NEW YORK — Though he remains the only German to win the heavyweight championship, Max Schmeling’s place in history is less about a title he briefly held than about an era and a set of circumstances — the 1930s and 1940s, his relationship with the Nazis, and his two famous bouts with Joe Louis.
Schmeling was an enormous underdog when he fought Louis in 1936. He was 31, an ex-champion past his peak, viewed as just another appetizer for the 22-year-old Louis, who was plowing through the heavyweight division like a steamroller. Schmeling, though, was a student of fundamentals, and he had spotted in fight films of Louis the most fundamental of flaws: Louis tended to drop his left after jabbing, leaving himself open to Schmeling’s powerful right hand. After twelve rounds of battering, Schmeling put Louis down for good with one more right. It is still one of sports’ greatest upsets.
That victory made Schmeling into “Hitler’s fighter,” and the Fuhrer had films of the fight shown across Germany. Schmeling was feted by Hitler and Goebbels, but he rejected urgings from Hitler to join the party. Many years later, when asked why he had dined with Hitler, he said, “I had turned der Fuhrer down four times, and you don’t turn him down five times. That did not make me a Nazi. I also had dinner with Franklin Roosevelt. That did not make me a Democrat.”
That’s much easier to understand today than it was in 1938, when he and Louis fought their rematch in Yankee Stadium. Given the context of the times, there was no realistic way to expect a public response different from what occurred: probably the most politically tinged sporting event in history. It was Schmeling for Hitler, anti-Semitism, and aggression; Louis for Franklin Roosevelt, democracy, and civil rights. Louis’s destruction of Schmeling in two minutes of the first round was celebrated as a great victory for freedom over fascism. That’s the way it way it seemed, anyway, for many years afterwards.
After the war, Schmeling was still associated by many with the Nazis, enshrined in history as villain to Louis’s hero. That image finally faded with time and with information that made clear Schmeling was no Nazi.
The most powerful evidence of Schmeling’s decency only became public in 1989, when Henri Lewin, then president of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, gave a dinner in Schmeling’s honor. Lewin told his guests that in 1938, during Kristallnacht, the infamous Nazi pogrom, Schmeling had harbored him and his brother in his hotel suite as the Nazis rampaged in the streets below. Eventually, Schmeling helped them get out of the country. If the Nazis had found them, Lewin said at the dinner, “I would not be here this evening and neither would Max.”
The public revelation of these Schindleresque deeds, along with Schmeling’s other refusals of Hitler and his decency as a man, has contributed to a pendulum swing in his reputation. This is all to the good, but it would be a disservice to history if Schmeling emerges from his unjust villain’s role into a not-quite-earned new role as dissident saint. Shades of gray remain, inevitably.
DAVID MARGOLICK, WHOSE BOOK on the Louis-Schmeling fights will be published later this year, gets at some of these ambiguities in his New York Times obituary. Margolick suggests that Schmeling had to make small compromises all along the way during the Hitler years, that he defended the regime in the 1930s “with disconcerting ease,” and that his autobiographies “dance around many issues.”
This is easy to believe. 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 successful, 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.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Schmeling and Kristallnacht is that for over 50 years he never mentioned it. Try to imagine that today, when the slightest accusation about someone brings a public counterattack, if not a lawsuit. It says a lot about a man, accused of complicity with Hitler, who can keep such a thing to himself, and we can read into his silence what we will. Inherent modesty is one interpretation. Penance for his own less heroic moments is another.
Whether it was penance or the filial bond boxers often share, Schmeling became quite a friend to Joe Louis, whose later life was fraught with difficulty. When Louis needed financial help, Schmeling came through with assistance. And when Louis died in 1981, Schmeling paid for the funeral.
It seems that, all in all, the mirror will look back at Max Schmeling and let him pass. He was a good man caught in horrible circumstances who tottered at times but did his best. As two young Jewish boys could testify, his best was goodness itself.
He was a pretty good fighter, too.