later died in poverty and his funeral was paid for not by
a grateful American nation but by Max Schmeling, who had quietly opposed racism
and discrimination his whole life.
For example Schmeling hid the two teenage sons
of a Jewish friend of his, David Lewin, around the time of Krystallnacht,
November 1938. He kept the Lewin boys, Henry and Werner, in his apartment at the
Excelsior Hotel in Berlin, leaving word at the desk that he was ill and no one
was to visit him. Later Schmeling helped them flee to the United States where
one of them, Henri Lewin, became a prominent hotel owner. This episode remained
secret until 1989, when Henry Lewin invited Schmeling to Las Vegas to thank him
for saving his life.
Schmeling's life reads like a potted history of
20th Century Germany. Taking up professional boxing at 19 years of
age he rose to become European champion and is the only German to have ever held
the world heavyweight title (between 1930 and 1932). He was lionised in the
glitzy Berlin of the Weimar republic, and rubbed shoulders with the likes of
Marlene Dietrich, Fritz Lang and Kurt Weil. He even starred in a film, Liebe im Ring,
in 1930. During the second world war he was drafted into the paratroops and
participated in the invasion of Crete where he was wounded. When conscripted he
was over the maximum age and this has been widely seen as a deliberate attempt
by the Nazis to unobtrusively dispose of him. After the war he tried farming,
but this was unsuccessful and he turned back to the ring at age 42. He made just
enough money from this to buy the Coca Cola franchise for Germany, and grew
rich in the post war boom.
But of course the peak of his sporting
achievements were the bouts with Joe Louis that took place in the Nazi era, and
rarely have politics and sport become so entwined.
Sport was a problematic area for the Nazis.
After coming to power in 1933 there was a systematic programme of incorporation
(Gleichschaltung) of all civil institutions, and prominent individuals were
encouraged to join the party or were replaced. Sports clubs were expected to
in patriotic parades, and competitions were organised in a frame work of
National Socialist rituals and holidays. But until the Nazis came to power the
majority of participative sporting events had been organised either by the SPD's Workers' Athletics and Sport Association (Arbeiter Turn
und Sportbund) that had 1.3 million members,
or in the KPD's Red Sport (Rote Sport) organisation. Within 6 months of
coming to power all of these clubs had either been banned or "incorporated".
Nevertheless sport was an area of working class culture where the Nazis could
only achieve passive acceptance, not active support.
Their belief in racial superiority meant that
success at international sport was very important for the Nazis, but at the
leading edge of competitive professional sport individual talent is vital. The
individual stars could not be easily replaced if they did not follow the party
line, and the mass audience for these sports stars was not one naturally in
favour of the Nazis. It was therefore significant that the two greatest sporting
heroes of the German speaking world, Max Schmeling and Matthias Sindelar refused
to be associated with the Nazi regime. Interestingly in 1999 Schmeling was voted the German sports personality
of the 20th century
(Sportler des Jahrhunderts), and Sindelar,
the legendary Hertha Vienna striker who refused to play international football
for Nazi Germany, was voted the equivalent honour in Austria.
His personal stature and irreplaceable talent gave
Schmeling some protection. In 1935 Schmeling's Jewish American manager, Joe
Jacobs, was photographed giving a sarcastic Nazi salute. Schmeling was ordered
to sack Jacobs, and demanded a personal audience with Hitler to discuss it.
Hitler backed the sports minister, but Schmeling refused to sack Jacobs, who
continued as his manager until his death in 1941. Schmeling also personally
intervened with Hitler to gain assurances that black, Jewish and socialist
competitors from overseas would be treated properly during the Berlin Olympics
in 1936. Schmeling was under no illusions about the regime, and was aware that
his many Jewish friends were disappearing.
In his 1977 autobiography ("Erinnerungen")
Schmeling wrote: "After the war, many,
perhaps hoping to fool themselves, claimed to have no knowledge of what went on.
In truth we all knew."
Schmeling was a brave man who quietly opposed
racism and anti-semitism, and did not bend under pressure from the Nazi regime.
Maximilian Adolph Otto Siegfried
Schmeling, boxer: born Klein Luckow, Germany 28 September 1905; world
heavyweight boxing champion 1930-32; married 1933 Anny Ondra (died 1987); died
Hollenstedt, Germany 2 February 2005.