Max Schmeling: Righteous Ring Warrior?

Article excerpt

History has him down as the Nazi boxer blasted by the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis; but Robert Weisbord and Norbert Hedderich offer a different interpretation of Max Schmeling's life and motives.

More than half a century has Passed since the legendary Joe Louis dispatched the German boxer, Max Schmeling, in just 124 seconds before 70,000 delirious fans in Yankee Stadium. In the minds of Americans, Schmeling is still best remembered as the Nazi who had upset Louis in 1936 and two years later got his come-uppance. As recently as October, 1991, the author of an article on boxing which appeared in the popular history magazine, American Heritage, described Schmeling as |vehemently pro-Hitler'.

That simplistic and distorted description was first spawned by the highly charged chauvinistic atmosphere of the depression-ridden decade of the 1930s. Fascism had held sway in Mussolini's Italy since 1922 and in Hitler's Germany since 1933. Their dictatorial and expansionist policies were increasingly perceived as threats by the Western democracies. Against that background international prize fights were politicised, with the fighters symbolising governments' ideologies, races or ethnic groups. For example, in June 1935 Joe Louis and Primo Carnera became the personification of the Ethiopian and Italian causes as tensions mounted in the horn of Africa. When Louis, the |Brown Bomber' pulverised the gargantuan but outclassed Carnera, the victory was treated as an event of enormous importance in America's black ghettos. A front-page banner headline in the widely read black periodical, the Cbicago Defender, reported Louis' spectacular knockout with great relish. Clearly, it was much more than a ring victory for a black fighter. It was a triumph for the entire race. One Defender story was titled 'Ethiopia Stretched Forth A Hand And Italy Hit The Canvass'. Other Defender pieces pointedly referred to Carnera as |Italy's Favourite Son' and Mussolini's pride and joy'. Pitched battles between Afro-Americans and Italian-Americans occurred in the streets of New York City.

Just as the hapless Carnera was cast in an undeserved role as Mussolini's surrogate, Schmeling's image in the United States was shaped by events unfolding in his native land which were not of his own doing. Nazism notwithstanding, Schmeling was generally well-liked in America in 1936.

His pugilistic prowess and sportsmanship had earned him respect. He was gentlemanly, personable, down to earth and accessible to sports writers. They often compared him to the great Jack Dempsey whom he resembled in appearance and fighting style. There was also some sympathy for the German because the previously unbeaten Louis was a prohibitive favourite over his older opponent. Of course, to some white Americans infected with the bacillus of racism in 1936, Schmeling was the most recent in a long line of great white hopes' stretching back to the era of Jack Johnson.

By the time of the return match, as war clouds gathered over Europe, Schmeling was in disrepute. In the two year interim Hitler had forged his alliance with Italy and Japan, had intensified his persecution of Germany's Jews, had annexed Austria and was beginning to agitate for the dismemberment of neighbouring Czechoslovakia. Schmeling's image suffered as a consequence.

His less-than-hospitable reception in New York City in the spring of 1938 was vividly recalled in the boxer's memoirs published almost four decades later. As the passenger ship The Bremen docked in New York harbour, Schmeling could see demonstrators on the pier. They were shouting and carrying placards sarcastically berating him as a |model Aryan' and a superman'. From a safe distance, the protesters raised menacing fists at him. To avoid any untoward incident the harbour police escorted the German, taking an indirect route to his hotel. But there too pickets were marching back and forth holding aloft signs calling on the populace to |Boycott Nazi Schmeling'. …