Max Schmeling, unwilling icon of Aryan supremacy, dies at 99

Gary Lemke recalls a legendary boxer who transcended his sport

Gary Lemke
Sunday 06 February 2005 01:02

He will never be remembered as one of boxing's finest world heavyweight champions. Indeed, the contest that earned him fistic immortality was a devastating 124-second knockout defeat at the hands of Joe Louis, the legendary American "Brown Bomber" of the 1930s and 40s. But when Max Schmeling died on Wednesday, aged 99, a piece of Germany died with him.

Schmeling ranks alongside those whose names transcend sport. Like Jesse Owens, the black American whose four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics incensed Adolf Hitler. Like the Black Power salutes of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 games. Like the refusal of Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) to join the Vietnam draft in 1967.

Schmeling, born on 28 September 1905, was a strapping white athlete who once dined with Hitler. An autographed picture of der Fuhrer even hung in his study.

But in truth he was not a supporter of the Nazi party. On 9 November 1938, when Nazi gangs destroyed 191 synagogues and murdered 91 Jews, Schmeling sheltered two Jewish youngsters in his Berlin flat and helped them flee. He also employed a Jewish manager, against Hitler's orders.

Schmeling was used by the Nazis as a symbol of Aryan supremacy. The heavyweight had become a reluctant hero two years earlier, when on 19 June 1936, he travelled to New York and knocked out Joe Louis, a black boxer who was considered unbeatable. But it is the rematch for which he is best remembered.

By 22 June 1938, Louis had become world champion. A defence against the only man to have beaten him was a promoter's dream. It was a fight that pitted good (Louis and the US) against evil (Schmeling and Germany), and the European travelled to the US where he was met by a groundswell of hatred.

Hitler had consistently hailed Schmeling after that 1936 victory and, as the public's awareness of the Nazis grew, so they vented their anger against the German in this rematch. At stake was the most prestigious title in the sport - and personal revenge.

The fight was brutal and brief. Louis knocked his opponent down three times in the opening round and hit him in the body with such force that Schmeling screamed. His cornermen rushed into the ring to spare him further punishment. Louis threw more than 40 punches and each one landed with a sickening thud. The ending on German radio was silenced and the defeated boxer was carried from the ring on a stretcher.

Returning home after their first contest, Schmeling had been met at the airport by Nazi members; now he cut a lone, battered figure. It was nearly a year before he recovered from his injuries to box on, but his moment in the ring had come and gone.

Schmeling retired in 1948 a former heavyweight champion. He won the title on a controversial disqualification on 12 June 1930, having compiled a record of 70 contests with 56 victories and 10 defeats.

He was once asked by the American boxing historian Bert Sugar why he had dined with Hitler if he wasn't a supporter. "I had turned der Fuhrer down four times," Schmeling told him, "and you don't turn him down five times. That did not make me a Nazi. I also had dinner with Franklin Roosevelt. That did not make me a Democrat."

In retirement, Schmeling shied away from the public eye. He became a wealthy businessman as a European representative of Coca-Cola. The company reportedly wanted a non-Nazi German to run its overseas franchise.

He never drank or smoked and over the years befriended Louis. When the American died bankrupt in 1981, Schmeling paid for his funeral.

Schmeling was married for 54 years to the Czech actress Anny Ondra, who died in 1987. He was buried next to her in Hollenstedt last Friday.

On learning of Schmeling's death, the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, said: "Schmeling the sportsman and the man will never be forgotten. He was a star and the fame never went to his head."

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