The Führer’s First XI sounds like a Spike Milligan joke, but this small nugget of history is true. In all the millions of words written about Hitler, his telling brush with cricket seems to have escaped the attention of historians.
The incident is referred to in John Simpson’s new book about 20th- century reporting, citing a piece in the Daily Mirror in 1930. I have the article in front of me. Sandwiched between advice on preventing mildew in chrysanthemums and an advert for Barkers’ evening cloaks, it is quite extraordinary, and extraordinarily revealing: about Hitler, the nature of cricket, and why the world’s worst tyrant and the world’s greatest game were never going to get on.
The Mirror piece was written by Oliver Locker-Lampson, an MP, decorated wartime veteran, right-wing zealot and fervent admirer of Hitler. It was published under the headline “Adolf Hitler As I Know Him” on September 30, 1930, as the Nazis’ brutal rise to power gathered pace.
In it, Locker-Lampson describes how in 1923, shortly after the Munich putsch, he met some British officers who had been prisoners of war in southern Germany during the First World War. By coincidence Hitler, then a lance corporal in the German Army, was recovering from his wounds in a nearby hospital.
“He had come to them one day and asked whether he might watch an eleven of cricket at play so as to become initiated into the mysteries of our national game,” writes Locker- Lampson. “They welcomed him, of course, and wrote out the rules for him in the best British sport-loving spirit.”
According to Locker-Lampson, Hitler returned a few days later, having assembled his own team, and challenged the British to a “friendly match”. As Simpson points out, Locker-Lampson infuriatingly failed to inform his readers who won, but we can assume that the British POWs thrashed Hitler’s XI, because he immediately declared the game insufficiently violent for German Fascists.
Hitler, it seems, had an ulterior motive for wanting to play the game: “He desired to study it as a possible medium for the training of troops off duty and in times of peace.” He also wanted the game to be Nazified.
“He had conned over [sic] the laws of cricket, which he considered good enough no doubt for pleasure-loving English people. But he proposed entirely altering them for the serious- minded Teuton.” Specifically, he “advocated the withdrawal of the use of pads. These artificial ‘bolsters’ he dismissed as unmanly and un-German . . . in the end he also recommended a bigger and harder ball.”
Locker-Lampson was not mocking Hitler. Far from it, he regarded Hitler’s “essential improvements” to the English game as a mark of his greatness. The British MP was the founder of the Sentinels of Empire, a blue-shirted group of rightwingers dedicated to fighting Bolshevism. Like many upper-class Englishmen (including Lord Rothermere, then the owner of the Mirror) he was besotted by Nazism, and the rest of the article is a dribbling paean of praise to Hitler: “The temperature of the room rises in his presence . . . He makes the humblest fellow feel twice the man.”
Locker-Lampson reported that Hitler had even devised a new motto for cricket, in German: “Ohne Hast, ohne Rast” — Unhasting, Unresting. To this starry-eyed disciple, Hitler’s determination to rewrite the rules of this most hallowed English institution was a mark, not of mad megalomania, but of his ambition and drive: “That is what makes him a legendary hero already.”
From a distance of 80 years, this forgotten incident demonstrates exactly the reverse of what Locker-Lampson intended, offering a small and unexpected window into Hitler’s brutal mentality.
Sport, in Fascist thinking, was merely a tool with which to forge good Nazis. “German sport has only one task,” declared Joseph Goebbels: “To strengthen the character of the German people, imbuing it with the fighting spirit and steadfast camaraderie necessary in the struggle for its existence.” That twisted attitude would find full expression in the Nazi Olympic Games of 1936.
Hitler, it seems clear, was simply unable to comprehend a game as subtle and nuanced as cricket. He wanted speed and violence. Not for him the gentle thwack of leather on willow, but rather the crunch of a harder, larger ball against unprotected shins. His rewritten rules for the game attempt to blend cricket and blitzkrieg: blitzkricket.
If cricket has a motto, it is probably “Play up! Play up! And play the game”, from Henry Newbolt’s poem Vitaï Lampada, which also extols cricketing manliness, but of a very different sort to that lauded by Hitler: “And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat, Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame . . .”
Cricket, of course, is the ultimate sporting fusion of mind and body: an intricate set of rules and tactics, involving minute gradations of physics, climate and psychology, requiring the broadest range of athletic ability and good manners. In its classic form, it takes five days, with set intervals for tea, and often produces no result. Try to imagine Hitler enjoying a truly thrilling draw, a totalitarian wrestling with the subtle uncertainties of the lbw law. The word “googly” has no translation.
The laws of cricket have evolved over time, and continue to evolve, the result of thousands of refinements and adjustments, not through the arrogant decree of one man. That, again, Hitler would have found impossible to grasp.
For anyone who loves cricket, there is something deeply satisfying in the knowledge that Hitler did not understand the game, and something disquieting in the thought that, had he won the war, we would all be playing without pads.
Sadly, the scorebook from Hitler’s first and only cricket match has not survived. We will never know how much his team lost by, where he batted in the order, and what score he made. But we can certainly speculate. His angry contempt for cricket, his attempt to invade the rules and alter them in his own image, and his inability to comprehend the complexities of the sport all point to one, inescapable conclusion: he was out for a golden duck.
Hitler has only faced one ball.