The Goalkeeper Who Turned His Back On Fascism

by | Jun 22, 2018

The world seems to be sleepwalking into fascism again. In the United States of America, there were apparently people who seemed to genuinely believe that there is nothing inhumane about separating migrant children from their parents and holding them in cages for the individual who currently acts as the president to believe that he could get away with it and, when subsequently faced with a bigger backlash than perhaps he’d been expecting, whose solution was simply to lock whole families up together instead. In Italy, the Roma are to yet again be subjected to persecution and potentially expulsion from the country as a result of new policies by their incoming fascist government.

And no-one is doing anything. I’m not doing anything. The likelihood is that you’re not, either. If the world isn’t sleepwalking into fascism at the moment, the primary reason for this is that we’re not sleepwalking. We’re fully conscious of what’s going on, but still we’re not doing anything about it. We’ve allowed fascists themselves to set a narrative, including that which suggests that those who counter-demonstrate against fascists are as bad as the fascists themselves, and as time passes it is becoming increasingly clear that the days of looking down our noses at the people of the 1930s who did nothing as Nazism swept across Germany, Italy, and other European countries will soon be over. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes in perpetuity. It’s difficult not to look at newspaper front pages and feel doomed these days, one way or the other.

History, however, is littered with scattered stories of those who did resist, who did make their point in their own way. Adolf Hitler may not have been much of a football fan, but there’s no doubt that he knew the value of sport as a propaganda tool. European tours by British clubs were not uncommon during the 1930s, but the accession of Hitler to the Chancellorship of Germany in the first few months of 1933 changed their significance. Munich had already won the race to host the 1936 Olympic Games two years prior to his ascent to power, but the new government poured money into the games, with a new 100,000-seater stadium being built in Munich, alongside six new gymnasiums and other facilities.

But in the meantime, touring sides from the United Kingdom retained an air of glamour about them. By withdrawing from FIFA over a disagreement regarding payments to amateur players before the first World Cup finals in 1930, the British had managed to maintain the facade of being football’s “true” world champions. Beating the British at their own game – as it was still considered by many at the time – was excellent publicity (and, in no small part because the British were not the best in the world to anything like the extent to which they claimed, beating them wasn’t a pipe-dream for anything like a reasonably-sized European team), and such tours could be used as an advertisement for Germany itself at the same time. Hitler saw Britain as a potential ally. Perhaps through sport the two countries could find common ground.

By the end of the 1933/34 season, Derby County were one of the strongest sides in English football. Founder members of the Football League in 1888, they’d finished the 1933/34 season in fourth place in the First Division table. A year earlier they’d reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup, losing narrowly to Manchester City at Huddersfield Town’s Leeds Road. Four years earlier, they’d finished as runners-up in the First Division to Sheffield Wednesday. When the invitation came to participate in a four match tour of Germany at the end of the season, there was little reason for anyone to believe that there was anything untoward going on.

The travelled by boat to Ostend in Belgium before continuing their trip to journey. Advice from the Foreign Office before the club left had been that the players should give a Nazi salute before the start of each match of the tour. After all, the political situation in central and northern Europe was sensitive, and no-one wanted to upset the new Chancellor of Germany now, did they? But as soon as the players arrived in Germany, it became clear that there was something unusual going on, as outside-left Dave Holford would later explain:

Everywhere we went, the swastika was flying. If you said ‘Good morning”, they’d reply with ‘Heil Hitler.’ If you went into a cafe and said ‘Good evening’, they’d reply with ‘Heil Hitler.’ It was a country where everything had a military overtone. Even then, it occurred to us that this was a nation preparing for war.

There were four matches planned for the tour, to be held in Cologne, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt and Dortmund, with each set of opponents playing under the name of a “Germany XI.” The Derby County players, however, had seen for themselves the cult that seemed to be building up around this new German lead and were uncomfortable at the thought of playing into his publicity machine. Full-back and captain George Collin later explained what happened:

We told the manager, George Jobey, that we didn’t want to do it. He spoke with the directors, but they said that the British ambassador insisted we must. He said that the Foreign Office were afraid of causing an international incident if we refused. It would be a snub to Hitler at a time when international relations were so delicate. So we did as we were told. All except our goalkeeper, Jack Kirby, that is.

Jack Kirby had been born in 1910 and had started out playing in the Leicestershire Senior League for amateur club Newhall United whilst working in the mines before signing professional forms with Derby County in 1929. By 1934, he was an established goalkeeper with the team, but he was also a man of conviction, and, despite the pressure from the directors of the club to try to avoid some form of diplomatic incident, he flat refused to take part when the time came before their first match in Frankfurt:

When the time came, he just kept his arm down and almost turned his back on the dignitaries. At the time nobody really noticed and nothing was said. It was only years later, with hindsight, that we can see what he is doing on the photograph. He is a lot better known for it now.

Several years later, in 1938, the England national team would play Germany in Berlin under very similar circumstances, and the photograph of the team saluting before the match is now frequently cited as one of the most iconic images of a very dark period in the history of Europe. As with the Derby players four years earlier, players expressed reservations in giving such a salute before the match, and it is a reflection upon the very different relationship between players and club directors of the time that the reaction they got was the same as Derby’s had. The diplomatic situation was delicate, and no-one wanted to offend Hitler.

Derby County, however, had Jack Kirby. Looking at this picture of the Derby team lined up before a match on that tour, what’s more striking than anything else isn’t so much the lack of salute but the player pointedly turning his back on the German dignitaries. Not saluting could have been covered up as an oversight, lost in a melee of pre-match preparations, but turning his back in such a manner seems like an unmistakable snub that no-one could accidentally miss. And, interestingly, the sky didn’t cave in. There’s no record of Kirby being sanctioned over his behaviour – which doesn’t shine a very positive light upon the Foreign Office and FA’s insistence that the England team do the same in Berlin: there was precedent and no diplomatic incident appears to have been caused – and he stayed on the books of Derby County until August 1938, when he took over as the player-manager of Southern League club Folkestone. The outbreak of war just over a year later curtailed his managerial ambitions, though, and Jack Kirby died in 1950, at the age of just forty-nine.

For many years, we looked down our noses at the people of the 1930s. How could they not have realised? How could they allow it to happen? Why didn’t someone stop him? The last couple of years, however, have been instructive as to how this might come to pass. There is still time for either the United Staates of America or Italy (or Poland, or Turkey, or Hungary, or the United Kingdom, or any one of a steadily-growing list of countries) to step back from the cliff-edge, but the hatred is growing. The almost juvenile idea that we are somehow immune to it all is starting to crumble in front of us. The scales are falling from our eyes. Fascism was always going to deny its own fascism when it made its return. There won’t be any jackboots on display when Donald Trump’s military parade files through Washington DC on the 11th of November. There’ll be no Swastika armbands on display when the Roma are either expelled from Italy or forced to “register”, as Jews had to do in Germany during the 1930s.

But how many of us will make that stand? Who will turn their back and refuse to salute, whether, symbolically or otherwise? The answer is probably fewer of us than we’d like to believe, and the fact of the matter is that Hitler was probably onto something in his belief that sport could be used as a tool for propaganda, even if his application of it in the 1930s was a little too heavy-handed to be truly successful. Jessie Owens, the black American athlete, won four gold medals in Berlin in 1936, whilst the German team was beaten in the quarter-finals of the Olympic football tournament that summer by Norway. It was reportedly the only football match that Hitler ever personally attended, and he left disgruntled before the end. At the time of writing, the World Cup is taking place in Russia whilst an uneasy feeling is growing in several different countries.