So long as Schmeling was champion and Hitler was only ascendant, the fighter was safe. Even after Sharkey had beaten him to regain the title in New York back in '32, Schmeling had remained popular because the decision had been an outrageous home-country fraud. Twenty-three of the 25 U.S. writers polled at ringside thought Schmeling had won. "We wuz robbed!" Jacobs bellowed. The raw deal made Schmeling a sympathetic figure in the U.S. But the next year, 1933, Max Baer (who wore a Star of David on his trunks) knocked out Schmeling, and his comet began to plummet. He was almost 28, and he seemed to be washed up. Hitler, by then, was in control.
Not long before, Schmeling had turned to Hitler for help in a sticky little matter involving a currency transaction. The F�hrer had taken care of things. Now, when the Reich minister of sports demanded again that Schmeling sever relations with Jacobs, the fighter again went directly to Hitler. How quickly things had changed, how naive he was. "In retrospect," Schmeling wrote later, his action was "comical and almost insane." Hitler spent the whole interview flirting with Anny. Schmeling finally forced the issue of Joe Jacobs upon him, but Hider ignored the subject. When, at last, Schmeling almost wailed, "Loyalty is a German virtue," Hitler grew angry, staring away. Moments later, a young SS officer led the Schmelings off.
His friends at the Roxy Bar on Joachimstaler Strasse in Berlin commiserated with Schmeling. That was his favorite hangout. He and his buddies called it the Missing Persons Bureau because if one of them could not be found at home, then surely he would be at the Roxy. Soon, though, the bar's nickname took on more sinister overtones. The persons, many of whom were Jewish, were not simply missing from home but were missing from Germany—fleeing the regime, even being sent to camps, which were called KZ in savoir faire company. Oh, yes, Schmeling admits, they knew the names.
What is so sadly fascinating about Schmeling is that he never revised the history of his actions during the early years of the Third Reich. He is honest, even as his admissions stain him. Many Germans who looked back on that time made Hitler out to be a bumbling fool. I saw through him, they wanted you to know. Schmeling, however, wrote matter-of-factly in his memoirs that he at first found the F�hrer "relaxed...charming...confident." He was seduced. He kept an autographed photograph of Hitler on the wall in his study.
It is so easy for us to think that had we been there then, we would have known, we would have stood up, we would have done something. But, as the old comic vaudeville line went, "Vas you dere, Charlie?" Schmeling and his pals were there, drinking at the Roxy, even as other old friends left Germany or were sent to a KZ (or even committed suicide). Yet they just ordered another schnapps and abided—"impressed," Schmeling wrote, "by the new optimism in Germany as well as by the successes of the new regime." Life was truly somewhat, and they were all frogs in the pot, pretending not to notice that the water around them was slowly approaching a boil. How could they not see? Why did they not act?
Although Schmeling has never spared himself, he does not really explain. "After the war," he wrote in An Autobiography, "many, perhaps hoping to fool themselves, claimed to have had no knowledge of what went on. In truth, we all knew. It was no secret that there were camps in Germany; it was openly discussed in the Roxy Bar."
Still, the boxer and others who knew did nothing. Most German Christians were too afraid to act. Schmeling, though, was different. He was like so many athletes, strong and confident, certain he could play with the devil's fire. He was Germany's champion, was he not? "They tried to use me, and I used the Nazis to help others," he said not long ago to his friend Gunnar Meinhardt.
Meinhardt, a former East German weightlifter, is a journalist with the German press agency DPA. He is the only one in his profession whom Schmeling allows to visit, for Meinhardt has become, it seems, the son—the grandson—Schmeling never had. Schmeling loves him. They sit by the window that looks out on the living things of the forest. "I feel I am in harmony with life, with myself," Schmeling has told him.
So, how would you like to be remembered, Max? "I would not like to be remembered as someone who amounted to so much as an athlete but who was good for nothing as a person. I couldn't stand that."
Are you religious? "To me, religion means to give, to do good. I live my life as if there were a God." Do you believe in life after death? "No. There is no other life. We live on solely as someone who is being remembered, someone who is talked about."