Life, Death, Tennis and the Nazis: Gottfried von Cramm, The Man That Wimbledon Forgot

Gottfried von Cramm was one of Germany’s greatest tennis players, and a gay sportsman who stood up to the Nazis. His legacy has been overshadowed, but deserves to be brought into the light.

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Jun 30 2016, 3:55pm

PA Images

When tennis fans in this country think of the 1936 Wimbledon men's final, they associate it first and foremost with Fred Perry. It's a final that holds a significant place in the national consciousness because, prior to Andy Murray's triumph in 2013, it represented the last time a British man had won Wimbledon. Perry was brought up relentlessly during the Tim Henman era, and became yet another stick with which to beat the nation's perennial also-ran. In the end, it took 77 years for Perry's Wimbledon heroics to be matched by a British sportsman. For almost eight decades, tennis on these shores was forever looking back to the summer of '36.

That said, there has never been much attention given to Perry's opponent in that fateful final. When Perry went over to the net at the end of the three-set thrashing, he shook hands with a tall, blonde gentleman; a man with gentle, handsome features as well as remarkable sinew and strength. That man was Gottfried von Cramm, one of the greatest ever German tennis players. He was a supreme athlete, but also a man conflicted. Rightly admired as a great sportsman, he was also one of the most interesting characters ever to take to the court.

Gottfried truly announced himself to the world of tennis in 1934, when he beat Australian ace Jack Crawford and won Roland Garros. Though he had won the German national championships previously, that represented his first Grand Slam. His background piqued contemporary interests, not least because of his nationality and the feverish political situation in Germany at the time.

Hitler at a Nazi Party rally in 1934 // Via

Gottfried was a Saxon aristocrat, the third son of Burchard Baron von Cramm. He was wealthy, sociable and open-handed, while his sporting success made him wildly popular back home. He had a winning personality, as well as a reputation for good manners, sportsmanship and honourable conduct towards his opponents. Though it was only whispered at the time of his first Grand Slam, he was also gay, and in a discreet relationship with Manasse Herbst, a young actor and Galician Jew.

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In the Germany of 1934, that relationship was seriously problematic. Adolf Hitler had consolidated his power as Führer, and it would be barely a year before homosexuality was criminalised in law. Jewish citizens were already subjected to discrimination, hatred and violence, and fear was beginning to grip their community. It was in this context that Gottfried von Cramm became one of Germany's most celebrated athletes, and so was asked to represent a country that was quickly sinking into the totalitarian abyss.

Blonde, chiselled and archetypally Aryan, Gottfried was seen as a powerful symbol by the regime. Owing to his own circumstances and convictions, however, he was steadfastly unwilling to play the role required. Though he was compelled to wear tennis whites emblazoned with a swastika and to perform a Sieg Heil before the start of matches, he resisted numerous approaches to make him a central part of the Nazis' propaganda drive. While other sportsmen enthusiastically signed up to the idea of Aryan sporting supremacy, Gottfried continued to play gentlemanly tennis, and sought to get on with his life.

Gottfried (left) congratulates Fred Perry after losing the 1936 Wimbledon final // PA Images

Tension between Gottfried and the regime grew steadily after the Davis Cup final of 1935, which Germany lost to the USA. He refused to take match point in the deciding game of the match, after informing the umpire that the ball had tipped his racket during the rally. Nobody had seen the error but, nonetheless, Gottfried indicated that a point should be called against him. Germany went on to lose, and the blame fell directly on to the shoulders of the honourable Von Cramm.

After that match, Germany captain Heinrich Kleinschroth supposedly headbutted the wall of the team's changing room. Incandescent with rage, he called Von Cramm "a traitor to the nation." Gottfried's reply epitomised his character. "On the contrary, I don't think that I've failed the German people," he said. "In fact, I think I've honoured them." The authorities saw the defeat rather differently, and there was increased pressure on him to conform.

Gottfried repeatedly refused to join the Nazi Party, despite the menacing insistence of, amongst others, Hermann Göring. Not only did he despise their discriminative policies, he also resented them for the exile of Polish Jew and former teammate Daniel Prenn. Anecdotally, it has been suggested that Von Cramm used to refer to Hitler as "the house painter", a jibe at the Führer's early years as a failed artist in Vienna. This was a dangerous attitude to take in Nazi Germany, especially for a gay man with the eyes of the nation upon him.

Gottfried (right) with doubles partner Heinrich "Henner" Henkel // Via

Despite all this, Von Cramm continued to excel on the court. He triumphed at the French Championships once again in 1936, and won the men's doubles at both Roland Garros and the US Open alongside his protégé, Heinrich Henkel, the year afterwards. His most famous exploits were at Wimbledon, however. Though he never won the tournament, his performances at the All England Club earned him praise the world over.

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Gottfried was runner-up at Wimbledon for three years running, losing the first and second matches to Fred Perry in 1935 and '36, and the third to American tennis legend Don Budge in '37. While he lost all three matches in straight sets, he did so against the undisputed superstars of the day, and did himself great credit in the process. What's more, his first match against Perry and his last against Budge have gone down in history as legitimate classics, having featured some of the best, most entertaining tennis of the era.

Gottfried von Cramm played a huge part in the golden era of Wimbledon. Sadly, the All England Club soon forsook him, and he became the man that Wimbledon forgot.

Footage of Von Cramm at the 1935 Wimbledon final

As the political situation in Europe deteriorated and World War II loomed ever larger, the tense relationship between Von Cramm and the Nazis rapidly broke down. Before an infamous match with Budge at the 1937 Davis Cup, it was rumoured that Gottfried had received a call from Hitler ordering him to claim victory at all costs. He went 4-1 ahead in the final set, only to let his lead slip and end up losing 8-6. While Budge sympathised with his anxious, burdened opponent, the regime did not.

On 5 March 1938, two Gestapo agents barged in on a Von Cramm family dinner. Gottfried was summarily arrested, and imprisoned at the leisure of the German government. He was charged with homosexuality and giving financial help to a Jew. While the charges were doubtlessly motivated by politics, he could not deny them. Manasse Herbst had fled the country for Palestine in 1936, and Von Cramm had both aided him and financed his escape.

Gottfried admitted the relationship to the authorities, and was sentenced to a year in prison. His lawyer managed to lessen the severity of the punishment by claiming that Herbst had blackmailed him into sending the money, as he was "a sneaky Jew". This was a ploy, and the fact that Von Cramm hosted Herbst after the war attests to their enduring friendship. Had it not been for Gottfried's money, it is quite possible that Herbst would not have survived the horrors to come.

Don Budge was one of several tennis players who stood up for Von Cramm // Via

As a man with many friends in tennis, several high-profile players leapt to Von Cramm's defence. Complaints were lodged to the German authorities, while Don Budge collected the signatures of his fellows professionals before sending a letter of protest to Hitler. Unfortunately, the tennis hierarchy was far less understanding. After Von Cramm's early release in early 1939, he was ostracised by the All England Club. The political climate was doubtlessly the main factor in his exclusion from Wimbledon that year, but the official pretext was that he was a convicted criminal, and therefore unfit to grace the grass.

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Wimbledon had turned its back on Von Cramm, despite his victimisation at the hands of the Nazis. He had courageously opposed their ideology, but still he was rejected as an enemy and a felon. His application for a temporary visa ahead of the US Open was also thrown out, with the Americans citing his conviction on morals charges. Then came the war, and tennis rackets were laid down for rifles.

World War II brought Von Cramm's tennis career to an end, and almost cost him his life as well. He was drafted into military service in May 1940, and shipped off to the icy carnage of the Eastern Front. He was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery, before he was flown out of the front lines with serious frostbite. Most of his company had been killed and, not far away, at the Battle of Stalingrad, his doubles partner Heinrich Henkel had been shot dead.

Gottfried survived the Eastern Front, but protégé Heinrich Henkel did not // Via

Gottfried von Cramm survived the war, and continued to live in Saxony afterwards. He played some tennis towards the end of the decade, and even managed to win the German national championship again in 1948 and '49. He was 40 years old at this point, and soon retired from the game altogether. He went on to become an administrator for the German Tennis Federation and a successful businessman, until he visited Cairo in 1976 and his life was abruptly ended in a motoring accident.

On the court, Von Cramm won some of the most prestigious competitions in tennis. Off it, he defied the Nazis and refused to be courted by their totalitarian regime. As a gay sportsman who refused to bow to prejudice, he faced mental hardships that even the hardiest athletes would struggle to bear. He was a victim of his time and circumstances, and was excluded even from the tournaments that he helped to make great.

The All England Club might have rejected Von Cramm before the war, but he remains an indelible part of its history. He played some of his most memorable matches at Wimbledon, and took on some of the all-time greats. While he may not have beaten Fred Perry or Don Budge, he left an honourable, decent and sportsmanlike legacy. When we think of the great champions who have graced the game of tennis, we should also think of Gottfried von Cramm.

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