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ALMOST A HERO
Frank Deford
December 03, 2001
FORMER HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMP MAX SCHMELING WAS MERELY HUMAN IN AN ERA OF GREAT INHUMANITY—A GERMAN WHO WAS A LOYAL FRIEND OF JEWS BUT ALSO A WILLING PAWN OF HITLER
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December 03, 2001

Almost A Hero

FORMER HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMP MAX SCHMELING WAS MERELY HUMAN IN AN ERA OF GREAT INHUMANITY—A GERMAN WHO WAS A LOYAL FRIEND OF JEWS BUT ALSO A WILLING PAWN OF HITLER

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He visits Anny's grave and thinks of the old times, good and bad, when they were together, because there will not be any more time for them in the beyond. He simply accepts his great age as "a present from heaven." Who could ever imagine that an old boxer, with 70 professional bouts and many more in the amateurs, whose head was pummeled by Joe Louis, would still be alive, in his 97th year, alert and sentient and still full of wonder? On the other hand, nothing is absolute; everything is somewhat. "I would never have thought it possible," the very old man tells Meinhardt.

Hitler didn't care that much for sports. When Schmeling refused to accept the Nazi Dagger of Honor, an award that had gone only to the most prominent dignitaries—and that would have made Schmeling an honorary commander in the SA, the storm troopers—the F�hrer didn't seem disturbed, even though other top Nazis were appalled at Schmeling's audacious rudeness. Hitler did play up the 1936 Berlin Olympics for all they were worth, but as pageantry more than competition. It was Josef Goebbels, the propaganda minister, who was more concerned about the impression sports might make on the larger world. Probably because Goebbels prompted him, Hitler didn't want Schmeling, who by then had had 60 fights and seven losses and looked like a washed-up palooka, to take on the magnificent, young, undefeated—and black—Louis at Yankee Stadium on June 19, 1936.

Then again, nobody else gave Schmeling much of a chance, either; he was fodder for the Brown Bomber, an 8-1 underdog. Nevertheless, while some of Louis's opponents entered the ring scared stiff, Schmeling was not the least bit frightened. A foolish man he might be, but a brave one. That made him a more attractive underdog; so while a few U.S. newspapers called him "the Heil Hitler hero," others tagged him "the terrific Teuton."

Once Schmeling knocked Louis down in the fourth round and took command of the fight, the crowd's latent racism began to surface. Before Schmeling finally knocked out Louis, he could hear ringside cries of "Kill him! Kill him!" Neither was it lost on the German how quickly, in the aftermath, white America displayed its suppressed racial meanness. O.B. Keeler, one of America's most renowned (and beloved) sports-writers, called Louis "the pet Pickaninny."

In the long run, though, Schmeling would pay, because victory made him a Nazi talisman. Hitler greeted Schmeling—along with his wife and mother—when he returned the hero, having crossed the Atlantic in style in the Hindenburg zeppelin. This was only weeks before the Olympics. It was the German summer of the century, before the covers came off the guns, when panoply could still blind casual witnesses to hatred. The Games would be a huge success in putting Nazi glamour and organization on display, while German athletes would dominate the medal count. The only fly in the ointment would be the showing of Jesse Owens and other African-American athletes, so Schmeling's knockout victory over another, even more famous black man took on much more meaning as the summer passed.

Ironically, had Schmeling not come to New York the previous December to scout Louis in his fight against Uzcudun Paolino, the U.S. might have boycotted the Berlin Games. Schmeling had agreed to his government's "request" that he meet with Avery Brundage, the American Olympic Committee president, a few days before the committee voted on whether to participate in Berlin. Claiming to speak on behalf of "German athletes," Schmeling assured Brundage that American Jews and blacks would not be discriminated against. Schmeling would come to regret making such a blanket promise, but in any event, because the committee rejected a boycott by only 2� votes, it is possible that Schmeling's "guarantee" carried the day. Hitler was thrilled by the news: The U.S. would come to his party.

Victories, however, are not always what they seem. Owens would rise above Hitler at the Olympics, a symbol to the world. Likewise, those close to Louis would eventually understand that his defeat at the hands of Schmeling might have been a blessing in disguise. The Brown Bomber had come to think of himself as invincible. He had been slothful in training, cocky going into the ring. Schmeling taught him a lesson. What's more, Schmeling would come to appreciate that his defeat in the return bout saved him from becoming, as he wrote, "forever the 'Aryan Show Horse' of the Third Reich."

By 1938 he was not only a fighter but also a swastika in trunks. Almost no one in the U.S. spared him rebuke. Indeed, in a January 1993 article in the journal History Today, authors Robert Weisbord and Norbert Hedderich point out that even in the Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper, Schmeling was paid off in the currency of stereotype so familiar to blacks. "The Nazi-man who would be king" read one caption, and Schmeling was quoted as snarling, "I am going to stop this black domination by regaining the crown." Rumors persisted that his German trainer kept a Nazi uniform in his closet and that Hitler would appoint Schmeling Reich minister of sports should he win.

Meanwhile, Louis, the black champion who couldn't walk into a restaurant and get a meal in much of the country, was transformed into an all-American symbol, guardian of our precious liberty and equality, while Owens raced against horses at state fairs and tried to get a nine-to-five job. Although Schmeling persisted in asserting what he believed—that this should be nothing more than a fight between two men—Louis was moved to rage by all the Nazi propaganda attributed to his opponent. Probably, he never fought so viciously. Probably, too, Schmeling was scared this time. His favorite cornerman, fearful for his life, refused to work the bout, and as Schmeling moved through the crowd toward the ring, he had to cover his head to protect it from the debris that rained down on him. A cordon of New York's finest was needed to shield him from further barrage. The hate was palpable.

Louis's son, Joe Louis Barrow Jr., says, "The parallels between my father and Max were quite considerable. Max had never really experienced prejudice till he came back over here in '38 and had pickets and felt hatred. Then he realized what so many whites never do—exactly what it is blacks have to go through."

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