On December 19 1937, Baron von Cramm, named ‘the most admired personality in the game’ by Brisbane’s Sunday Mail, boarded the mail train for Sydney after delighting Brisbanites in his local matches. The aristocratic German was tall, blond, handsome and fit AF. Adolf Hitler saw in him a walking, talking billboard for the Aryan master race. But Gottfried von Cramm despised Hitler and all he stood for. And the Baron was gay.
Although Germany was on the nose in the 1930s, Brisbane turned on a warm welcome for the popular tennis star. The papers predicted he would win Wimbledon the following year. But von Cramm never made it there. Within months of his Brisbane visit, he was imprisoned in a Berlin jail. By March 1938, Brisbane’s Courier-Mail pondered whether the Baron would face trial or disappear into a concentration camp.
Baron Gottfried von Cramm vs Hitler
Germany’s most successful tennis player refused to wear the Swastika or join the Nazi Party. He could have been a brand ambassador for Hitler’s mythical Aryans. But the blond Adonis abhorred the master race bullshit.
He publicly protested the expulsion of his Jewish doubles partner from the German Davis Cup team. And he continued to criticise Hitler overseas, including during exhibition marches in Sydney and Melbourne.
The Fuhrer decided to rid himself of the meddlesome Baron. He sicced his henchmen onto von Cramm, and they soon discovered evidence of homosexuality.
Gottfried von Cramm married Baroness Lisa von Dobeneck in 1930, but the marriage apparently ended before the honeymoon did. Gottfried, 21, consequently met 17-year-old Jewish actor Manasse Herbst and reportedly married him in a Berlin nightclub. Five years later, in the face of increasing persecution of Jews, von Cramm assisted Manasse Herbst’s escape from Germany. He then supported his former lover with a regular stipend.
The affair happened before the Nazi criminalisation of homosexuality. However, assisting Jews to escape the regime and offering financial support were crimes. The judge imposed a relatively lenient sentence of 12 months after von Cramm’s lawyer convinced him that ‘the sneaky Jew’ blackmailed the Baron. (Not true, but Manasse was by now beyond the reach of the Nazis while Gottfried was their prisoner. The pair remained friends and Manasse visited Gottfried in Germany after the war.)
World War II
Following protests from international sports stars and pressure from Sweden’s King Gustaf V, the Nazis released von Cramm after six months. Hitler could not afford to piss off Sweden in the build-up to war.
Then, during the war, Germany conscripted von Cramm into the army and sent him to the notorious Russian Front. One of the few survivors in his company, he was evacuated in 1942, suffering from frostbite. No longer useful as cannon fodder, the Nazis suddenly remembered the Baron’s conviction for homosexuality and discharged him.
He later fled to Sweden when implicated in the failed Operation Valkyrie plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
On his release from prison in 1938, Baron von Cramm resumed his tennis career and was again a favourite to take out Wimbledon. But Harold Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, anti-semite and Nazi sympathiser, pressured the All England Lawn Tennis Club to disallow von Cramm’s participation. The club chairman was Sir Louis Greig, a friend of King George VI and supporter of the British Fascists. The club disqualified Gottfried con Cramm from competition purportedly because of his criminal conviction.
After the war, he continued playing tennis. He returned to Wimbledon in 1951. With post-war anti-German sentiment still strong, there was apprehension about what reception he would receive. But when Gottfried von Cramm walked out, the entire Wimbledon centre court stood and applauded.
Baron Gottfried von Cramm died in a car accident in Egypt in 1976.
Read more: December 17 <— On this day —> December 19
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