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Ron Fimrite
July 05, 1993
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July 05, 1993

Baron Of The Court


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Berlin, in the licentious atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, had become such a haven for gays that homosexuality was then jokingly referred to as "the German vice." But Von Cramm was never a part of that life. The Nazis simply needed an excuse to punish him publicly. It could well be that if he had beaten Budge and brought the Davis Cup to Germany, the baron would have been such a national hero that not even Hitler would have dared bring him down. Budge has often speculated on how different his friend's life might have been if he had won their famous match.

The baron was released from prison after serving five months of his year's sentence. He quickly accepted an invitation from another old friend, King Gustav of Sweden, to live in his country, and he resumed his tennis career under Swedish auspices, acting as if the humiliation he had endured in Germany were a minor inconvenience.

In June 1939, Von Cramm won the Queens Club tournament, a Wimbledon tune-up in London, easily defeating the young U.S. star Bobby Riggs 6-0, 6-1 in the semifinals. But as a convicted felon, even one convicted in a Nazi court, the baron was prohibited from playing at Wimbledon, a tournament that, without Budge, who had turned pro the previous year, Von Cramm would have been heavily favored to win. As it was, he was destined never to win Wimbledon, at which he had been a finalist three years in succession. In a last, bitter irony, the 1939 Wimbledon champion was Riggs, whom the baron had just beaten so convincingly.

In September of that year, Germany invaded Poland and plunged Europe into bloody conflict. Von Cramm may not have been a Nazi, but he was a loyal German, and he returned home. In May 1940, deprived by his criminal record of his reserve commission, he was drafted into the army as a private. In the winter of 1942, he fought as a machine gunner in the gruesome battle raging outside Moscow. According to his German biographer, Egon Steinkamp, the baron, by then a sergeant, anticipated a Russian victory, and he urged the eastern Germans in his company to seek refuge after the war at his Bodenburg Castle in western Germany. (And when, as he had predicted, the Russians overran eastern Germany, many of those soldiers did find their way to Bodenburg.)

Von Cramm suffered frostbite in both legs that winter in Russia and was taken to a hospital in Warsaw. He was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery and then promptly given a dishonorable discharge from the army. An aura of mystery remains about his unexpected release. His nephew, Burghard von Cramm, believes that Gottfried was let go because he was suspected of conspiring with the enemy.

"My uncle was one of 500 aristocrats dishonorably discharged by Hitler in 1942," says Burghard, the current Baron von Cramm. "It was common knowledge he was against the Nazi regime. It was known that he had been in touch with underground leaders. And it was suspected that he was at least on the periphery of the group plotting against Hitler's life. He knew about some of those assassination attempts before they took place. I think the only thing that saved his life was his friendship with the king of Sweden. Hitler wanted to do business with Sweden, and my uncle knew all the important people there."

Von Cramm spent the rest of the war commuting between Bodenburg Castle and Sweden, where, his nephew says, he conspired with underground leaders. Once, at Bodenburg, he rescued a U.S. pilot who had been shot down nearby. "Why are you helping me?" the American asked.

"Because," the baron replied, "I once played tennis with Don Budge."

"Oh," said the pilot, "then you must be Gottfried von Cramm."

After the war Von Cramm returned to Berlin, where he and Hofer, who had been a prisoner of the Russians, set about rebuilding the demolished Rot-Weiss club. "We started with nothing," says Hofer. "Gottfried was amazing. He seemed absolutely untouched by the war. He never talked about the horrors of the Russian winter. He never talked about being in jail. To do so would have been out of character for him. He just worked hard to get this club going again. Or rather, he'd say to me, 'Wolfgang, you do the work; I'll find the money.' And he could do that, you know. He had so many connections." Within three years the baron's beloved Rot-Weiss was hosting tournaments again.

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