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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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At home, the very old man sits by the window and looks out into the woods. It is another new day, of which he has had more than 35,000. Some 35,000 times the sun has come up for him. He likes to say, "I was given a life, and I used it."

When the very old man and his wife bought the property near Hamburg in 1949, they left it in its natural state. They built the house in the middle of the land, so that the deer and the foxes, the starlings and the woodpeckers, would still feel at home. The scene is almost Disneyesque, reminiscent of Snow White, the animals coming up close to the house, looking at the very old man sitting inside watching them.

It surprises people, how small the house is. After all, the very old man is Max Schmeling, the former heavyweight champion of the world, who is both famous and wealthy. He could live in a mansion. He and Anny never had children, however, and now she is gone. They were married for 54 years, and she has been dead for 14. "I don't need a big villa," Schmeling has said. There is plenty of room for her photographs. In her heyday, she was beautiful. She was Anny Ondra, the movie star. She was beautiful and he was handsome, and the world they lived in was stunningly vivid.

His secretary reports that this is what Schmeling says of the past: "I have had a very eventful life. I have been shaped by two world wars, by success and defeat, and by the beautiful times life has to offer. But"—one can hear him sighing here—"I have also suffered deprivation." Max Schmeling is not smug. He presents all the contradictions of Everyman, only in him the paradoxes are writ much larger because of who he was and what was going on all around him when he was in his prime.

He has two old, familiar housekeepers, who take turns tending to him in the cozy house in the middle of the woods. He needs a nurse at night, too, because, as befits a man who was strong and independent, he is loath to use a cane, even though he sometimes gets dizzy and falls. He is frail but well enough, and his diabetes appears to be under control. The housekeeper who is on duty on Fridays fixes him potato pancakes. That is the small pleasure he most enjoys, potato pancakes for dinner on Fridays. He has had successful cataract surgery on both his eyes, so when he is not watching the birds frolic, he reads a great deal. Newspapers are delivered to the house every morning, as well as magazines about soccer, hunting and boxing.

Most Americans of a certain age know for an absolute fact that, long ago, Max Schmeling was the dirty rotten Nazi who got lucky and beat Joe Louis, but then got his comeuppance when our good Joe demolished him in the rematch—sticking it to Hitler in the bargain. Schmeling, though, was never a Nazi. He was sometimes credulous and sometimes weak and often an example of what the road to hell is paved with.

Schmeling has, however, been candid about his life under Hitler, baldly admitting to the concessions he made, to his sins of omission, to expedience in the face of evil. Neither does he deny that he liked the F�hrer's attention. Vanity makes a rare thing of valor. But never has Schmeling revealed his noblest act, which he performed on Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass. All he will say is to protest, "I only was doing the duty of a man."

Even now, after the 35,000 days, when there cannot be many more sunrises left for him, the response to a question about his part in Kristallnacht comes back from his secretary: " Mr. Schmeling says, 'Leave me alone. I can't do that anymore. Everything there is to say has been said about me. I am tired of repeating myself.' Mr. Schmeling has been there for the media for 75 years. He would like to be left in peace."

Indeed, for all his many friends, he permits few visitors. After all, everyone is younger than he is, and everyone wants to ask him about those remarkable times when he was a champion and his wife was a movie queen and the world was breaking apart. Still, he refuses to talk about that anymore. His memoirs are full and frank, though, the reports of his friends warm and revealing. Executives from his company in Hamburg come to the house in the woods, bringing papers for him to sign. His company bottles and distributes soft drinks. Max Schmeling, the dirty rotten Nazi of lore, made his fortune after the war from Coca-Cola. There is something wonderfully perverse about that, isn't there? It's, well, it's very American.

With his considerable wealth, Schmeling has become a philanthropist, so he has his foundation to attend to, giving millions to the poor. Also, each New Year's Day, he sends greetings to the hundreds of people he knows, and on his friends' birthdays the men get telegrams and the women flowers. But, really, he has nothing more to say about the 20th century. His final statement was that with which he concluded a new epilogue, three years ago, to his 1977 memoirs, Max Schmeling: An Autobiography: "I was always there—I'm still there. My life is that of a German in the 20th century; or perhaps more precisely, it was a German-American life. It was, in any case, a fulfilled life which was never boring and of which, I must admit, I am somewhat proud."

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