Surrounded by a baying crowd, the young man knocks his opponent to the floor. It’s a great victory for him – but a greater one still for his country. However, as Hitler’s Nazi Party tries to capitalize on his triumph, Max Schmeling has other ideas.
Born in the German town of Klein Luckow in 1905, Schmeling first developed a passion for boxing as a teenager. And after rising through the ranks to become the German heavyweight champion, he traveled to the United States in 1928.
Incredibly, Schmeling’s run of success continued, culminating in him winning the world heavyweight title in 1930. He went on to lose the belt two years later to American Jake Sharkey in controversial circumstances. However, the ’30s had much bigger problems in store for the German boxer.
Hitler was on the rise in Europe, and Schmeling found himself at the center of a propaganda war. The German media depicted the boxer as the embodiment of the Nazi ideal. But in the United States, the press saw Schmeling as a representative of an evil enemy, and the American public rejoiced when he lost a fight.
In a boxing world already racked with tension, American Joe Louis was about to enter into the fray. Born in rural Alabama in 1914, he was five years younger than Schmeling and considered to be at the top of his game. Moreover, Louis was perceived as being everything that the German was not.
Even more importantly, Louis was a symbol of hope to many people. As one of the most successful African-American athletes of the era, he was a focus for racial pride. This, of course, was a time when the Ku Klux Klan was still stalking the country’s southern states.
When the two finally met in the ring at New York’s Yankee Stadium on June 19, 1936, tensions were running high. Across the Atlantic, the Nazis were reportedly furious that Schmeling had been pitted against a “negro.” In contrast, in the eyes of the American public Louis might as well have been fighting Hitler himself.
Louis, however, did not appear to take the fight very seriously. Allegedly, during his training regime prior to the bout he spent more time playing golf than practicing in the ring. Schmeling, on the other hand, obsessively studied his opponent’s moves.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Schmeling’s approach was the one to pay dividends. He spotted a chink in Louis’ armor and used it to his advantage. After 12 rounds of unrelenting pummeling, he sent Louis crashing to the floor. It was the only knockout that Louis would suffer during the height of his career.
All across New York, people wept in the streets on hearing the news of Louis’ defeat. The boxer’s career was seen as symbolic of the struggles of African-Americans everywhere, and many of them reacted to the result as if it were a personal loss.
In Nazi Germany, however, it was a different story. Schmeling’s victory over a black American was celebrated, and the boxer was heralded as a national hero. Naturally, the Nazis were eager to use him as a poster boy for their fledgling regime.
For Schmeling, however, this was a role that he did not want to play. Although the boxer had plenty of national pride, he did not agree with the extreme policies of the Nazi Party. When pressured to fire his Jewish manager, Joe Jacobs, for example, he refused.
Schmeling also declined to accept the Dagger of Honor, an award given to prominent German citizens under the Nazi regime. Yet despite Schmeling’s resistance, the Nazis nonetheless continued to use him at the forefront of their propaganda.
When a rematch was scheduled between Schmeling and Louis in 1938, the Nazis paid even closer attention to their wayward boxer. They detained his wife and mother in Germany to prevent him from defecting. In addition, he was accompanied by a dedicated publicist who worked hard to perpetuate the myth of Schmeling as a Nazi hero.
The publicist informed the press that Schmeling’s winnings would be used to boost the German military and that it was impossible for the boxer to be defeated by a black man. Meanwhile, the U.S. media presented Louis as the country’s chance to get one over on the Nazis.
With so much at stake, Louis didn’t fall into the same trap that he had done two years previously. He trained hard and went on to knock Schmeling out in the first round. Americans rejoiced in the streets, and Schmeling returned to Germany with his status as a hero revoked.
Still, although he had been defeated in the ring, Schmeling continued to staunchly oppose the Nazis. Moreover, one fateful evening in November 1938, that opposition was put to the test. As Jews were slaughtered across Germany during the horrors of Kristallnacht, Schmeling agreed to shelter two Jewish boys in his hotel room.
By the time war broke out in 1939, Schmeling was firmly in Hitler’s bad books. He was forced to join the German paratroopers, a posting known to be particularly hazardous. Schmeling believed that he was being punished for his resistance.
Despite his precarious situation, though, Schmeling survived the war. He went on to work for Coca-Cola, too, profiting as the brand took off in Germany. Surprisingly, he also became friends with his former rival, visiting Louis in the United States.
Clearly, the two men still shared a strong bond, perhaps due in part to the enormous pressures that they had both been put under during their boxing careers. Indeed, when Louis died in 1981, Schmeling helped out with the funeral costs. He even acted as pallbearer, carrying Louis on the last journey that they would share.