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Obituary - Max Schmeling: A quiet
anti-fascist hero

Andy Newman

Heavyweight boxer Max Schmeling was one of the greatest sportsmen of all time, but his career was blighted by political controversy; particularly surrounding the rematch with Joe Louis (the Brown Bomber) in New York in 1938. Schmeling had defeated Lewis in the 12th round of their earlier fight in 1936, but when they met again for the world title there was a political storm. Against his own wishes Schmeling was adopted by Dr Goebells' propaganda machine as an Aryan hero, and in a symmetrical response Jewish and left wing groups in America campaigned vociferously against the German boxer.

The irony was that Joe Louis was a black man living in a country of racial segregation, Jim Crow laws and lynchings. But President Roosevelt himself called Joe Louis to the Whitehouse before the match to remind him that he was fighting for the whole free world. Lewis later died in poverty and his funeral was paid for not by a grateful American nation but by Max Schmeling, who had quietly opposed racism and discrimination his whole life.

For example Schmeling hid the two teenage sons of a Jewish friend of his, David Lewin, around the time of Krystallnacht, November 1938. He kept the Lewin boys, Henry and Werner, in his apartment at the Excelsior Hotel in Berlin, leaving word at the desk that he was ill and no one was to visit him. Later Schmeling helped them flee to the United States where one of them, Henri Lewin, became a prominent hotel owner. This episode remained secret until 1989, when Henry Lewin invited Schmeling to Las Vegas to thank him for saving his life.

Schmeling's life reads like a potted history of 20th Century Germany. Taking up professional boxing at 19 years of age he rose to become European champion and is the only German to have ever held the world heavyweight title (between 1930 and 1932). He was lionised in the glitzy Berlin of the Weimar republic, and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Fritz Lang and Kurt Weil. He even starred in a film, Liebe im Ring, in 1930. During the second world war he was drafted into the paratroops and participated in the invasion of Crete where he was wounded. When conscripted he was over the maximum age and this has been widely seen as a deliberate attempt by the Nazis to unobtrusively dispose of him. After the war he tried farming, but this was unsuccessful and he turned back to the ring at age 42. He made just enough money from this to buy the Coca Cola franchise for Germany, and  grew rich in the post war boom.

But of course the peak of his sporting achievements were the bouts with Joe Louis that took place in the Nazi era, and rarely have politics and sport become so entwined.

Sport was a problematic area for the Nazis. After coming to power in 1933 there was a systematic programme of incorporation (Gleichschaltung) of all civil institutions, and prominent individuals were encouraged to join the party or were replaced. Sports clubs were expected to take part in patriotic parades, and competitions were organised in a frame work of National Socialist rituals and holidays. But until the Nazis came to power the majority of participative sporting events had been organised either by the SPD's Workers' Athletics and Sport Association (Arbeiter Turn und Sportbund) that had 1.3 million members, or in the KPD's Red Sport (Rote Sport) organisation. Within 6 months of coming to power all of these clubs had either been banned or "incorporated". Nevertheless sport was an area of working class culture where the Nazis could only achieve passive acceptance, not active support.

Their belief in racial superiority meant that success at international sport was very important for the Nazis, but at the leading edge of competitive professional sport individual talent is vital. The individual stars could not be easily replaced if they did not follow the party line, and the mass audience for these sports stars was not one naturally in favour of the Nazis. It was therefore significant that the two greatest sporting heroes of the German speaking world, Max Schmeling and Matthias Sindelar refused to be associated with the Nazi regime. Interestingly in 1999 Schmeling was voted the German sports personality of the 20th century (Sportler des Jahrhunderts), and Sindelar, the legendary Hertha Vienna striker who refused to play international football for Nazi Germany, was voted the equivalent honour in Austria.

His personal stature and irreplaceable talent gave Schmeling some protection. In 1935 Schmeling's Jewish American manager, Joe Jacobs, was photographed giving a sarcastic Nazi salute. Schmeling was ordered to sack Jacobs, and demanded a personal audience with Hitler to discuss it. Hitler backed the sports minister, but Schmeling refused to sack Jacobs, who continued as his manager until his death in 1941. Schmeling also personally intervened with Hitler to gain assurances that black, Jewish and socialist competitors from overseas would be treated properly during the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Schmeling was under no illusions about the regime, and was aware that his many Jewish friends were disappearing. In his 1977 autobiography ("Erinnerungen") Schmeling wrote: "After the war, many, perhaps hoping to fool themselves, claimed to have no knowledge of what went on. In truth we all knew."

Schmeling was a brave man who quietly opposed racism and anti-semitism, and did not bend under pressure from the Nazi regime.

Maximilian Adolph Otto Siegfried Schmeling, boxer: born Klein Luckow, Germany 28 September 1905; world heavyweight boxing champion 1930-32; married 1933 Anny Ondra (died 1987); died Hollenstedt, Germany 2 February 2005.

 

February 2005

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