Recently I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in the pages of The Cricketer magazine; particularly those covering the inter-war years. The effort is constantly rewarded with insights and curios from an different age; some amusing for their anachronisms, others striking for the current relevance of their themes. Of all those, one particular piece has stuck with me for its peculiarly out-of-step-with-the-times nature: C B Fry’s 1939 article ‘Some Thoughts’.
[In the spirit of openness – Iain Wilton’s excellent biography of Fry, King of Sport, covers this subject (and the article) in much more detail and with more eloquence than I can here.]
Published in the end-of-year annual – and so some time after Britain had declared war on Germany – it broaches the issue of Anglo-German relations with the air of a kindly uncle musing over a family tiff.
Opening with a story about the First World War, Fry makes reference to the “severities and miseries and cruelties of War” but then quickly segues into wondering “whether the world might not have been a better world had the Germans taken to cricket and adopted it as a national game.”
Having asked the question, Fry breezily recounts that he had made such a suggestion while being dined in Berlin by none other than Hitler’s Foreign Minister, Joachim Von Ribbentrop. Fry, by his own account, had told his host that the sport could have “a wonderful effect in the direction of the Fuehrer’s desires.” Undeterred by Von Ribbentrop’s protest that the game was too complicated for his people, Fry pushed on, bizarrely arguing that cricket was “essentially a pure Nordic game” and that the Germans “would probably produce a blond W.G. Grace.” Given the inevitable conflict that would occur in the forthcoming months, Fry is remarkably casual in his use of German ability in “slinging hand grenades” as one example of why they could produce fine bowlers as he is in his praise of the “specimens of young Hitlerism” he had observed in a visit to Germany.
This wasn’t the only time Fry had waxed lyrical about that visit to Germany. Earlier in 1939, his autobiography Life Worth Living had been published and in it he reminisced about the trip in a chapter entitled Adolph Hitler. For Fry had not simply taken the opportunity to observe the German people but had secured a personal audience with the Nazi leader himself. And had been impressed. He had, he admitted, been “attracted by him.” “He [Hitler] looked fresh, fit, and…notably alert….. [and had] an innate dignity,” The story of the encounter is told in great detail, including both men exchanging the Nazi salute.
Fry was not just impressed by the leader but also with the “Nazi ideal of education… [which] places health and character in front of mere intellectual training.” He mused that the introduction in Britain of some sort of state sponsored youth movement akin to the German model would be “a desirable development.”
If that wasn’t enough, Fry took the time in his book to explain – without comment or disapproval – Hitler’s views on German Jewish community; reporting that, while Hitler “admitted that there was apparent injustices and hardships in his treatment of the Jews… he added [it] was their fault because they hung together like a hive of bees.”
That Fry would think so kindly of Germany, Hitler and Nazi policy is not necessarily surprising given what we know about his later years – attending at least one British Union of Fascists meeting and welcoming members of the Hitler Youth at his Mercury naval training centre – but it is the matter-of-fact way he voiced it at a time when his country was at war with Nazi Germany that seems so remarkably naive. There was some recognition that such sentiments may be controversial but even then his defence was phrased in a way that added more fuel to the fire: he pleaded his case for such a favourable assessment of the Nazi leader with the words “I am just writing of this great man as I then found him”, and the chapter ends with the words Fas est et ab hoste doceri (it is right to be taught even by an enemy).
By the 1950s, when Fry was in his last years, he tried to frame the story in a different light; the Nazi salute disappeared and Fry began to claim that he had warned Hitler against invading Britain. The problem was that revisionist history is difficult when the original story is already in print.
C B Fry had a tendency to embellish his own history and so it is difficult to know how true the original story ever was. However true or exaggerated the tale, it was an astonishing one to tell in 1939 of all years.