George Grosz. Max Schmeling the Boxer. 1926.
Oil on canvas. Axel Springer Verlag AG, Berlin, Germany.
Every hero needs a villain. Superman had Lex Luthor, Batman had the Joker. And Joe Louis had Max Schmeling.
The superhero analogy here is not casual. Sports figures are typically cast as mythic ideals, representing not just themselves but a host of associations. Willingly or not, athletes embody the collective identity of a particular place, ethnicity, or nation—and some embody all three. This is the case with both Louis and Schmeling, whose boxing matches became surrogates for racial, political, and international conflicts. They were bigger than themselves, and their fights were bigger than mere boxing matches. When they fought in 1936, and again in 1938, Joe Louis was the black American, the ambivalent pride of a nation on the brink of war. Schmeling was white, German, and a reluctant symbol of Aryan supremacy poised to spread throughout Europe and beyond.
Given this setup, it’s easy to see why the media cast Louis as a star-spangled figure, shouldering the hopes of a nation in his bid to unseat a foreign menace. He was invited to Franklin Roosevelt’s White House, and Schmeling similarly lunched with Adolf Hitler. The pre-World War II version of Rocky IV‘s antagonist Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), Schmeling was became the titanic, cold, and merciless avatar of a relentless superpower.
Schmeling and Louis remain connected to this day, demonstrated by this and other commemorations of the German boxer, who died 2 February at age 99. Coming to public consciousness on the heels of the brash and unapologetic African American champ Jack Johnson (the subject of a recent Ken Burns documentary; see PopMatters review), Louis was “toned down,” in every sense of the word, by his management team. Where Johnson flaunted his money and interracial relationships, Louis was persistently polite and deferential, walking on virtual eggshells around the white media even as he was thrust forward as a defender of the nation.
Schmeling, too, was far from the Nazi poster boy he was made out to be. He went against German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’ wishes by refusing to fire his Jewish-American manager, Joe Jacobs. Likewise, he refused invitations to join the Nazi party. In so doing, Schmeling also rejected the political and racial mantles thrust upon him by both his German compatriots and the U.S. media. He defeated Louis in 1936, then lost in a first round knockout in their 1938 rematch. Americans rejoiced in Schmeling’s defeat as symbolic of some kind of national superiority. Still, the German heavyweight resisted attempts to frame him as the sporting world’s representative Nazi. Though he was drafted as a paratrooper upon his return to Germany, Schmeling was out of the service within a year.
Beyond Schmeling’s stance as a non-participant in the Nazi regime, evidence exists of his active resistance to German atrocities. An article by professors Robert Wiesbord and Norbert Heterich in History Today documents Schmeling’s role in secreting away two Jewish brothers, Henry and Werner Lewin, in his Berlin hotel room during the Nazi Kristallnacht. Schmeling later helped the boys flee to the United States. After the war, Schmeling stayed in Germany and went on to become an executive in the German division of the Coca-Cola company, reaping the benefits of capitalism in Europe. Joe Louis, meanwhile, suffered financial ruin and racism in America. Despite their reversal of fortunes, however, the pair remained close. When Louis died in 1981, it was Schmeling who paid for his funeral.
Beyond their participation in two pivotal fights, Schmeling and Louis offer a telling case study of the ways nationalism can be forced—awkwardly, incorrectly, and hypocritically—onto sports figures. After all, Louis was cast as a hero in a country of segregated public facilities and lynchings. Schmeling was likewise held up by a group of people whose politics he declined and, on more than one occasion, directly contravened. Schmeling’s resistance reminds us that both he and Louis were fodder for competing propagandas. It is not a knockout that Schmeling should be known for, but for a purposeful failure. His refusal to represent a nationalistic mythology will stand as his greatest victory.