Boxing History: Max Schmeling’s complicated relationship with Nazi Germany

The following is a paper I wrote back in 2012 for a history course I took on the Second World War. Unsurprisingly, as a boxing fanatic I chose my favorite sport to coincide with my favorite subject. It was difficult convincing my professor to find something historically significant about boxing in relation to the war to get approval to write the paper. I know among boxing fan’s Max Schmeling is seen as a good man and not a Nazi despite being used as a propaganda tool. However, I do not believe most have heard the entire story of his resistance to the Nazi’s and acts of defiance in the face of evil.

George Goddiess

November 14, 2012

World War Two

Max Schmeling and the Nazi Regime

Sporting events over the decades can be synonymous with history; the boxing match between American Joe Louis and German Max Schmeling was for more than just the World Heavyweight Title.  As the Nazi war machine was about to wreak havoc upon Europe and be responsible for the lives of millions of people, two men fought for their countries in a boxing ring.  The fight was to be remembered as “The Greatest Fight of our Generation” and not because of what it meant for boxing.  Due to the political implications between Nazi Germany and the United States this fight took up a large political fervor and unfortunately in America Max Schmeling was painted the villain of the Nazi regime.  Despite Max Schmeling being used as a Nazi propaganda tool in the prewar period of the 1930’s, he was not actually a Nazi or a member of the Nazi Party.  Unfortunately for Schmeling many remember him as the Nazi boxer who lost to Joe Louis; this paper will share the true nature of his relationship with the Nazi Party.

                Max Schmeling was just a boy living in Hamburg during the First World War.  At the conclusion of the war he was fourteen years old living in a modest fifth floor apartment in a town he described as colorless for the last five years.  Schmeling was finished with school and was not a serious student prompting his father to ask him what he saw his future to be.  Max Schmeling was only fourteen and his country was ravished by war, like Germany it was tough to predict a future for this Hamburg teenager[1].

                In 1926 Schmeling had arrived in Berlin at the age of twenty and was two years into a professional boxing career that had comprised of twenty three fights.  He rode the train for ten hours to Berlin with just a cardboard box containing what little he owned, he had little money and saw Berlin and boxing as his future[2].  Berlin was the only cosmopolitan city in Germany and the excitement of the city was something that Max had not experienced but was something he wanted.  Success came quickly as Germany’s top boxing writer Arthur Bulow saw the talent in Max and paid his training fees and managed his career.  He soon captured the German boxing title and the European boxing title and within two years he was immersed into Weimar high society[3].

                City life in Weimar Germany was experiencing the same kind of Roaring Twenties that America was going through.  The decadent lifestyle, the music, the art, the loose living that was forbidden during Prussian Germany was now common[4].  Max Schmeling made himself the life of the party and was friends with intellectuals who he befriended at the most popular bars.   Dressing in suits and avidly reading Schmeling was making himself sophisticated to fit into the new lifestyle, a far cry from his modest upbringing[5].  He was accepted by the Jewish advent-garde society that was fascinated by the new sport of boxing for its violence and rebelliousness.  Schmeling also posed for sculptures and painters so along with his ring success he was moving up the ranks of society[6].  Despite a life of distractions Max Schmeling was continuing to win fight after fight and he soon would have to move on to the next stage, the world stage.

                New York City, specifically Madison Square Garden was the hub of championship boxing.  Schmeling and Bulow left for New York in 1928 and the timing could not be any more perfect.  When Schmeling arrived in the big city Heavyweight Champion Gene Tunney was fighting his final fight and was going to retire.  New York City was not kind to European boxers, even national or European champions were treated like low level professionals[7].  Securing fights and moving closer to the championship was difficult and Schmeling had to fire his manager Albert Bulow.  He quickly hired Joe “Yussel” Jacobs a Jewish American to manage his career.  Jacobs knew nothing about boxing but was a crafty and masterful salesman with many contacts who could secure the biggest and most profitable matches[8].

                Lying on the canvas in extreme pain Max Schmeling was awarded a disqualification over Jack Sharkey.  After two years in America Max Schmeling had finally seized the heavyweight crown but in an undignified fashion as never before the championship changed hands on a foul.  In a result that was marred in controversy and confusion Schmeling was disappointed on the night where he should be most proud.  In the dressing room he vowed to never fight again but Jacobs consoled him[9].  Max was not the only one who was unhappy the press had dubbed him the “low blow champion”, he was mocked in the cabarets that once celebrated him, and the fans in Germany not just America were not impressed[10].

                In June of 1932 the bizarre and unpredictable sport of boxing turned in another strange result.  After fifteen rounds it was abundantly clear to the fans and the writers at ringside that after the final bell Max Schmeling would retain his title but an unpopular decision resulted in Jack Sharkey’s hand to be raised.  Joe Jacobs furiously declared “we wuz robbed” and the public who had ridiculed him for his controversial win was sympathetic to his infamous “loss”[11]. This defeat in the ring led to a victory in politics more consequential than anything Schmeling could accomplish in boxing, Adolph Hitler took power in Germany.

                To Schmeling and his Weimar high society friends the ascension of Hitler was just another Reich Chancellor in a line of many others.  They assumed this would all be temporary and they all continued to go to the popular bars and enjoy life as they always had done.  Schmeling continued to have Joe Jacobs manage him and when he was in New York he always met up with his friends who were mostly Jewish.  Schmeling who was not close to Hindenburg liked the idea of being able to see and be respected by Hitler.  In New York Schmeling got a warning of things to come when talking to the German Consul General who told him that there was going to be war and a “bloodbath” in Germany, Schmeling like most was naïve and laughed off the grim premonition[12].

                Max Schmeling was popular in America prior to the rise of Hitler; Franklin Roosevelt then New York governor had even paid him a visit and spoke to him in German during the lead up to his second Sharkey bout.  This popularity was soon to diminish in the United States when it became known what was going on in Germany[13].  The persecution of some 600,000 German Jews prompted anger and protest among two million New York Jews, many of which were fight fans[14].  Schmeling was on the comeback trail when a fight with Jewish American Max Baer created a highly tense setting in New York City.  22,000 Jews marched on Madison Square Garden prior to the fight and Schmeling saw his once warm relationship in the city turning sour[15].

                Max Baer was only a quarter Jewish but donned the Star of David on his shorts for the first time ever in his career just adding on to the fervor.  Max Baer was listed in the RING Magazine’s list of top 100 punchers and he brutalized Schmeling for ten rounds.  Baer who was known for being vicious and a showman battered, fouled, and taunted Schmeling during the fight.  Between rounds he would tap the star with his gloves to mock Schmeling[16].  Schmeling endured a serious beating in the tenth where he was floored and rose to be repeatedly battered along the ropes until the referee mercifully called a halt to the action[17].  Baer after the fight continued to ask for a rematch just to pummel Schmeling again.  Many Jewish heavyweights after this jumped on the bandwagon mocking and challenging Schmeling.  Hitler was infuriated and banned Schmeling from facing Jewish opponents; he stepped in and prevented a match between Max and Jewish Contender King Levinsky.  This only led to more criticism[18].

                Sadly the Jewish Americans who now demonized Schmeling were not aware of the personal suffering that he himself was undergoing.  Max’s potential to reach the World Title again was not only in limbo but his reputation in America was ruined and he was hoisted up as symbol for Nazi superiority.  He had always loved being a representative of his Fatherland but he was not a Nazi and disliked being stuck in the middle.  In America he had to recover his image and in Germany he had to be loyal to the Nazis though he never believed in their cause[19].  At Hitler’s orders Schmeling when visiting America had to deny what reporters asked him about regarding the persecutions and give them an answer that was favorable to the Nazis[20].  Schmeling soon saw the Weimer society he loved totally wiped clean, the intellectuals and artists he was close to were gone.  The many Jews and homosexuals he was friends with were no longer present whether they left by their own fear or were taken against their wills.  The book burnings that occurred in the streets of Germany’s cities contained the texts of the people he was close to[21].  This was something that Americans did not know; to them he was just a Nazi.

Despite winning three fights in a row on German soil against solid opposition Hitler and the Nazi Party were not convinced he could beat the fast rising American contender Joe Louis.  In fact they did not support this move and gave the first fight little party backing or faith.  Most Americans too believed Max was now over the hill and stood no chance to the strong Louis who had knocked out three former champions looking to do away with a fourth.  Schmeling was ringside for Louis’s encounter with Paolino Uzcudun and told the reporters he saw something.  The reporters of course asked for him to elaborate some on lookers laughed and joked that he was crazy.  The humble and quiet Schmeling just continued to repeat he found a weakness and that Joe Louis is not invincible and can be defeated[22].

                Max Schmeling came back to Germany with film and studied Louis’s every move like a detective or a lawyer studying a case.  Joe Louis was a ten to one favorite for a reason; he was a dangerous and young fighter with physical gifts.  Schmeling was considered an intelligent boxer but just not capable of dealing with what Louis had to offer.  He found two weaknesses, one before the bout and one during.  The first was a mistake in technique where Joe would lazily return his left hand low after throwing his jab.  Schmeling would have the ability to land his signature right hand to an open face of Louis.  The other opening he discovered was found during the fight.  Early in the fight Schmeling received punishment from Louis’s concussive punches but never lost his composure or eye for the right.  He noticed Louis was setting himself and had to plant his feet to throw his powerful punches.  This made Louis predictable and now combined with the lazy low left hand Schmeling could now predict when and how to strike.

                The right hand found a home for Schmeling in round four.  Louis reached with his left glove and left it out there and Schmeling delivered the right hand that had been in his mind for months.  The effects of the punch took the legs out from Louis and sent him backwards in a stagger with his hands held high.  The measured Schmeling did not go reckless sensing the knockout and waited for Louis to make the same error.  Another big right hand sent the young American contender to the canvas for the first time in his career.  The fight however was far from over and a brutal back and forth fight continued for seven more rounds until the twelfth round began[23].  Despite the exploitation of the lazy left Louis had not fixed the flaw and his corner had not solved the problem.  In the twelfth round Schmeling landed repeated rights off the reaching and low left until Louis finally gave in and collapsed.  Max Schmeling was victorious and now the leading contender for the World Heavyweight Title but the fight was not easy and he sustained damage especially to his right eye which had been swollen shut.    

                The victorious Schmeling returned to Germany a hero to the people and in the focus of Adolph Hitler.  Josef Goebbels and Adolph Hitler himself cabled their congratulations immediately despite previous lack of faith.  Hitler saw to it that Schmeling be brought back to Germany as a VIP on the Hindenburg Zeppelin with a hero’s welcome.  Once in Germany he met directly with Hitler to watch and discuss the fight and Hitler used the fight film as a propaganda movie to be shown in all theaters[24].    However, he used his personal position to help those in need.

                Max Schmeling was held up as a Nazi idol but he was a defiant one at that.  He knew Nazi propaganda was hurting his image in New York where the future of his career was and he sought to distance himself from it also to get back at those using his name to further their political gain[25].  In 1936 in the lead up to the Olympic Games in Germany he had declined join the Nazi Party.  He also refused to fire his Jewish manager Joe Jacobs which led to an even more significant event.  In Germany Schmeling had won one of his comeback fights and the large crowd began to rise and salute Hitler and sing Deutschland Uber Alles and Joe Jacobs with his cigar in one hand raised his arm and saluted.  This created friction in America but also had the Reich Sports Chancellor angered and their personal dispute would lead to problems down the road[26].

                Max Schmeling further caused concerns among the party with two more acts of disobedience that bothered the likes of someone high up like Goebbels.  Schmeling in 1936 after the Olympics was awarded an SA dagger, something that was common to be given out to those the party liked, and he declined knowing what it would do to his American image.  The party accepted his explanation knowing his boxing career needed to succeed for him to be a symbol but this did not sit well.  Schmeling again caused grave concern when he fought for the safety of his friend’s wife.  Josef Thorak a friend of Schmeling’s and also a sculptor who made a statue of Max as a gift was under pressure from the Nuremburg Laws because of his Jewish wife who now was in danger.  Max Schmeling used his personal phone line with Heinrick Hoffman and Goebbels to see to it that she be allowed to stay home and not be taken away to the concentration camps.  This succeeded at the cost of his good standing in the eyes of Goebbels[27].                 

                Despite Schmeling’s behavior and helping of Jews the Anti-Nazi League and American Jewish groups still protested and boycotted his fights.  In 1937 Schmeling was signed to meet James Braddock for the World Championship but Braddock’s camp knew the anti Nazi sentiment in the polls and backed out causing major controversy[28].  In his place Joe Louis was set to meet the champion causing Schmeling to protest his case but it fell on deaf ears.  His chance to be champion again would have to be put on hold.

                With Joe Louis as the new champion events in Europe continued to create animosity between America and Max Schmeling.  Germany was rearming rapidly and set its sights on new territory in Czechoslovakia and this made Americans more worrisome.  President Roosevelt made Joe Louis a guest of honor at the White House and told him that “America needed his muscles to defeat Germany” a clear backing of Louis and a politicizing of the fight[29].  Reporters asked questions of Schmeling as to if he believed in a super race to which he responded that he is not a superman but in the streets of New York he was insulted and mocked.

                “Once a German always a German” Schmeling replied to former champion Jack Dempsey when Jack asked or more so pleaded him to stay in the US after the fight.  Schmeling was not a Nazi but still displayed national pride and a hope Germany could turn for the better.  Defection was not possible since Goebbels did not allow his wife and mother to travel to the US.  Nat Fleischer, Jewish editor of RING Magazine, prepared a radio speech for Schmeling to give to the American people to earn their support but no radio station would give the green light[30].  Schmeling wrote “In 1931 they had accepted a German Champion, but a Hitler Germany Champion was unacceptable” he was hurt and surprised at how much the American people turned on him[31].  When race was brought up by reporters Schmeling would respond that it’s just a sporting event and hate is not part of it, the media was stoking the fire[32].  Before the fight a radio recording of Louis said that it was more than just two men fighting but that it was the USA versus Germany[33].  Despite Anti-Nazi League demonstrations 30,000 to 40,000 came to the city for what would be the “Fight of the Century”[34].            

                On a summer night in June of 1938 Max Schmeling finally got his chance at the champion.  The New York Yankee Stadium crowd of some 70,000 was in a frenzy.  Schmeling was in fantastic form after a Spartan like training camp and Louis who had been reserved and emotionless expressed a hatred for the man who beat him two years ago.  When the bell finally rang the story was different than it had been in the first fight.  Louis did not reach with his left but instead threw quick and sharp punches while bringing the hand back quickly[35].  Rather than creating space and being timed Louis stayed on top of Schmeling not giving him the opportunities of the first fight.  A series of rights turned the challenger to face the audience and a solid right sent out a shriek from Schmeling, the punch broke two of his vertebrae bones.  Referee Arthur Donovan gave him a count and scored a knockdown to Louis.  Louis with the focus and poise of a great fighter approached the wounded Schmeling and put him on the floor with the first punch, a solid right hand.  Schmeling was defiant and brave but a third knockdown forced trainer Max Machon to throw in the towel admitting defeat and the fight was over in just past two minutes.  Schmeling had only landed one punch.

                Max Schmeling remained hospitalized for six weeks, defeated but not beaten the future was uncertain.  Rumors back home circulated that he was paralyzed and may never recover.  This was of course untrue; the only thing that would not recover would be his usefulness with the Nazis.  The long and stressful relationship with the Nazi Party was finally over or so it seemed.  Only one Nazi member phoned him in the hospital and that was Albert Speer, Schmeling was no longer in the newspapers.  Max Schmeling continued his fighting career and was considered a possible opponent for Louis again to complete the trilogy. 

                Well the relationship was not quite over with the Nazis, to his shock Schmeling was summoned for the military draft.  1941 was a crucial year for the Nazi war machine that was prepping to invade Russia but was bogged down in Africa and was now flying to the aid of the unreliable Italians.  Max Schmeling was thirty five and way above the draft age and was a celebrity, celebrities were exempt.  Max Schmeling was not, in fact the small seeming confrontation with the Sports Minister led to the Minister getting the last laugh.  Schmeling was headed to the airborne with his bad back and knees.  He survived the dangerous parachute drop into Crete but was injured on his landing and fell into enemy hands.  In one last act of defiance he refused to say anything to the media about poor treatment by the British and was nearly faced with a military trial in Berlin.

                Perhaps Max Schmeling’s finest moment as a human being was revealed fifty years later in 1989.  In Las Vegas at a party in his honor Schmeling was approached by Henri Lewin the president of the hotel who revealed himself as the young boy that Max had hid during Krystallnacht.  Henri and Werner Lewin were young German Jewish boys whose father a friend of Schmeling’s and during Krystallnacht he sheltered them in his apartment.  When the hostility died down he drove the boys back to their father.  Max Schmeling shed tears upon the news and felt uncomfortable being glorified.  Nowhere in previous interviews can this be found and if Lewin did not bring it up it may never have been mentioned.  In 1992 Schmeling did an interview for Boxing Illustrated and the question came up for him and he was modest in his answer.  He believed it was his duty as a man and that there was nothing heroic about what he did and that he was not in danger.  This was not a glorious underground movement and he was not the only German to do this.  He quickly shifted the topic back to boxing[36].  Modest and true Schmeling did what he did throughout life because he knew what the right thing was and not for glory or for credit.

 Max Schmeling led a life worthy of praise and admiration and deserves to be remembered as a humanitarian and a great sportsman.  The Holocaust left a terrible and everlasting impression on humanity leaving us all to learn our lesson or be doomed to repeat the hatred and mass murder.  Many Germans sat by and let Adolph Hitler just send millions to the gas chambers.  What if somebody had stood up, what if every German who disagreed with Hitler stood up, what if the French took action, what if America had been more active in Europe this all could have been prevented or greatly limited.  Unfortunately, Schmeling’s humanitarian deeds have been the unsung stanzas of his legacy.  The stigma of the Nazis left a lasting impression on Schmeling’s image.  Maybe his deeds went unnoticed because they were behind the scenes or maybe it is because he is modest and is not seeking glory or satisfaction.  Whatever the case may be Max Schmeling is a man that should be studied and appreciated for future generations as a man who stood in the way of evil and tried his best to stay true to what he believed in.        

Works Cited

Max Schmeling vs Max Baer Boxing Match. Performed by Max Schmeling and Max Baer. 1933.

Lippe, George Von Der. Max Schmeling: An Autobiography. New York: Taylor Trade Publishing, 1994.

“The Fight – Louis vs Schmeling”. Performed by Max Schmeling and Joe Louis.

Max Schmeling vs Joe Louis I Boxing Match. Performed by Max Schmeling and Joe Louis. 1936.

Max Schmeling vs Joe Louis II Boxing Match. Performed by Max Schmeling and Joe Louis. 1938.

Margolick, David. Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink. New York: Vintage, 2006.

Myler, Patrick. Fight of the Century. New York: Arcade Publishers, 2005.

—. Ring of Hate. New York: Arcade Publishers, 2005.

Norwood, Stephen H. “American Jewish Muscle.” Modern Judaism, 2009: 167-187.

Louis Vs Schmeling -The Real Story . Directed by David Whickham. Performed by Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. 2000.

The Fight: An American Experience . February 9, 2005. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/fight/peopleevents/p_schmeling.html (accessed October 20, 2012).


[1] Lippe, George Von Der, Max Schmeling: An Autobiography (New York: Taylor Trade Publishing, 1994), 3.

[2] Lippe, George Von Der, Max Schmeling: An Autobiography (New York: Taylor Trade Publishing, 1994), 17.

[3] “The Fight – Louis vs Schmeling”. Performed by Max Schmeling and Joe Louis.

[4] “The Fight – Louis vs Schmeling”. Performed by Max Schmeling and Joe Louis.

[5] Myler Patrick, Ring of Hate  (New York: Arcade Publishers, 2005), 16-17.

[6] “The Fight – Louis vs Schmeling”. Performed by Max Schmeling and Joe Louis.

[7] “The Fight – Louis vs Schmeling”. Performed by Max Schmeling and Joe Louis.

[8] “The Fight – Louis vs Schmeling”. Performed by Max Schmeling and Joe Louis.

[9] Myler Patrick, Ring of Hate (New York: Arcade Publishers, 2005), 28.

[10] “The Fight – Louis vs Schmeling”. Performed by Max Schmeling and Joe Louis.

[11] Margolick, David, Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brin. (New York: Vintage, 2006), 17.

[12] Lippe, George Von Der, Max Schmeling: An Autobiography (New York: Taylor Trade Publishing, 1994), 88.

[13] Margolick, David, Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink (New York: Vintage, 2006), 27.

[14] Margolick, David, Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink (New York: Vintage, 2006), 17.

[15] Margolick, David, Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink (New York: Vintage, 2006), 17.

[16] Norwood, Stephen H. “American Jewish Muscle.” Modern Judaism, 2009: 167-187.

[17] Max Baer vs Max Schmeling Boxing Match. Performed by Max Baer and Max Schmeling. 1933.

[18] Norwood, Stephen H. “American Jewish Muscle.” Modern Judaism, 2009: 167-187.

[19] Louis Vs Schmeling -The Real Story . Directed by David Whickham. Performed by Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. 2000.

[20] Lippe, George Von Der, Max Schmeling: An Autobiography (New York: Taylor Trade Publishing, 1994), 87.

[21] “The Fight – Louis vs Schmeling”. Performed by Max Schmeling and Joe Louis.

[22] Lippe, George Von Der, Max Schmeling: An Autobiography (New York: Taylor Trade Publishing, 1994), 111.

[23] Max Schmeling vs Joe Louis I Boxing Match. Performed by Max Schmeling and Joe Louis. 1936.

[24] Myler Patrick, Ring of Hate (New York: Arcade Publishers, 2005), 86-87.

[25] Myler Patrick, Fight of the Century (New York: Arcade Publishers, 2005), 98.

[26] Lippe, George Von Der, Max Schmeling: An Autobiography (New York: Taylor Trade Publishing, 1994), 104-105.

[27] Myler Patrick, Fight of the Century (New York: Arcade Publishers, 2005), 98-99.

[28] Myler Patrick, Fight of the Century  (New York: Arcade Publishers, 2005), 100-101.

[29] Myler Patrick, Fight of the Century  (New York: Arcade Publishers, 2005), 120.

[30] Myler Patrick, Fight of the Century  (New York: Arcade Publishers, 2005), 121.

[31] Myler Patrick, Fight of the Century  (New York: Arcade Publishers, 2005), 121.

[32] Myler Patrick, Fight of the Century  (New York: Arcade Publishers, 2005), 125.

[33] Myler Patrick, Fight of the Century  (New York: Arcade Publishers, 2005), 130.

[34] Myler Patrick, Fight of the Century  (New York: Arcade Publishers, 2005), 130.

[35] Max Schmeling vs Joe Louis II Boxing Match. Performed by Max Schmeling and Joe Louis. 1938.

[36] Myler Patrick, Ring of Hate  (New York: Arcade Publishers, 2005), 147-149.

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