Osten, almost defies belief.
But play they did.
One detail extracted by Waddell from his years of research is all too plausible, however.
Unsurprisingly, during this extraordinary cricketing week in Berlin, the enthusiastic but inexperienced German hosts proved no match for even this inconsistent assortment of Englishmen, and went down to heavy defeat in most of the encounters. And yet the Berliners did not call on the services of Germany’s best player, “the country’s finest home-grown cricketer of the 20th Century.”
A vast, Falstaffian figure, who looked “like a dead ringer for Curley Howard of The Three Stooges,” a batsman disdainful of poor bowling who could dispatch the ball long distances, and a potent left-arm spin bowler, this cricketer had participated in a precursor to the 1937 matches — the visit of a German team to England seven years earlier. Had he played in the 1937 encounters, Waddell assesses, the Berliners would certainly have given a better account of themselves.
So why did he not? Because, recounts Waddell, his name was Arthur Schmidt, and he was, almost certainly, Jewish.
Attempting to prise truth from long-forgotten history, Waddell is not definitive on this, but he notes that Schmidt’s nickname in German press reports of his pre-Nazi cricketing exploits was “Mauschel,” which “had several meanings… but predominantly in Germany in the 1930s it was used to refer to somebody who was Jewish.”
Schmidt did have a role in the 1937 games — as one of the two umpires. Jews had been banned by the Nazis from sports organizations since 1933, but had been allowed to compete for Germany in the 1936 Olympics as Hitler temporarily “sought to appease international opinion.” A year later, Waddell recounts, that amnesty was over and Jews were suffering horrendous persecution. But “the arrival of an English team put everyone on their best behavior. There was no way Schmidt” — as a Jew — “would be allowed to play, but it’s feasible he might have been allowed to umpire,” Waddell suggests. Schmidt knew the rules; he was respected; the other players might have asked for him personally. In the event, he umpired in every match of the tour and the visiting English Gentlemen “grew to enjoy his geniality.”
Near the end of the tour, at a farewell dinner, the Germans all signed a booklet for their English guests. The second umpire, one Georg Schneider, signed too; tellingly, Schmidt did not — further suggesting that he was not quite a legitimate member of the Berlin group.
“It’s a possibility that only one of Schmidt’s grandparents had been Jewish, therefore he was more likely to escape persecution — for the time being,” the author speculates. “Or he might have been married to an Aryan woman…”
Despite Waddell’s best efforts, we just don’t know.
What we do know is that a year and a half later, an Arthur Schmidt moved from a previous address to the predominantly Jewish district of Sophienstrasse in central Berlin, likely evicted from his own property as a result of new Nazi tenancy laws. And that on April 19, 1943, an Arthur Schmidt was sent on Transport 37 from Gleis (Track) 17 of Berlin-Grunewald Station to Auschwitz. He was never to be heard from again.
The evidence, writes Waddell, indicates that “the Germans… sent the finest cricketer they ever possessed to the death camps.”
The entire almost unimaginable story of the English cricketers who toured Nazi Berlin barely two years before the outbreak of World War II had been lost in the past before Waddell retrieved it, and the bitter fate of Arthur Schmidt was a small tragedy forgotten within it.
Seventy-eight years later, perhaps cricketers the world over — and anybody else who is moved by the extraordinary tale of a brush between inhumane Nazi Germany and a sport idealized as emblematic of decency and honor — might pause today and spare a thought for Arthur Schmidt.
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