Why you should care
Because no one in Nazi Germany was guilt-free.
The fight was over within minutes — two, to be exact. With a flurry of hits from both hands, Joe Louis, then the world heavyweight champion, pounded his German counterpart into a first-round technical knockout. The crowd, well aware it was witnessing history, went wild.
For many, the June 1938 match between Louis and celebrated European pugilist Max Schmeling represented the greater struggle between Western democracy and Nazi dictatorship. Today, others also remember it as the moment a predominantly White America cheered for a Black boxer. Whatever the case, the fight — believed to have attracted 100 million listeners worldwide — was packed with symbolism.
So as the Brown Bomber handily defeated his Nazi adversary, it marked the resounding triumph of good over evil. Right? Not exactly. That’s because Schmeling wasn’t quite the poster boy for Nazi life that spectators might’ve had in mind. Although he went on to serve as a paratrooper during the Second World War, a piece of his background kept secret for decades cast serious doubt on his Third Reich image: Schmeling saved two Jewish lives during one of the most harrowing moments of modern German history.
While Schmeling always maintained he was merely a professional athlete, not an official representative of Nazi Germany, he enjoyed a comfortable relationship with the country’s new rulers.
At least that’s what Henri Lewin, one of the two teenage brothers Schmeling is said to have rescued during Kristallnacht, recalled decades later. As anti-Jewish rioters roamed the streets of Berlin during the famously violent pogroms in November 1938, the boys were sent to a hotel where Schmeling — who solicited their father’s services as a haberdasher — was staying. And just like that, the “Black Uhlan of the Rhine” took them in until the riots abated, Lewin claimed. “He risked his life for us,” he said in a 2002 interview. “Our lives weren’t worth a penny.” Interestingly enough, Schmeling had never uttered a word about the supposed episode before Lewin retold it in the late 1980s — nor did he say much about it after the disclosure.
In reality, historians say the truth is far more complex. Much has been made of Schmeling as the quintessential “Good German,” or someone who could claim they’d passively resisted against the murderous regime. In some ways, Schmeling certainly fits the bill: He never officially joined the Nazi party, employed a Jewish-American manager and even tried to help friends who’d become jammed up with authorities for various reasons, according to University of London historian Jon Hughes.
Yet as his star rose throughout the late 1920s and 1930s when he became a top-flight European boxer, Schmeling also worked his way into the good graces of the German cultural and political elite, both in Weimar Germany and after Adolf Hitler rose to prominence. His 1936 defeat of Joe Louis, the first matchup between the two, vaulted him to the pinnacle of popularity shortly after the Nazis consolidated their power.
While Schmeling always maintained he was merely a professional athlete, not an official representative of Nazi Germany, he enjoyed a comfortable relationship with the country’s new rulers. He went hunting with Hermann Göring, while his movie-star wife, Anny Ondra, was known to have watched his fight with Louis alongside the family of Nazi propagandist Jospeh Goebbels. If he’d truly been concerned, he might’ve emigrated, for instance, as many of his friends, associates and sporting peers did.
But in the end, says Hughes, who wrote a book about Schmeling in 2018, the famous boxer had few qualms about playing the system. “In his autobiography published in the ’70s, he talks about how he was flattered by the attention Hitler and Goebbels paid to him,” he says.
Even his later successes in life revealed how ambitious, driven and, above all, savvy Schmeling really was. After the war, during which he’d largely lost the fortune he’d built as a professional boxer, he remade himself into a successful businessman. Tapping into his network, he soon became the chief distributor of Coca-Cola in northern Germany, as well as an enthusiastic brand ambassador.
Schmeling died in 2005 at the age of 99. Thanks largely to his outsize celebrity, he’d been a constant presence throughout the 20th century, Hughes says — especially since he helped pave the way for his compatriots with major athletic dreams. Though undoubtedly influential, he was also far more complex than many who’d come later.
Says Hughes, “There’s no one quite like him, probably, in German sporting history.”