Sunday 14 October 2012

Cologne's World Champion

Albert “Teddy” Richter: 1932 World Amateur Sprint Champion
October 14, 1912-January  2, 1940

Today marks the centennial of the birth of Albert “Teddy” Richter in the Ehrenfeld district of Cologne, Germany.  The son of a talented amateur musician, he learned to play the violin as a child but was drawn to bike racing as a teen and was winning local races at 16.  He soon came under the management of a local furniture dealer, Ernst Berliner, and his career began to advance impressively.  By 19 he was the regional champion and his international career began.

Winner of the Grand Prix de Paris in 1932, he had hoped to go to the Los Angeles Olympics but the German federation was unable to pay his fare.  However, in September he won the Amateur World Championship title in Rome and returned to a hero’s welcome in Cologne.

At a Cologne bike shop
Turning professional soon after his Rome triumph, he raced primarily in France and Britain under Berliner’s management.  He moved to Paris, learning French from watching movies, and went on to win the Grand Prix de Paris in 1934 and 1938 again.  The French, impressed by his powerful, fluid riding style, called him “the German Eight Cylinder.”  Riding at the Worlds as a pro, he was on the podium of every race he entered in the sprint between 1933 and 1939 but was unable to secure the gold.  

Opposed to the Nazi regime, Teddy Richter refused to wear a jersey with a swastika, preferring to wear one with the old Imperial Eagle for his races.  As a frequent traveller he was asked by the Nazis to carry out espionage and turned this down.  His close contacts with the Jewish community that was so involved with track racing at the time put him in danger.  His manager Ernst Berliner had to flee with his family to Holland in 1937, subsequently going to the United States, but was still able to manage Richter from outside Germany.

Teddy Richter and Ernst Berliner
Teddy Richter decided to return to Germany for the Berlin Grand Prix before fleeing to Switzerland.  He told Berliner, who advised against the trip, that he would also be carrying out money for a Jewish businessman from Cologne who had fled to Switzerland.  Richter did not want to be conscripted as war had broken out (the Worlds were ended early that year when Germany invaded Poland) and he did not wish to shoot at the French.  After winning the Grand Prix in Berlin, he packed his bag and took the train to Switzerland.

On the night of December 31, 1939, when the train stopped at the border checkpoint at Weil am Rhein, two Dutch pro riders saw the German border police enter Richter’s compartment.  Shortly thereafter he was dragged out unconscious and put into a police vehicle.  His bicycle was retrieved from the baggage car and the tires slashed open, revealing a stash of 12,700 Reichsmarks.  The police did not take his suitcase but clearly knew when and where Richter would be travelling and how the smuggled money was being handled.  It is clear that informers in the pro racing community tipped off the authorities.

Teddy Richter was taken to Lorrach and the Gestapo.  He was never seen alive again.

At first German authorities claimed he had gone skiing in Switzerland.  Then that he had been killed by rival smugglers or had hanged himself in his cell.  One of his brothers went to look for him and was shown Richter’s body on January 2, 1940, his suit full of holes.  Teddy Richter was 27 years old. 

His funeral was well-attended in Cologne but the German Cycling Federation, the DRV, controlled by Nazi functionaries and led by Viktor Brack, an SS-Standartenführer (who probably ordered the arrest and execution of Richter), made good on its pledge to wipe the cyclist’s name off of the record books.  With the war and other concerns, his story faded into oblivion. 

Ernst Berliner returned to Germany after the war to demand an inquiry into the mysterious death of his friend but was met only with hostility and returned to the United States.  Subsequent inquiries by individuals, both French and German, have established who informed on Richter.  The cyclist's, death was never formally registered and the exact circumstances are still not known.  Viktor Brack could not be questioned as he went on to a career organizing mass murder and was executed as a war criminal in 1948.

Cologne was not to forget one of her favourite athletes and gradually the story of Teddy Richter’s life was again revealed.  In 1996 the track at the Cologne Velodrome was named for him.  In 2005 a documentary on his life was shown on the ARTE television channel and a book by Cologne author Renate Franz in German, “The Forgotten World Champion” was published in 2007.

Next Sunday, an organization opposing racism and antisemitism through sport will host a 40 km bike ride in Cologne followed by a memorial event at the velodrome.  A talk about Teddy Richter's life will be given and an award-winning film featuring some pretty ancient former pro racers reminiscing will be shown.  Two of Teddy Richter's nieces will be present, along with Ernst Berliner's grandson.  I plan to go as well and feel it is a fine and proper thing to try and make back some of the reputation this fine and popular sportsman was so unjustly denied.  


This is a milestone on "Travels with a Tin Donkey" as it is my 500th post on the blog.  I thought I would save it for something important and, for a change, not about me.


Anonymous said...

Great article, good read, amazing story, and incredible courage. Thanks and congratulations on your milestone posting.

Unknown said...

A very moving article, Leslie. I have a feeling that Sunday will become an important anniversary; really looking forward to it.

Unknown said...

A fascinating and moving history, Leslie. I have a strong feeling that the memorial ride will become an important annual event. Really looking forward to it.