Culture and Civilisations

The wrong side of history: racism, gender, Alekhine and the Nazis

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The wrong side of history: racism, gender, Alekhine and the Nazis

'The Producers' Berlin, 2009. (PA Images)

Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, 

Come and join the Nazi Party! 

Who could forget these immortal words from the Mel Brooks spoof opera, Springtime for Hitler, in his movie The Producers? Politically incorrect side-splitting apart, the invitation was a very real one for those within the influence of the Third Reich. Very few prominent chess players succumbed to the lure of becoming a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party. One such who did succumb was Max Blümich, who notoriously wrote Jacques Mieses, Jewish Grandmaster and author of the standard German chess primer, out of history and even out of authorship of his own book.

More importantly, great controversy has arisen over the question of whether Alexander Alekhine, World Champion from 1927–1935 and again from 1937–1946, was a Nazi. Vast amounts of ink have been expended on this question, but now Dr Christian Rohrer of Stuttgart University has published a paper which must surely represent something approaching the last word on this sensitive matter.

But first, a brief digression on current allegations of racism, wokery and gender identity.

Racism (as a scientific concept rather than just a prejudice) might be termed to have been invented by the notable polymath Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911, pictured below). A relative of Charles Darwin, Galton set out to prove that Darwin’s belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, as part of his general theory of evolution, was in fact justified. Learning this surprised me, since I was brought up in the conviction, reinforced by many a Sir David Attenborough TV programme, that the inheritance of acquired characteristics was heretical anathema to true Darwinists. But no, Darwin believed at first in this “heresy”, until Galton’s experiments with rabbits inadvertently disproved it. Galton went on both to invent the theory and recommend the practice of eugenics (his Enquiry into Human Faculty and its Development appeared in 1883), on which much Nazi ideology is based.

Sir Francis Galton, 1822 (© Ken Welsh/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire)

Eugenics posited that purity of race, achieved by breeding, improved humanity. In fact the opposite is true. Exogamy strengthens the biological unit, rather than weakening it, in much the same way as entertaining a wide range of thought and encouraging debate improves, rather than undermines, the thinking process.

Indeed, I would go further, endorsing the conclusions of the Human Genome Project, and say that race does not biologically exist. Interestingly, the motto of the World Chess Federation, FIDÉ, is “Gens Una Sumus”. This may be translated as “We Are One Race” — but not, as in the mischievously false anagrammatic misconstruction by British Grandmaster Jon Speelman, “Us uses guns man”. This ingenious shaft of wit might have applied during the reign of one or two colourful former FIDÉ Presidents, but with Arkady Dvorkovich and Britain’s own Nigel Short as President and Vice President, this is no longer even metaphorically the case.

According to the Human Genome Project, so called “race” is simply nature’s reaction to climate, geographical conditions and the prevailing topological brightness and angle of the sun. Consider that human and chimpanzee DNA is identical to over 95 per cent, while we even share 50 per cent of our genetic footprint with the humble mushroom! So how much closer are all humans to each other? In other words, to subscribe to racism nowadays equates with being a fantasist, or perhaps just a fool.

Although chess is conveniently black and white, discussions around the hot topics of racism and gender identity are of a greyer hue. Nevertheless, the modern preoccupation with racism, far from coincidentally, mirrors the obsession with gender politics. The CEO of USA Weightlifting, Phil Andrews, recently observed that to object to trans competitors who were born male entering female championships (see the case of Laurel Hubbard, the muscular New Zealander, pictured below) is to be on the wrong side of history. Though this is a grey area, to me it seems that entry into female competition by a former male, endowed with the upper body strength of the male physique, prejudices the opportunities of other weightlifters born female. The perils of a blind acceptance of the Phil Andrews interpretation of history were brilliantly analysed in TheArticle by Caroline Ffiske in her recent column. 

(AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

Gender, however, is less controversial in battles of the mind. Muscle power and brain power are quite different. In most chess events, such as the current World Cup in Sochi, there is no longer a separation of sexes or genders. Strength at the game, purely and simply, decides who competes or not. Brian Callaghan OBE, for example — famous for organising superb chess events at his Caleta Hotel in Gibraltar — is renowned for having broken down gender barriers in chess competitions. Callaghan is a pioneer in this respect and hopes soon to prove in his next extravaganza, that women Grandmasters can easily hold their own with men, once fully freed from the categorisation of the Soviet era ghetto, which insisted on separating the genders, depriving women of the chance to directly confront the best men. In that sense, Brian Callaghan is incontrovertibly on the right side of history.

What of those, equally incontrovertibly, on the wrong side of history? Hitler’s Nazis succeeded in stranding themselves in exactly that place, which brings me back to the intriguing case of one of the greatest chess players of all time: Dr Alexander Alexandrovich Alekhine.

The story of Alekhine‘s life is a mixture of powerful artistry and tragically misdirected genius. A political trimmer, he supported whatever regime would allow him to earn a living as a chess player. The nadir came in 1941, when he published three articles in the Nazi press directed against Jewish players. His subsequent denial of authorship was disproved in 1956 when the manuscripts were found among his wife‘s effects.

Moreover, a predilection for alcohol and the turn of historical fate compounded to produce one of the most turbulent careers in the history of chess. Alekhine was born in Moscow in 1892 of a family that was both wealthy and aristocratic. He and his brother were taught chess by their mother and in 1909 he gained the Master title in St Petersburg.

In the summer of 1914 Alekhine was playing in Mannheim, Germany, when he was interned by the Germans at the outbreak of the Great War. His release was doubtless obtained by family influence. In 1915 he joined the Russian Red Cross and served on the Austrian front. The Russian Revolution of 1917 destroyed the family fortune. Thereafter he worked as a magistrate and chess player, winning the first Soviet Championship in 1920. He joined the Communist Party in 1921 and worked as an official interpreter, but later settled in France and became a naturalised French citizen. From the safety of exile, and having escaped from Lenin and Stalin, he criticised the Soviet regime. Alekhine’s later attempts to be reconciled with the Soviet authorities failed. So he never returned to Russia, where the Communist government was giving increasing prominence and support to chess and its foremost exponents.

From 1921 to 1927 Alekhine (pictured below, 1931) ran up a string of tournament victories, but his ultimate goal was to take the World Championship from the hitherto invincible José Raul Capablanca. In 1927 the Cuban finally accepted Alekhine’s challenge; after a mammoth struggle in Buenos Aires Capablanca unexpectedly conceded the title. Although Alekhine now dominated the chess world like a Colossus, refusing to grant Capablanca a return match and brushing aside the resistance of other established grandmasters as if they were mere beginners, discerning critics noticed disturbing signs of impatience in Alekhine’s games. Not content with the inevitable incidence of drawn games, especially when one is facing strong opposition and one has the black pieces, Alekhine began to force events at every turn, running hideous risks in his desperate efforts to crush every opponent.

By 1935 Alekhine’s impatience had become compounded by a new reliance on the stimulation offered by alcohol. More or less in a perpetual stupor, he lost his title in 1935 to the much younger Dutchman, Max Euwe. The pre-match contract had stipulated that Alekhine had the right to a return bout. Alarmed by his loss, Alekhine suppressed his desire for drink and regained the title from Euwe in 1937, thus becoming the first man to win the World Championship twice. He retained the title until his death, the only man ever to die while still World Champion.

World Chess Champion Alexander Alexandrovich Alekhine (1892-1946) at the Chess Olympiad in Prague. 1931. Photograph. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

He was playing for France in the Buenos Aries Olympiad of 1939 when war was declared and as captain he refused to allow his team to play against Germany. On returning to Europe he joined the French army as an interpreter. At the fall of France he fled to Lisbon, where displaced European aristocrats and other exiles took up residence during the war. In 1941, however, he fell under Nazi influence. Not only did the aforementioned regrettable articles appear in print, perhaps losing him the chance of a visa to the US, he also played in tournaments in Germany and occupied countries. After the war, these actions were later construed as collaboration and in 1946 he was refused an invitation to the London tournament. He was also suffering from the effects of years of hard drinking.

Alekhine was, of course, still World Champion – the opportunity for matches having been severely limited by the constraints of World War Two. However, the young challenger Mikhail Botvinnik was eager for a match to take place. This was arranged in March 1946 under the auspices of the British Chess Federation, but the day after the news was dispatched by telegram, Alekhine died from a heart attack.

Alekhine’s opponent in two world championship matches was another Russian émigré, Yefim Bogolyubov. He was the one man ever to have held the German and Soviet Championships at the same time. Bogolyubov defected from the USSR in 1926 and was declared a traitor, his name only being rehabilitated in 1977, 25 years after his death. Bogolyubov was a portly figure, eternal optimist and a child of nature, possessed of a river of flowing ideas, when in action on the chessboard. His poetic skills in that medium were not matched by his appearance. At one tournament the official photographer cut Bogolyubov, in fact the senior grandmaster present, out of the picture since he thought that a rotund gentleman brandishing a giant Bratwurst and a Stein of beer had no place in a photographic record of chess grandmasters. Although Bogolyubov participated with equal vigour in Nazi chess programmes and tournaments, he had the good sense to keep his mouth shut and his quill dry. The opprobrium which attached itself to Alekhine never affected Bogolyubov with the same venomous intensity.

The last word on Alekhine’s Nazi affiliations has apparently now been pronounced by Dr Christian Rohrer in his paper on Alekhine and the Nazis: “With regard to his actions and behaviour towards the National Socialist regime, Alekhine is not aptly characterised as an ‘opportunist’, at least if one is to mean that an opportunist seizes opportunities that he considers favourable for himself, accepting negative consequences and disregarding general norms and values. Alekhine, however, by no means simply seized opportunities that presented themselves to him here and there. Rather, he himself contributed significantly to the fact that these opportunities arose in the first place. Alekhine’s actions and behaviour were those of a calculated tactician who – in the manner characteristic of a chess master – thinks in terms of variations. With his two-pronged strategy, Alekhine tried to achieve the maximum for himself and his wife, namely a semblance of their successful life in peacetime. But he failed in many ways, as a human being and as a chess player. In the end, he opened himself up to collaboration with the criminal National Socialist regime, but he was only able to escape from its sphere of power at a late stage, without his wife no less, his health and his reputation in the chess world were ruined, a match for the world chess championship was no longer possible and his world championship title held only questionable value.”

I broadly agree with this judgement, and was particularly impressed by Dr Rohrer’s subtle differentiation between types of opportunism. I would, however, disagree that Alekhine’s World Title had become worthless. True, he was in straightened circumstances when he died in 1946, but Alekhine’s powers of recuperation were legendary and, at his time of passing, the USSR and British Chess Federations were, as previously noted, in the process of funding and hosting a challenge by the rising Soviet star Mikhail Botvinnik.

There is only one way to compare the relative chessboard strengths of Alekhine and Botvinnik during the period 1940 to 1946. That bridge is provided by Paul Keres, the Estonian Grandmaster, who had scored a notable triumph at the AVRO tournament of 1938 (ahead of Botvinnik, Alekhine, Euwe and Capablanca) and thus occupied a special place in the halls of honour of world chess. Somehow Keres contrived to compete in both Soviet and German events during the war period, a feat of inter-dictatorial legerdemain, balancing his career between Stalin and Hitler, which many observers of the chess scene believed would lead to Keres’ liquidation during the early years of the Iron Curtain. Not so: Keres survived to be recognised as a permanent member of the world’s leading chess elite for another two decades after the close of The Great Patriotic War, the Russian defence against Hitler in World War Two.

In tournaments from 1940/1941 Keres finished ahead of Botvinnik in one event, but behind him in another. His score vs Botvinnik amounted to four draws and one loss. As for Alekhine, Keres tied with him once, during the 1940–1943 period, but finished behind him three times and in individual games he lost out by three losses with three draws and again, no wins. If Alekhine had survived to meet Botvinnik’s challenge, I believe that the old warhorse would have lost the match, but, as the Klingons say in Star Trek, it would have been a glorious defeat.

The two games for this week both involve this trio: in 1942 an Alekhine win vs Keres. And in Moscow 1956, a Keres win vs Botvinnik. Alert readers will observe that the debacle suffered by Botvinnik in this loss to Keres bears a marked resemblance to the trio of defeats suffered by Kasparov in last week’s column. In all four cases Black adopts a Sicilian Defence structure which permits his king to be compromised and his pawns to be shattered. One would have thought that the grisly execution meted out to Botvinnik might have eternally discouraged his erstwhile pupil, Kasparov, from risking further desecration on similar territory.

Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from The Article, is now available from  Amazon , and  Blackwells .

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 98%
  • Interesting points: 97%
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46 ratings - view all

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