“A German-American Life”: Max Schmeling as Villain & Hero
23.6.08 – Karl E. H. Seigfried: Yesterday was the seventieth anniversary of the most politically-charged sporting event of the twentieth century—the second fight between Max Schmeling and Joe Louis. With 70,000 spectators in attendance and 100 million worldwide radio listeners, this boxing match had not only the largest audience of any radio broadcast in history, but the largest audience for any single event in the human experience. It truly seems from contemporary reports that the world stood still for that one moment when the Brown Bomber destroyed the Black Uhlan of the Rhine. The two men, both from impoverished backgrounds in nations that were fighting economic hardship, found themselves transformed into living symbols of their respective countries. A simple fistfight, the most ancient and basic sport of all, somehow turned into an international incident and was seen as a political bellwether for a world moving towards war.
Article posted on 25.06.2008
From today's vantage point, it is hard to understand the enormous international significance that was attached to a boxing match.. It is important to remember that, at this point in history, the Heavyweight Championship was the top prize in all of sports. The champion was considered the strongest man on the planet and the ultimate athlete in a time when boxing was the most popular spectator sport. There was great national pride taken in the man who held the title. For Maximillian Adolph Otto Siegfried Schmeling, holding the title was the loftiest goal imaginable, and one that constantly pulled him between the United States and Germany, embroiling him deeply in the politics of both nations. In one of his autobiographical works, he wrote, “My life is that of a German in the twentieth century; or perhaps more precisely, it was a German-American life...”
The 1930s were a difficult time in both America and Germany, as the two countries faced their individual economic problems. Dramatic new governmental approaches were being adopted—the New Deal on one hand, and National Socialism on the other. Both Louis and Schmeling came from impoverished backgrounds. The American was the seventh son in a family of Alabama sharecroppers; his family eventually moved to Detroit to work in the automobile plants, but lost their jobs during the economic collapse in the United States. Schmeling was born in Klein-Luckow, the son of a merchant navigator for the Hamburg-America Line. He left home at 16 and worked odd jobs, spent some time with the circus, and begged on the street. “I remember the bitterest time,” he later said. “I was 18 years old and broke in the city of Müllheim. When I could afford to, I slept in the basement of a building for a nickel. A rope was stretched from one wall to the other a few inches above the floor, and men laid on the floor, using the rope for a pillow.”
Schmeling was only 18 when he won the German Light Heavyweight Title. By age 19, he was the European Light Heavyweight Champion and the first German to hold the title. At age 22, he became the German Heavyweight Champion. He was 25 when he challenged the American Jack Sharkey for the World Heavyweight Title. He moved from provincial poverty to international fame and wealth solely on the strength of his athletic dedication and ability, living the dream that brought so many of that era's young men from similar backgrounds into the boxing gyms of the world.
During the era of the Weimar Republic, Schmeling was a sensation among the art crowd of Berlin's cabaret society, who “thought he represented man's primitive fury in modern dress.” Very strangely, in light of the later portrayal of the two boxers as polar opposites, Louis was, in his early days, portrayed by the American press in exactly the same terms. Schmeling's friends included the artist George Grosz, the filmmaker Josef von Sternberg, and the novelist Heinrich Mann. He was depicted in painting and sculpture as a symbol of the vital, new, and cosmopolitan German spirit that had sprung up during the Weimar years.
In the early 1930s, the Nazis also took notice of Schmeling, not through any intrinsic love of sport, but for the same reasons that he was adopted by the artists: for use as a charismatic symbol to whom they could attach their own meaning. When questioned about the highly-publicized photographs of his presence at dinner with the Hitlers, Schmeling answered, “It's normal for the head of state to have a reception for a successful athlete. I wonder, though, if [the press] mentioned how many times I turned Hitler down. Did they ever mention that I'd had dinner with President Roosevelt? That he used to come to my training camp? That I used to correspond and trade stamps with Roosevelt and Jim Farley, his campaign manager? No, Hitler really embarassed me and my wife.” Some of this is clearly Schmeling rewriting his own life in retrospect, since the young and ambitious athlete was clearly flattered by the attention from the highest-ranking government officials—especially after being snubbed by the former president, Paul von Hindenburg, who could not be bothered to meet with the boxer, even after he won the Heavyweight Title.
Contrary to his later portrayal as standard-bearer for Nazi Germany, Schmeling had, in fact, been a hit in America when he first arrived in 1928, and his first New York appearances brought wild ovations. He was greatly helped by his uncanny resemblance to Jack Dempsey—by that time a very popular ex-heavyweight champion—with whom he had fought an exhibition match at Cologne in 1925. Six American promoters had vied for the job of representing him—including Nat Fleischer, the founder and editor of Ring magazine—before he settled on Joe Jacobs, a flamboyant Jewish character better known as “Yussel the Muscle.” With his famously powerful right hand, Schmeling was considered a strong contender for the heavyweight title that had been recently vacated by Gene Tunney.
The first of many reversals between hero and villain was brought about by the way in which Schmeling won the title in his 1930 fight with Jack Sharkey. In the fourth round of their fight, Schmeling was floored by Sharkey. As the German lay crumpled on the canvas, his manager started screaming at the referee and judges that Schmeling had been hit below the belt. After several minutes of debate, Schmeling was declared the winner on a foul, and was carried out of the ring as a half-conscious Heavyweight Champion. He was ridiculed in America and lampooned in Germany as the “Low Blow Champion.” In the first of many politically-charged cartoons of Schmeling that appeared in US newspapers, the German boxer was portrayed sneaking out of America with a bag full of dollars and with the Statue of Liberty sticking her tongue out at him as his ship left for the Fatherland.
Schmeling regained the sympathy of the American people when he lost the title to Sharkey in the rematch. The split and disputed decision was widely considered a bogus manipulation that was engineered by New York officials to return the championship to the United States. Although Schmeling dominated the last five rounds, the referee (one of Sharkey's closest friends) named the American the winner on points. When the verdict was announced, the furious Joe Jacobs yelled a line that instantly entered the American vernacular: “We wuz robbed!” He was joined in condemning the decision by New York mayor Jimmy Walker and all the newspapers in America.
The inconstant tide of popular opinion turned against the German in his very next match, in which he knocked out former welterweight and middleweight champion Mickey Walker. Despite the long history of champions moving up in weight to challenge bigger men, Schmeling was seen as a bully who picked on a smaller opponent.
In June of 1933, the Nazi persecution of Jews was already being reported in American newspapers, as Schmeling squared off against future champion Max Baer. Although not Jewish, Baer prominently wore the Star of David on his trunks to win the support of the huge number of Jewish boxing fans. Cultural historian David Margolick writes, “Jews were all over boxing, not just as fighters and fans but...promoters, trainers, managers, referees, propagandists, equipment manufacturers, suppliers, chroniclers.” This large and vocal segment of the American boxing world turned against Schmeling as reports of persecution began to emerge from Germany. As Baer knocked out Schmeling in the 10th round, singer Al Jolson was reportedly shouting from ringside, “Come on, Jewboy! Kill that Nazi!”
However, that same month, Ring magazine editor Nat Fleischer attested to Schmeling's conflicts with the Nazi regime. In an article entitled “Hitlerism Strikes Jewish Fighters and Managers,” the Jewish-American writer described the purging of Jews from the German boxing scene by the German Boxing Federation, which took titles away from German-Jewish champions, banned them from boxing in the country, and issued an ultimatum that all German fighters must dump their Jewish managers. Fleischer pointed out that this last item was particularly directed at Schmeling and his heavyweight colleague Walter Neusel, also managed by a Jew. The writer asked, “What about Max Schmeling? Will he permit the Federation to dictate to him when he has not fought in Germany for almost four years? Will he throw aside the man who made him a world champion, Joe Jacobs, American Hebrew, to abide by the German edict? Will he accede to that ruling when he has an opportunity to regain the world crown by continuing under the guidance of this American Jew? I venture to predict that he will tell the Federation officials to take a trip to Hades, where they belong.”
After a loss in Philadelphia and a draw in Barcelona, Schmeling returned to Germany to knock out the country's new top heavyweight, Walter Neusel, in front of a crowd of 102,000—still the record attendance for a European boxing match. Two more victories in Germany set him up for a 1936 match with the man now considered the uncrowned champion of the heavyweight division, Joe Louis. After the fight was with the undefeated US fighter was announced, Hitler and the Nazi higher-ups were annoyed that Schmeling had agreed to fight an African-American, which they thought was beneath the dignity of an Aryan athlete. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels ordered German newspapers to bury the story.
Entering the fight as a 10-1 underdog, Schmeling repeatedly drilled Louis with his powerful right hand by taking advantage of a technical flaw he had discovered by carefully studying film of Louis's fights: the American regularly held his left arm low after throwing a jab. Unable to adjust his technique as the fight progressed, the undefeated Louis was knocked out in the 12th round.
Schmeling returned to Germany as a national hero. Despite their efforts to stop Schmeling from fighting an African-American in the first place, the Nazi elite now hailed him for his decisive victory. Reversing their earlier ban on reporting the fight, the administration now ordered the release of the recorded fight as a feature film throughout the country. It's title was, “Schmeling's Victory: A German Victory.” While the boxer rejected Hitler's personal urgings that he join the Nazi Party, he did make frequent appearances at the homes of both Hitler and Goebbels and at Nazi events and rallies. He later tried to excuse his relationship with the party elite by saying, “I had turned down the Führer four times, and you don't turn him down five times. That did not make me a Nazi. I also had dinner with Roosevelt. That did not make me a Democrat.”
Although Schmeling had a signed contract to fight the new Heavyweight Champion, Jim Braddock, pressures from Jewish anti-Nazi groups in the States scuttled the fight. Braddock agreed to fight Louis, who handily won the title and immediately began calling for a rematch with the German boxer who had handed him his lone defeat. The worldwide press quickly began to play the fight up as a battle between the representatives of Democracy and Fascism, with the boxers acting as living embodiments of the two political systems. However, neither fighter comfortably fit the iconic roles they had been assigned.
Louis was an African-American catapulted into the role of Democracy's Warrior twenty-seven years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discriminatory voting practices, in an era when racial segregation permeated all aspects of American life. Throughout his career before the second Schmeling fight, he was caricatured by American newspapers in racist cartoons and write-ups as an ignorant Southern Negro who fought on animal instinct. Now, he was transformed almost overnight into the shining beacon of American freedom and fair play. Underscoring the conflict in making a black man the symbol of a united America, and in a parallel to Schmeling's refusal to join the Nazi Party, Louis campaigned for 1940 Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie because he believed that Franklin D. Roosevelt had not supported the anti-lynching bill.
Although Schmeling was held up by the Nazi administration before the fight as a proud example of Aryan manhood, he did not fit the Nordic profile. With his kinky dark hair and his thick black eyebrows, he was definitely not the blond and blue-eyed hero of legend. His wife looked much more the Nordic type, but Anny Ondra was born Anna Sophie Ondrakova, and her Czech origin marked her as a Slav, and therefore outside of the pure bloodline demanded by the Third Reich. Schmeling was pressured by the Nazis to leave Anny, but her Czech blood was obviously not enough to keep Propaganda Minister Goebbels from having designs on her affections. Schmeling was also repeatedly pressured by the administration to leave his Jewish-American manager, but he never backed down on his loyalty to Jacobs.
As the rematch became couched in nationalist terms, American writers reversed themselves in the way they portrayed the fighters. Up to that point, Schmeling had been portrayed as an intelligent, calm, and thoughtful fighter, while Louis was written about in racialist terms as being closer to the animal, to the primitive, and as fighting on instinct. Now, these same portrayals were given different connotations; Louis was a simple American youth fighting for the American Way and the Schmeling was the “cold and calculating German from the Rhine.” The same newspapers that had been unanimous in their support of Schmeling after his disputed loss to Sharkey were now unanimous in their condemnation of Schmeling as a Nazi tool.
Schmeling admittedly could, at times, come across as a bit of a supremacist. Before the first fight, he remarked, “Louis not only has marked mechanical flaws, but he's not a very bright boy.” He also said of Louis, “I wouldn't have fought a colored man if I didn't think I could lick him.” Although he did refuse to join the Nazi party, Schmeling willingly helped the German propaganda machine by insisting to the American press that nothing was amiss back home in the Fatherland. As friends from his Berlin days were persecuted by the Nazis for their Jewishness, homosexuality, or political views, Schmeling was being given tax breaks, publicity, and other favors by the Nazi regime. Although he was privately pressured, there was no public repercussion for Schmeling's loyalty to his Jewish manager and Czech wife. There was, however, a price to be paid.
Summoned by Hitler in 1933, he was told, “When you go to the United States, you're going to obviously be interviewed by people who are thinking that very bad things are going on in Germany at this moment. And I hope you'll be able to tell them that the situation isn't as bleak as they think it is.” Schmeling carried out his assignment, denying to American journalists that Jewish people were being persecuted in Germany. He said that he had never seen Germany so quiet, unified, or hopeful. He not only insisted that he had seen no harm caused to the Jewish population, but he said that any pain they might be undergoing was caused by their own promulgation of anti-Nazi tales in New York and other places outside Germany. Schmeling's Jewish-American manager, speaking out against the boycott of the German boxer by Jewish activists in the United States, sought to shore up his fighter's business prospects by insisting that, “Most of the trouble with the Jews over there is caused by the Jews in this country.” Jacobs also famously got into hot water with American Jews when a photograph was circulated showing him giving the Nazi salute in the ring after one of Schmeling's victories in Germany.
Schmeling again worked as Hitler's messenger when he met with the United States Olympic Committee and worked to convince them to allow the Olympics to be held in Germany in 1936, insisting again that all was well in the Fatherland. To his credit, he did use his relationship with Hitler to force a personal promise that American athletes competing in the Berlin Olympics would be free from harassment by the authorities. For every positive action, however, there is one on the other side. In 1938, tennis champion Baron Gottfried von Cramm was arrested on a morals charge after speaking out against Hitler. Joe Dimaggio and other American sports figures made public protests; Schmeling defended the arrest. Then, in 1940, he spoke out on behalf of an Austrian boxer who had a child with a Jewish woman and was charged with Rassenschade. Schmeling's intervention brought a dropping of the charges, but also earned him lasting enmity from certain members of the administration.
Despite all the hype, Louis seemed at times more concerned with the personal meaning of the rematch than with its political implications. He was determined to avenge his lone defeat, and to prove that he was really the Heavyweight Champion. He later said, “I had nothing personally against Max, but in my mind, I wasn't champion until I beat him. The rest of it—black against white—was somebody's talk. I had nothing against the man, except I had to beat him for myself.”
In the run-up to the fight, the two men at the center of the maelstrom seemed unaffected by all the excitement. When a reporter asked Louis if the chill evening air at Yankee Stadium would trouble the two boxers, the champion replied, with his usual deadpan humor, “No, we'll be wearing gloves.” Schmeling was described as “bursting at the seams with good health and confidence.” However, something had changed for the German by the time the first bell rang on fight night.
Waiting to enter the stadium, Schmeling was visited in his dressing room by Nazi messengers, and informed that his parents and wife had been picked up by the Himmler's Gestapo and placed under “protective custody” by the SS. He was then visited by a special envoy who delivered a message from Hitler, himself: “The Führer commands you to win, as a symbol of Aryan supremacy!” The threat was obvious, and let the boxer know what would happen if he entertained thoughts of defection to the United States. In a 1991 interview, Schmeling said, “Goebbels kept [my wife] in Germany as a hostage so I would not defect. Dempsey had always been after me to defect. My mother was also still in Germany. I was trapped. It was a very unpleasant period.”
Schmeling got it from both sides; walking through the crowd in Yankee Stadium “was like walking a gauntlet,” he said. “I was...hit by cigarette butts, banana peels, and paper cups.” As he walked to the ring “like a man walking to the electric chair” and appeared dazed during the introduction of the combatants, many of the attending sportswriters concluded that he was consumed with fear of Louis. While they couldn't have known of the problems weighing on him, their conclusion seems to have been strongly influenced by their nationalist feelings, as no boxer would have such a fear of a man he had knocked out in their previous fight, and whom he had been relentlessly pursuing for a rematch.
By the time a little over a minute of the fight had passed, Schmeling's ribs may already have been cracked by the powerful body shots being thrown by Louis. Back in the 1930s, heavyweight boxers wore 6-ounce gloves, not the 10-ounce ones they wear today, so the blows Schmeling was taking were much closer to being hit with a plain fist. After getting tangled up in the ropes, Schmeling was hit in the back by Louis, in the area of the kidneys. Reviewing the fight tapes, boxing trainer and analyst Emanuel Steward said, “After Max had been immobilized by a right hand to the kidney, he took a left hook dead in the solar plexus, which paralyzed him. Even though Max was hurt and wanted to fall down, he couldn't even fall.”
The fight was over in two minutes and four seconds, and Schmeling was taken to the hospital. In addition to the broken ribs, he had also suffered several broken vertebrae and was immobilized in the hospital for ten days. He was visited by the German Ambasssador, who asked if he wanted to lodge a complaint that he was fouled by illegal back and kidney punches. Schmeling realized that this would make him look even worse in the eyes of the Americans, and dropped the issue. Upon his recovery, he returned to Germany in disgrace.
Two years later, during the Kristallnacht attack against German Jews in November 1938, Schmeling saved the lives of a Jewish friend's two children by hiding them in his Berlin hotel room and preventing anyone from entering by saying he was sick. He later arranged for the children to be smuggled out of the country. Needless to say, these acts would have caused serious problems for the boxer if they had been discovered. Nothing of this was known until 1989, when one of the two saved by Schmeling went public and said that, if the rampaging Nazi soldiers had found them, “I would not be here this evening, and neither would Max.”
Both Louis and Schmeling were subsequently pressured to “volunteer” for Army service, due to their propaganda value to their respective governments. While Louis spent the war provide morale-boosting visits and boxing exhibitions for American troops, Schmeling was made a paratrooper and sent into combat in Crete. He maintained that his drafting into such a dangerous position was personally arranged by Reichsportsführer von Tschammer und Osten, with the blessing of Hitler, as retribution for Schmeling's refusal to fire his Jewish manager, his refusal to hold his championship matches in the Third Reich, and his confrontations with government officials on behalf of individual Jews. At his age, he had little hope of regaining the Heavyweight Title, and was more use to the Nazis as a martyr. In the bloody parachute attack on Crete, Schmeling re-injured the vertebrae that had been broken during the Louis fight. While recovering from his injuries, he threatened to break the neck of Goebbels if his wife was hurt in any way.
Goebbels himself ordered Schmeling to tell the American press that the British had commited horrible atrocities against German prisoners. Schmeling publicly denied any mistreatment and told CBS that, if America (as yet not in the war) ended up fighting against Germany, “For me that would be a tragedy. I have always seen America as my second home.” An infuriated Goebbels had him court-martialed.
It is worth remembering that Schmeling, the first German to hold the Heavyweight Championship, was a hero to the ordinary German and German-American in the same way that Louis was a hero to the African-American and Jim Braddock, the “Cinderella Man,” was a hero to unemployed working-class men during the Depression. When my father was growing up as one of the Donauschwaben, little boys in his village used to say to each other, “I'm going to beat you like Max Schmeling beat Joe Louis!” The disenfranchised, the downtrodden, and the young always look up to the heroes of sport. Schmeling wasn't lionized by the German people because he was some supposed example of the perfect and supreme Aryan male, but because he was the local boy. If you want to see this spirit in action today, go to any fight card in Chicago and watch who cheers and waves flags for which fighter when a Mexican-American boxer takes on a Polish-American one. The cheering doesn't
come from a place of hate and racist ideology, but from the same spirit that animates the many ethnic parades and festivals that we have in this city.
In a tribute to Schmeling after his death in 2005, Don Stradley wrote in Ring magazine, “He wasn't evil. He was just a young athlete temporarily enthralled by the bad guys. Who could blame him? A few years earlier he'd been sleeping in a damp basement with a bunch of homeless men. Poor people are often attracted to power, even if it's ugly.” As a young athlete rubbing shoulders with artists, writers, filmmakers, dancers, and race-car drivers in Berlin cabaret society, Schmeling had sought to educate himself through reading. He later recalled, “I said to myself, 'You're a man from a humble background, what you didn't learn in school, you'll learn now. Catch up.'” How many uneducated or self-educated men in history have been caught up by the glitz and promises of the poweful?
At the end of the war, British authorities cleared him of any complicity in Nazi crimes. In his American Spectator obituary for the German boxer, Paul Beston wrote, “Schmeling's stature as Nazi Germany's most famous athlete made it impossible to separate himself entirely from the evils of his government. He was a boxer pursuing success and wealth; he was a German who loved his country; and he was a decent man who by all accounts did not share the Nazis' racial views. His life during those years, like those of many other succesful, non-Nazi Germans, entailed walking a fine line between staying in the good graces of the regime and looking himself in the mirror the next morning.” My grandfather, a farmer and Auslandsdeutscher who had never set foot in Germany, was conscripted at gunpoint into the German army during the war, eventually spending many years in a Siberian prisoner-of-war camp. Like many other ordinary Germans, he was forced to fight in
a conflict created by a regime he had no part in.
Reexamining the contemporary coverage after Schmeling's death in 2005, Joyce Carol Oates asked, “Are such crude but potent myths of the 'moral' superiority of physical superiority still dominant in our culture? Did not a single commentator among so many make the obvious point that Joe Louis beat Max Schmeling n the ring because, that night, he was the better boxer, not because he was the better man, or represented the better country? Did not one commentator take note that boxing, like warfare, has nothing to do with virtue?”
After the war, while the Joe Louis story was turning into a bitter tragedy as he was relentlessly hounded by the IRS, Max Schmeling became wealthy as the German face of the Coca-Cola company when he was tapped by an executive who was a former New York boxing commissioner. Coca-Cola, based in Atlanta, had never approached Joe Louis for promotional purposes, despite his supposed role as American Icon; his own soda, Joe Louis Punch, was a financial disaster. Eventually running forty bottling facilities in Germany, the German boxer used his fortune to establish the Max Schmeling Foundation for the provision of aid to the poor and elderly. He helped his old rival Joe Louis with both medical bills and funeral expenses. Cultural historian David Margolick wrote, “The man who was malleable enough to fit into Weimar Germany and the Third Reich with equal ease now became an examplar of West Germany, of its economic miracle and its fledgling democracy.”
Shortly before his death, Schmeling said, “The time of the Nazis was unimaginably horrible. Everything must be done to ensure that nothing sympathetic about that regime is ever said. Because there was nothing good about it.” Before we can judge Max Schmeling, each one of us must ask ourselves, “What would I do if I lived in a time where the country of my birth made a wrong turn? What if my fellow citizens quietly went along with a government I knew to be corrupt? What if my government was making political decisions in collusion with business leaders? What if my government was tampering with the votes of its citizens to remain in power, and disenfranchising some segments of the population? What if my government had a national news media outlet that promulgated its political policies as fact? What if my government was suborning due process, habeas corpus, and privacy rights in order to defend the country from a shadowy, racialized enemy?
What if my government created a place to gather individuals who they considered enemies of the state? What if these individuals were members of a minority religion? What if these individuals were held for extended periods without legal rights in the camps where they were concentrated? Would I have the courage to go against my own government, against my friends and neighbors, against my entire nation? Would I flee the place of my birth, knowing that there would be retaliation against any family or friends I left behind? Would I have the strength of character to give up my home, my career, and everything in my life to risk imprisonment or death?” These are some of the questions faced by Max Schmeling over the course of his career, and the way in which he answered them makes him neither a villain nor a hero, but simply a human being struggling with difficult choices in a difficult time.
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