Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Spyclists and climbers

The revelation that cycling tours by Hitler Youth groups and Nazi attempts to establish close links with the Boy Scout movement caused a security panic in prewar Britain was widely reported yesterday. Files released by MI5 revealed that police officers were alerted to monitor German students on bicycle holidays in the late 1930s as they stopped at schools, Rotary clubs, factories and church services. Even a meeting between Lord Baden-Powell, head of the Scout movement, and Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German ambassador, caused alarm.

But it wasn't just German cyclists - or 'spyclists' as they were dubbed by the Daily Herald - visiting the UK during the 1930s. In July 1936, members of the German Alpine Club arrived as guests of the Workers' Travel Association mountaineering group. The party spent five days in North Wales and six in the Lake District, accompanied by leading British rock-climbers of the day. The visitors impressed their hosts by climbing many of the Welsh test-pieces in wet conditions. However, relations soured over the Germans' habit of hammering pitons, or metal pegs, into the rock for protection. This continental practice was totally at odds with the British ethos of not damaging the rock, as explained in this Guardian report from July 26 1936:

As Colin Wells wrote in A Brief History of British Mountaineering: "Things came to a head when the Germans put up a new, hard route on the historic climbing ground of the Welsh mountain Tryfan (917m). They placed three pitons in the course of the climb, outraging the establishment and provoking the talented British climber John Menlove Edwards to repeat the route without the pegs - which were removed shortly afterwards."

This though was nothing compared with the disgust many British climbers felt towards German attempts to climb the north face of the Eiger. The route was one of the last great challenges in Alpine mountaineering and the Reich was to sponsor several teams during the 1930s. Raked by avalanches and loose rocks, many climbers had lost their lives on this notorious Mordwand ('murder wall').

After the deaths of four climbers in 1936, a Guardian leading article (July 24 1936), was highly critical of the attempt. This was both for what was seen as the distasteful continental practice of using pitons, but also that the climbers were driven on by an 'inflamed nationalism that regards mountaineering as a field for the moral aggrandisement of one's own country'. No doubt this line was influenced by recent events (Germany had just concluded a gentleman's agreement with Austria and had recently sent troops to the Rhineland).There's more about this in The Guardian Book of Mountains.

To return to the subject of the Hitler Youth and sport, a short piece from the paper's The Footpath Way column illustrates the attitude of a minority of Germans towards the British, during the 1930s.

(August 24 1936)

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