Alekhine During World War II

By Bill Wall


In September 1939, world chess champion Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946) was in Buenos Aires when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.  As team captain of the French chess team (and Board 1), he voted to go on with the Olympiad but refused to play the German, Bohemian, and Moravian teams during the 8th Chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires (Aug 23 to Sep 19, 1939). The score between France and Germany was marked as 2-2 draw without play. The Germans won the event.  Alekhine won the individual silver medal (9 wins, 7 draws, 0 losses) with 75%, behind Capablanca at 77%.  The scores were from the Final Group only.  If the overall score was taken into account, Alekhine would have won the gold medal with a 78% score.


Alekhine stayed in Argentina for several months after the Olympiad, winning in Montevideo (Sep 21-29, 1939) and Caracas with perfect scores of 7 out of 7 and 10 out of 10, respectively.  The tournaments were organized in aid of the Polish Red Cross.  Alekhine could have remained in Argentina or he could have gone to the United States with his American-born wife, but decided to return to France to join the French Army.


In January, 1940, Alekhine returned to Europe with his wife and two cats.  After staying a month in Portugal giving simultaneous exhibitions, he returned to France and enlisted into the French army as a non-commissioned officer.  He started out as a sanitation officer.  Owing to his knowledge of foreign languages, he was soon transferred to intelligence work and became an interpreter (he was a Lieutenant-Interpreter in the French Army).


On May 10, 1940, Alekhine played a consultation game with Dr. Ossip Bernstein in Paris.


After the fall of France in late June 1940, all French military personnel, including Alekhine, were formerly put under the control of the German High Command.  Many were interred as prisoners of war.

Alekhine was in an unoccupied zone with his section at Arcachon, near Bordeaux when Paris fell.  He was later demobilized at Marseilles.  In July 1940, while in Marseilles, he cabled Havana at the Cuban Consulate, in an attempt to open negotiations with Capablanca for a world championship match.  Capablanca later claimed that Alekhine was not being serious for a world championship match, and that Alekhine was only trying to obtain an exit visa from France.


From Marseilles, he wanted to leave for Portugal where he hoped to sail for South America so as to play a return match with Capablanca.  But he was not yet 48 years old, and the French law prohibited all men under 48 from leaving France.  He tried to obtain a passport both at Marseilles and at Nice, but could not do so.  Later he was allowed into the occupied zone to join his wife at her chateau near Dieppe.


In October 1940, Alekhine sought permission to enter Cuba, promising to play a match with Capablanca. This request was denied. It took him a year to get permission to leave for Lisbon, Portugal, where he wanted to apply for a visa for the United States. Alekhine had to write two chess articles for a German newspaper to get his exit visa out of France.


At this time news reached Alekhine, who was in Spain, that his wife and chateau in France was in the hands of the Germans. To protect his wife and their French assets, including his six cats, he agreed to cooperate with the Nazis. He wrote six articles critical of Jewish chess players and participated in Nazi chess tournament is Munich, Salzburg, Warsaw, and Prague. The Nazis looted his French chateau.   Mrs. Alekhine later sold the castle under American Embassy protection.  The Germans refused Mrs. Alekhine an exit visa.


Around December 1940, Alekhine was giving chess exhibitions in Paris for the German Army and Winter Relief.   He played in no tournaments in 1940.


On  March 18-23, 1941, six anti-Semitic articles appeared under Alekhine's name and published in the Pariser Zeitung (Paris Journal). He argued that there was a "Jewish" way of playing chess (cowardly and for money), and an "Aryan" way of playing chess (aggressive and brave). A part of these articles were published in the April, May, and June 1941 issues of the German chess magazine Deutsche Schachzeitung (DSZ). His first article on Jewish and Aryan chess appeared on March 21, 1941 in Deutsche Zeitung in den Niederlander (German News in the Netherlands).   Alekhine’s anti-Semitic articles were published in France, Holland, and Germany.


The articles tried to show proof that Jews played defensive, cowardly chess and the Aryan chessplayers played attacking chess that was aggressive and brave. He had hoped that after the death of Lasker, Lasker would be the last Jewish chess champion of the world. (Lasker's sister died in a gas chamber at a Nazi concentration camp).


Alekhine defined Jewish chess as material profit at all costs. It was opportunism at its best. It was defend at all costs. He claimed that there had never been a real chess artist of Jewish origin. He mentioned that the representatives of Aryan chess included Philidor, Labourdonnais, Anderssen, Morphy, Tchigorin, Pillsbury, Marshall, Capablanca, Bogoljubov, Euwe, Eliskases, and Keres. For Jewish players, there was only Steinitz and Lasker.


In April 1941 Alekhine left France for Lisbon, Portugal. His wife, Grace Wishard Alekhine (1876-1956), an American-born Jew, stayed behind to save her castle at Saint Aubin-le-Cauf, near Dieppe. The Germans refused to give an exit visa for his wife, who, at the age of 64, was in failing health. He made an effort to get a visa to come to America, but it was refused.  Because of his anti-Semitism from his articles, the visa was not approved.  Alekhine stayed in Lisbon for three months giving simultaneous exhibitions.  He then traveled to Madrid, Spain.


In September 1941, Alekhine spoke proudly of his chess articles on Jewish chess for the Madrid paper, El Alcazar.  In an interview quoted in the Madrid paper on September 3, 1941, Alekhine said he was proud of his articles that were published in the Pariser Zeitung. Alekhine gave two exhibitions and several interviews during this period.


In September 1941, the President of the Nazi-controlled Grossdeutscher Schachbund (Greater German Chess Federation or GSB), Ehrhardt Post (1881-1947), said that if Alekhine would play in a Munich tournament, his wife would be permitted to join him there.


At the Munich tournament (Sep 8-21, 1941), Alekhine played and had a swastika flag at his table.   He took 2nd-3rd in this event with Swedish master Erik Lundin (1904-1988).  The event was won by the Swedish master Gosta Stoltz (1904-1963).  The event was attended by leaders from the Nazi Party, the State Government, and the Wehrmacht.  The reception was attended by Josef Goebbels (1897-1945) and Dr. Hans Frank (1900-1946).  Former world champion Max Euwe (1901-1981) was invited to participate in the event, but he was unable to play due to his ‘occupational obligations,’ as a manager of a groceries business at the time. 


On September 28, 1941, Alekhine was in Berlin and was invited to Post’s 60th birthday party.

In October 1941, he tied for 1st place with Estonian master Paul Felix Schmidt (1916-1984) in the 2nd General Government championship (Oct 5-21, 1941) at Crakow and Warsaw.


In November 1941, Alekhine was giving simultaneous exhibitions in Berlin.


On December 1-5, 1941, he won a tournament in Madrid, Spain, scoring 5 out of 5.  He then returned to Paris in mid December, 1941.  In Paris, he gave simultaneous exhibitions where all his opponents were members of the Wehrmacht (armed forces of Germany – from private to General).


During the early months of 1942, Alekhine gave simultaneous exhibitions throughout southwest Germany.  The exhibitions were organized by Strength through Joy organization, a Nazi Party movement to help improve the morale of the German nation.  Many of the exhibitions were in German military hospitals.


On June 9-18, 1942, a chess tournament was held in Salzburg, Austria. Max Euwe was invited but he declined due to ‘illness.’  He did not want to participate because Alekhine was participating and Euwe found the articles that Alekhine had written on Jews offensive.  The tournament took place in the Mirabell Palace (Sound of Music was filmed there). It was close to Berchtesgaden, the summer residence of Hitler who may have stopped in for a visit. Alekhine won the event, followed by Keres, Junge, Schmidt, Bogoljubow, and Stoltz.


On September 14-26, 1942, he won the Nazi-named European Championship in Munich.


On October 11-28, 1942, he won the 3rd General Government championship at Warsaw/Lublin/Crakow.


On December 5-16, 1942, he tied for 1st with Klaus Junge (1924-1945) in Prague.  The tournament was sponsored by Germany’s Nazi Youth Association.


In January 1943, Alekhine fell ill from scarlet fever at Prague. He was treated in the same hospital where Richard Reti died in 1929 from the same illness. After he got out of the hospital, he was obliged to give various chess exhibitions and play in various chess tournaments, otherwise the Germans would have withdrawn his ration cards.  


In March 1943, he drew a mini-match against Bogoljubow in Warsaw, winning one and losing one.

On April 10-29, 1943, he won a tournament in Prague.


In June 9-18, 1943, he tied for 1st with Paul Keres (1916-1975) at Salzburg.  The tournament was held in the rooms of the Mirabell Casino.  Many of the spectators were from the newly formed chess section of the Hitler Youth.


As economic pain spread in Germany, German authorities stopped sponsoring tournaments.  Alekhine traveled to Spain and Portugal and gave exhibitions for substantially reduced fees.  He wrote about chess, but the public could not afford chess books and magazines.  In his diary, he wrote, “My publishers tell me that sales have collapsed.  No plans for reprints or new editions, much less fresh material.  There is a shortage of paper for magazines and newsprint.”


In October 1943, at the invitation of the Spanish Chess Federation, Alekhine came to Madrid. A Nazi broadcast said that Alekhine was confined to a sanatorium shortly after his arrival. He was put in the sanatorium for alcoholism or mental illness. The Gestapo allowed him an exit visa, but would not let his wife accompany him. She was to return to Paris.


In April 1944, he won a match against Ramon Rey Ardid in Saragossa, Spain, scoring 1 win, 3 draws and 0 losses.


On July 14-23, 1944, he won a tournament in Gijon, Spain.


Alekhine’s first disavowal of his anti-Semitic articles appears to date from just after the liberation of Paris in August, 1944.  When asked if he knew about the controversy aroused by his articles against the Jews, Alekhine replied, “I swear I did not write a word of that.”


Alekhine competed in seven tournaments in Germany during the war. He participated in Nazi chess tournaments in Munich, Salzburg, Warsaw, and Prague. He remained in Nazi-occupied Europe as a citizen of Vichy France.   During World War II, Alekhine played in 16 tournaments, winning 9 and sharing 1st place in 4 more.


In December, 1944 Alekhine was interviewed by a Spanish correspondent of the News Review. In this interview, he denied that he was a Nazi collaborator. He said he played in German chess tournaments under duress. He claimed the Nazi articles were rewritten by the Germans. He had written the articles in exchange for an exit visa from France. 


After the war, Alekhine was being accused of converting to Nazi racial doctrines. He was also accused of actively collaborating with the enemy. Alekhine was not invited to any post-World War II chess tournament because of his affiliation with the Nazis.


In December 1945, he wrote a letter to the organizer of the London Victory tournament, W. Hatton-Ward, denying that he ever wrote any article about Jews and Aryan chess.


In March 1946, he died in a hotel in Estoril (outside Lisbon), Portugal after choking on a piece of meat. Some say he did not choke, but died of a stroke or heart attack. He had been sitting in a chair with a pocket peg chess set beside him, analyzing a chess position after eating dinner alone. he was 53.

A day after Alekhine's death, a letter arrived inviting him to England for an Alekhine-Botvinnik match.

The doctor who wrote the official death certificate, Dr. Antonio Ferreira, later denied that Alekhine died by choking or even a heart attack. The doctor told his friends that Alekhine had actually been shot and murdered. The doctor said that the Portuguese government put pressure on him to complete the death certificate to show that Alekhine died of a heart attack and not murdered to avoid any controversy. There is speculation that Alekhine was murdered by a French Resistance secret death squad who targeted French citizens who collaborated with the German Nazis.


In 1956 the manuscripts of the six Nazi articles appeared in Grace Wishard's personal effects. They were all in Alexander Alekhine's handwriting.