A Volley and a Voice: The Tennis Player Who Fought Hitler by David Weiss
Gottfried Von Cramm was one of the most important tennis players of the 20th Century. But this German superstar and Grand Slam champion proved to be an even better person than he was a tennis player. Von Cramm’s life journey began in Germany in 1909. He came from a wealthy, respected family that prioritized personal ethics and sportsmanship. Gottfried’s love for tennis must have been, in part, genetic. Von Cramm’s father loved tennis so much he built a clay court at their home.
A fabulous athlete, in 1928 Von Cramm decided to become a full-time tennis player. In 1930 he got married (but was soon divorced) and in 1932 he became a member of the German Davis Cup team. The following year Von Cramm won the Wimbledon Mixed Doubles Championship and in 1934 he won the prestigious French Open singles title. Besides being a tough competitor, Gottfried Von Cramm had a reputation for being very kind, generous and charismatic. Von Cramm’s sportsmanship and elegance on the tennis court made him a legend in Germany.
As soon as Hitler came to power, Gottfried von Cramm made his opposition to Nazism clear. Hitler’s anti-Jewish tirades were the main issue that enraged Von Cramm. In 1933 the German Tennis Association stated that no Jew could be selected for the national team, and specifically that the Jewish player Daniel Prenn would not be selected to the German Davis Cup team. Von Cramm was already a national hero by this time and appealed directly to Hitler to change this policy. But the tennis legend was unable to persuade Hitler to rethink his decision.
In 1935 Von Cramm was beaten by the great Fred Perry in the Wimbledon final. In 1936 Von Cramm beat Perry in the French Open final. Before the match Von Cramm received a phone call from Hitler who spent ten minutes talking to him about the superiority of the Aryan race. Gottfied Von Cramm was just over six-foot-tall, handsome and had a very Aryan-look. He did not, however, buy into any of Hitler’s ideology.
One of Hitler’s top stooges, Hermann Göring, personally met with Von Cramm to convince him to join the Nazi party and to be used as a symbol of Aryan superiority. He was forced to wear a swastika and to perform a “Heil Hitler” salute before the start of matches in Germany but Von Cramm resisted all attempts to be used as a central part of the Nazis’ propaganda machine.
In the summer of 1937 Germany played the United States in the Davis Cup Interzone Final. It was two matches all, and the final deciding game was between Don Budge and Von Cramm. Budge later recalled: “War talk was everywhere. Hitler was doing everything he could to stir up Germany. The atmosphere was filled with tension although Von Cramm was a known anti-Nazi and remained one of the finest gentlemen and the most popular player on the circuit.” Budge defeated Von Cramm in a classic match-up and the USA won the Davis Cup.
Hitler was irate. His top tennis player refused to join the Nazi Party and he just lost to an American. The Gestapo began to investigate Gottfried von Cramm and his family. They discovered that his wife, (Elisabeth von Dobeneck) had a Jewish grandparent.
The Gestapo also discovered that Von Cramm had ongoing gay relationships. One of his affairs was with a young Jewish actor. In March of 1938 Von Cramm was arrested. He was officially charged with violating anti-Gay laws and for giving money to a Jew. But in reality his open defiance of Hitler was what made the tennis legend a target of the Nazis.
Gottfied Von Cramm did not deny these charges. He admitted to the affairs and to helping his Jewish lover escape to the Palestinian Mandate. He was sentenced to one year in prison.
Don Budge, Joe DiMaggio, and many other celebrities made public an open letter demanding that the German government immediately release Gottfried von Cramm. He was released before serving a full year and immediately tried to play tennis again. The German Tennis Federation, however, would not allow him to play under their flag. At that time the countries entered the players into tournaments. He was denied the chance to play at Wimbledon in 1939 as England was appeasing Hitler’s wishes by denying Von Cramm’s participation. Gottfried von Cramm was allowed to play at the Queens tournament the week before and he beat Bobby Riggs, the winner of the Wimbledon final that year (in a 6-0, 6-1 rout). Most people felt that Gottfried would have won Wimbledon with ease.
During the Second World War Gottfried von Cramm was drafted into military service. He was sent to the Eastern Front and was awarded the Iron Cross. Von Cramm faced harsh conditions and was flown out of combat after suffering from serious frostbite. Von Cramm lost most of the people he fought alongside and two of his brothers in the war.
In 1944, Gottfried von Cramm was involved in a very serious plot to assassinate Hitler. This July 20th attempt, of course, failed. If it would have been successful there were rumors that Von Cramm would have played a major role in the post-Hitler government.
After the war Gottfried von Cramm returned to playing tennis. He won the German National Championship in 1948 and in 1949 when he was forty-years old. He even played Davis Cup tennis for Germany until the 1953 season. He then got into the cotton importing business.
In 1955, Gottfried von Cramm married Barbara Hutton who was an heiress to the Woolworth fortune. He later admitted that he had married her in order to help her through substance abuse and depression. Unfortunately he was unable to help her much in this regard and they were divorced after only a few years. In 1976 Gottfried von Cramm, seventy-six at the time, died in an automobile accident in Egypt.
Gottfried Von Cramm went above and beyond to oppose the Nazi regime. He risked his life by turning down the repeated offers made to him by Hitler and by other Nazi propaganda leaders. The easy thing for Von Cramm to do would have been to go along with this immoral regime. The Nazis had a stranglehold on Germany and on most of Europe. Most athletes and important German citizens just went along with Hitler’s ways and claimed that they had no choice. He certainly could have simply stated that he wasn’t going to comment or get involved in politics. Fortunately, Gottfied Von Cramm saw himself as more than just a tennis player. Von Cramm was, first and foremost, a great man. Going head-to-head with Don Budge was an incredible accomplishment, but going head-to-head with the Nazi Government was a far more daunting challenge. Gottfried Von Cramm was a hall of fame tennis player and person. He gave athletes a road map for handling difficult situations with unwavering ethics.
David Weiss was born, raised and still lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Being the grandson of four Holocaust Survivors has always been an integral part of his identity and life. David earned a Bachelors of Arts in Education from Cardinal Stritch University and a Masters of Arts in Education from Viterbo University. He spent eleven years as a second and third grade teacher before starting his own promotions business. David is also an author and teaches at the college level. David and his wife are the proud parents of a young daughter.
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